Air Force veteran recalls WWII service

Ellsworth Johnson, Meadow Ridge resident, stands with his Army Air Corp squad in front of a B-24 plane in Tuscon, Ariz. before flying to Italy during World War II.

Ellsworth Johnson, a Meadow Ridge resident, is one of the million-plus U.S. veterans of World War II still alive. On Sunday, Mr. Johnson will celebrate 67 years of being a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, which in 1947 became the U.S. Air Force.

“I’m just a regular veteran,” said Mr. Johnson.

In 1943, Mr. Johnson was studying liberal arts at Colgate University in New York and was part of the air cadet program.

“They said the Army wouldn’t touch us until we graduated,” he said with grin. “In the spring of 1943, I was classified for navigator training in Monroe, La.”

Mr. Johnson had one semester left before graduating, which he completed after the war, he said.

During his time in Louisiana, Mr. Johnson was trained as an aerial navigator and celestial navigator. Celestial navigators used the stars to coordinate the direction and path of the plane.

“I learned all the basics,” he said.

After Louisiana, Mr. Johnson went to Tucson, Ariz., where he met his crew.

“We went to Topeka, Kan., where I got a new airplane. We flew to Newfoundland, over the Azores, down to North Africa, then Italy,” he said. “We wound up with the 15th Air Force in Italy.”

Mr. Johnson was based in Foggia, Italy.

“It’s near the top part of the heel,” he said.

The tour of duty was about 50 combat missions.

“Any mission beyond the Alps counted as two. If you got in trouble or lost altitude, you couldn’t get back,” said Mr. Johnson.

During missions, Mr. Johnson flew squadron lead navigator with three other navigators, he said.

“Our targets were oil fields or refineries and marshaling yards that were heavily defended,” he said.

The aerial navigator pays strict attention to what is happening, on the ground and in the sky, he explained.

“The pilot can navigate, too, and we keep a log of where the pilot goes,” said Mr. Johnson.

When flying over water, the navigator had to look down to see the chop on the water to help estimate the speed of the plane and know the course due to sun lines, he said.

“At night you take three different stars and get the direction of each star and if they meet in a point, you’d be on track,” he said.

Mr. Johnson remembered one mission when he was deputy lead navigator and the plane went across the target and was in the bomb path, but he noticed that the heading was wrong.

“We were going the wrong way, to the wrong target,” he said. “Brenner Pass was ahead, our primary target was 80 to 85 miles southwest. I said we’ve got to get out of here or we’ll get shot up.”

Brenner Pass is a mountain pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria. It is the lowest of the Alpine passes and most favorable for possession during the war.

“We turned left and went down Brenner Pass. We got banged up and lost fuel. We got over the Adriatic Sea and dropped bombs because we couldn’t hold the weight. We came out all right, though,” said Mr. Johnson.

The lead navigator on that mission was gone the next morning, he said.

“I have no way knowing what went wrong but I’ll never forget it,” he said. “We had few experiences like that.”

Mr. Johnson said he remembered that money wasn’t a big deal to them when they were in Italy but they used it to purchase long johns as barter with the locals for work.

During his service in Italy, Mr. Johnson completed 44 missions, he said. Two crew members of the squadron of 10 finished their combat tours.

“I was on a boat in Naples when VE Day was declared,” he said.

VE Day was May 8, 1945. It marks the victory of the Allies in World War II.

Mr. Johnson was sent to Boston for a two-week leave, then to Atlantic City for processing.

“When they were done with processing my group, they got word not to release any more [soldiers]. They back-dated our orders by a day, so we didn’t have to go,” he said.

The reason the Army didn’t release any more soldiers was because it got word about Japan, he said. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6, 1945, and Aug. 9, 1945.

With the war over, Mr. Johnson finished his degree at Colgate and stayed as a member of the Army Air Corps Reserves. He returned to his hometown of White Plains, N.Y., and got married, he said.

“I joined a squadron and worked at Westchester County Airport and at an armory in White Plains,” he said.

Mr. Johnson was never called up for Vietnam, he said.

“I went to Langley Field and was told where I’d be assigned but never got orders. But I never complained about not having to go,” he said.

Mr. Johnson climbed the ranks and retired as a lieutenant colonel after 28 years of commissioned service.

“I retired on my birthday — June 15, 1981,” said Mr. Johnson.

After retiring from the Air Force, Mr. Johnson became a salesman for a textile company, Bancroft Mills in Delaware.

“Sales were a good thing for me,” he said. “Basically, I like people, and as a salesman you learn to like everyone.”

Mr. Johnson and his wife retired to Meadow Ridge in 2001 and were the third couple to move in. Mr. Johnson said he keeps busy and is involved on different boards and committees at Meadow Ridge.

He said he still keeps in touch with some of the men in his squadron, but he’s never been to a reunion.

“I would’ve gone if the others did, but it wasn’t worth the trip,” he said. “But in the reserves I made good friends. I still see some of those fellows.”

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