During World War II, Colonel Leon Johnson was one of the first four flying officers of the 8th Air Force, serving as assistant chief of staff for operations during the unit’s formative period. In June 1942, he went to England with the 8th Air Force, and in January 1943, he became commander of the 44th bomb group.
That group was assigned to North Africa on loan to the 9th Air Force in June 1943, and it was from North Africa that then-Col. Johnson led his bombers in the low level attack on Ploesti on August 1, 1943, which had been described by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “the taproot of German mechanized power.”
Yank magazine in its November 1943 issue described Ploesti as “unctuous with oozing black earth, pregnant with oil-soaked wooden derricks and glistening refineries . . . settled tauntingly on the Danubian slope between the towering Carpathians and the Green Transylvanian Alps, the richest bombing target in all Europe but protected by the most impenetrable curtain of flak in the world.”
From takeoff in North Africa to an island guiding point in the Aegean Sea and then over Greece to Romania, the flight to Ploesti and the return covered 2,400 miles. En route, Col. Johnson’s group became separated from the main body of the attack aircraft in cloud conditions over mountainous terrain. When he reached his target — a refinery that produced 485,000 tons of petroleum products a year — it had already been bombed by earlier waves of attacking aircraft. Its defenders had been alerted and were ready for more attacks.
According to a description of the attack in Yank magazine, Col. Johnson’s target had become “an inferno of 1,500-foot flames and exploding time bombs. Without a moment’s hesitation, Col. Johnson heads his group into the inferno at 30 feet. Just as the flames lapped over his wings a miracle happens. There is an explosion in the midst of the roaring mass, and an updraft opens a tunnel of air in the flames. Johnson and six planes shoot through the tunnel. They drop their bombs. The rear gunners see the following six planes head into the inferno . . . the flames close in . . . only one comes out.”
Col. Johnson’s bomber was burned jet black by its proximity to the flames, and it was shot through several times by antiaircraft fire, but it returned safely.
Col. Johnson, at the Medal of Honor presentation ceremony in England on Nov. 22, 1943, said: “I cannot consider this a personal award. I consider this a citation for the leader of the group in acknowledgment of a job well done by the group,”
Gen. Johnson, a native of Columbia, Mo., graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1926. For three years, he was an infantry officer, then in 1929 “decided that things looked more interesting from the air.”
He transferred to the Army Air Corps, learned to fly and later served in the Philippines before World War II. After the war, he transferred to the newly organized Air Force, served in Washington and Colorado, then returned to England, where he organized the 3rd Air Force, which supplied transport aircraft for the Berlin Airlift and maintenance facilities for Strategic Air Command aircraft on rotational training missions in Europe. Later he was commander of the Continental Air Command at Mitchell Air Force Base in New York and the Air Force representative to the United Nations military staff committee. He retired in 1965.
General Leon Johnson passed away on November 10, 1997 at the age of 93.
Article courtesy of The Washington Post by Bart Barnes November 13, 1997
MEDAL OF HONOR CITATION
For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 1 August 1943. Colonel Johnson, as commanding officer of a heavy bombardment group, let the formation of the aircraft of his organization constituting the fourth element of the mass low-level bombing attack of the 9th U.S. Air Force against the vitally important enemy target of the Ploesti oil refineries. While proceeding to the target on this 2,400-mile flight, his element became separated from the leading elements of the mass formation in maintaining the formation of the unit while avoiding dangerous cumulus cloud conditions encountered over mountainous territory. Though temporarily lost, he reestablished contact with the third element and continued on the mission with this reduced force to the prearranged point of attack, where it was discovered that the target assigned to Colonel Johnson’s group had been attacked and damaged by a preceding element. Though having lost the element of surprise upon which the safety and success of such a daring form of mission in heavy bombardment aircraft so strongly depended, Colonel Johnson elected to carry out his planned low-level attack despite the thoroughly alerted defenses, the destructive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, the imminent danger of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions, and of intense smoke obscuring the target. By his gallant courage, brilliant leadership, and superior flying skill, Colonel Johnson so led his formation as to destroy totally the important refining plants and installations which were the object of his mission. Colonel Johnson’s personal contribution to the success of this historic raid, and the conspicuous gallantry in action, and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty demonstrated by him on this occasion constitute such deeds of valor and distinguished service as have during our Nation’s history formed the finest traditions of our Armed Forces.