Valor: “The Bravest Man I Ever Knew”

March 1, 1991

Alaska was not known as the spawning ground of aces during World War II. It was, in fact, the only combat theater that produced not a single ace, due to the lack of enemy targets. Nevertheless, two of the highest-ranking AAF aces in the Pacific–second-ranking Tom McGuire and fourth-ranking Gerald R. Johnson–cut their combat teeth over the Aleutian Islands. (Gerald R. Johnson often is confused with Gerald W. Johnson, one of the top aces in Europe.) Unlike McGuire, who never saw an enemy plane over Alaska, Jerry Johnson claimed two victories in September 1942, neither officially confirmed.

In March 1943, after completing his combat tour in the Aleutians and making the transition to P-38s, Jerry Johnson was assigned to the 49th Fighter Group in the southwest Pacific at the same time as McGuire, who later was transferred to the 457th Group. Fifth Air Force Commander Gen. George Kenney described Johnson as “little, soft-voiced, [and] black-haired.” Johnson became one of Kenney’s favorite fighter pilots, respected for his gallantry and admired by his squadron mates.

Any World War II fighter pilot will tell you that the ability to shoot accurately at a moving target from a moving platform was more important than piloting finesse. Jerry Johnson soon became known as one of the best shots in Fifth Air Force. While only three percent of fighter pilots have become aces, Johnson earned that distinction less than seven weeks after his first confirmed victories–a double–on July 26, 1943. At the end of his first Pacific tour in January 1944, he had tallied 11 confirmed victories and 11 probables, including a triple on Oct. 15. He definitely was a man to be watched by Bong, McGuire, Kearby, Lynch, and other contenders for top honors.

Jerry Johnson didn’t cool off during his R&R in the States. Returning to the Pacific in October, he was one of the first AAF fighter pilots to arrive at Tacloban on Leyte in the Philippines. P-38s from the 49th touched down as aviation engineers were laying the last pieces of steel mat on the freshly carved strip. Four hours later, Johnson shot down two enemy planes. The strip was under attack night and day as the Japanese tried desperately to wipe out the American foothold on Leyte. There were plenty of targets for eager Lightning pilots.

Johnson seemed to have a propensity for special days. On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, he downed two more, and on Dec. 7, the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he scored four in what his fellow pilots called the greatest exhibition of aerial gunnery they ever had seen.

Johnson ended the war as a lieutenant colonel and commander of the 49th Fighter Group, with 22 confirmed, 21 probables, two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Silver Star, and many lesser decorations. Shortly after V-J Day he was named commander of Atsugi AB near Yokohama, Japan.

On Oct. 7, 1945, he was returning to Japan in a B-17 after a short absence from his command. Accounts of that flight vary widely. According to one source, Johnson was pilot of the B-17; another lists him as a passenger. The latter probably is correct, since his flight records at Norton AFB, Calif., show no previous flights as a crew member of a B-17 and no flight in any type of aircraft after Sept. 30, 1945.

There is general agreement that the aircraft ran into very bad weather and, with its radios out, became hopelessly lost. As fuel ran low, the bail-out signal was given. It was discovered that one of the passengers had come aboard with no parachute. Jerry Johnson gave his to that man and went down with the plane. All who bailed out were saved.

According to Fighter Aces by Raymond Toliver and Trevor Constable, General Kenney told Johnson’s father, “You are the father of the bravest man I ever knew, and the bravest thing he ever did was the last thing… when he did not need to be brave.” Jerry Johnson, whose first concern always had been for the safety and well-being of his men, would not have agreed with Kenney’s last words. For him, as for so many other Air Force heroes, bravery had no bounds of time or space.

Published March 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.