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Bailing out over Bonn

They knew more about us than we knew about ourselves

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Oscar Johnson was born in November 1925 in Pompano Beach, Florida. He had two brothers and a sister. His parents were farmers in the northern portion of Florida and would farm in the Pompano area during the winter time. It was a small farming town at the time and was a good place to grow up. Johnson recalled that everybody knew everything about everybody so they could not get away with much around town without everyone knowing about it. Johnson attended Pompano High School and graduated in 1946. Before he graduated, he had to decide whether to join the military or wait to be drafted. He decided to join the Air Corps [Annotators Note: US Army Air Corps then US Army Air Forces] because he just did not want to walk. He had to take his tests in Miami and had to return there when he was inducted for basic training. He then left Miami Beach and went to Arizona where he saw snow for the first time in his life. Johnson also trained in Iowa and Nebraska. Johnson wanted to be a pilot, but there were already enough pilots in the war so he became part of the air crew. He was assigned to a crew of ten people, but when he left to go overseas, they removed one waist gunner to have a crew of nine. The crew was made up of men from several different states. Johnson was a ball turret gunner and felt it was probably the best position on the plane. He felt like he could see everything and could see the ground almost all the time. He could see the flak guns shooting at him. In training, Johnson had to learn to break down the guns, clean them and reinstall them. He recalled it was a tight fit to get in. It only had one door to get in and he was on his own once he got inside. It was fun being a ball turret gunner. He sat down and his knees were almost in his mouth it was so cramped inside, but he got used to it. To control the turret he had handheld controls that would turn the ball turret and control firing. It also had a system that caused a break in the firing to keep him from shooting off his own propellers. Of his crew, Johnson's pilot was the only other surviving crew member at the time of his interview. He stayed in the Air Force after the war and they have kept in touch for many years. They saw each other at least every two years with the 100th Bomb Group Reunions. The waist gunner lived in Virginia and was fairly close friends with Johnson. He was the man who helped Johnson get out of the turret when they were shot down. He has a great deal of respect for him.

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Oscar Johnson went to Kingman, Arizona for gunnery school and then to Lincoln, Nebraska to assemble the crew. From there they went to Sioux City, Iowa for flight training and then to Manchester, New Hampshire for overseas deployment. They went through Iceland and Greenland then on to Wales. It took them approximately 30 days to get their first mission, but after that they flew almost every day. They flew out of Thorpe Abbotts in England. Doolittle was on their base for a little while during the 100th Bombardment Group's 100th mission. He had a 20 dollar bill signed by Doolittle but he lost it when he was shot down and captured. When Johnson first arrived in England he was assigned to the 95th Bombardment Group but the 100th Bombardment Group had a mission that day where they lost a lot of planes so he was reassigned to the 100th Bombardment Group. He felt it was a good thing to be in the 100th and felt like they saw a lot of action. Johnson and his crew were assigned to the 350th Bombardment Squadron. Johnson would get up around two every morning for a mission. They would take off and assemble and be gone all day. When coming home from missions they could see the British planes taking off for their night missions so there would be a lot of planes in the air at one time. Johnson does not recall the date of his first mission but did recall going to England on around 1 September 1943 [Annotator's Note: probably 1944]. They were there about 30 days before ever going on a mission. Johnson was shot down on his 24th mission. He thought the average number of missions airmen may survive at the time was about six or seven. He went overseas in a brand new B-17 but it was taken away in England and they never saw it again. They never named their plane, they just got in it and flew. They kept the same aircraft most of the time. They spent Christmas Day 1944 in Belgium after losing an engine because of an oil line problem. They were eventually picked up and taken back to England. They did not have much flak damage until Christmas time and they had a good bit of it until they were shot down on a mission to Hamburg [Annotators Note: on 31 December 1944]. He recalls it was supposed to be the shortest mission for his crew, but they were shot down by fighters after dropping their bombs. They were at about 32,000 feet and the plane caught on fire so they had to get out. Everyone on the plane but the pilot and copilot got out immediately. The plane blew up with the pilot and copilot in it but they both lived. The enemy fighters would hit one group at a time hard and put as many aircraft against them as possible. They lost at least 12 or 13 planes of their 36 B-17s that took off on that mission. The fighters came in after they dropped their bombs, as the flak eased up. Johnson recalled most of the fighters came in from the tail. They had a few attacks from the front, though. He would get his guns set and shoot at them and they would fly right through the formation. He thinks he shot down two but is not sure since he did not make it home to confirm it. Johnson wanted to get out of the situation as quickly as they could when he was jumped by fighters. They were not far from the channel when they were shot down. He believes that if they had made it another half hour then they could have been free.

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Fw190s [Annotator's Note: German Focke Wulf 190 interceptor aircraft] attacked the group the day Oscar Johnson was shot down. He recalled seeing a few Me109s [Annotator's Note: German Messerschmitt Me109 fighter aircraft], but most of those attacking his group were Fw190s. They were supposed to have P-47s escorting them that day but they were late getting to them so they had no protection when they got hit. Johnson liked having escort planes and felt the more there were the better. People were calling out over the radio that planes were coming in and there was a lot of chatter. That gave them an idea of where the action was happening. Johnson had to keep moving around in his ball turret to keep up with everything. They were supposed to have been back at the base early in the afternoon. It was late in the morning when they were shot down. They bombed Hamburg that day and were over Bonn, Germany when they had to bail out of the plane. The German fighters hit the number two engine in the B-17 and that set the plane on fire. Johnson saw it first since he was in the ball turret. It did not take long for the fire to spread across the plane and by the time he jumped out both wings were on fire. The pilot gave the order for everyone to bail out. Johnson's waist gunner, John Affleck, stayed back and helped Johnson get out of the ball turret. He did not want to get out until Johnson had. This action forged a bond between the two men. It was the first time any of the crew had had to jump with a parachute on. He did not have one on in the ball turret because there was no room for it. Johnson jumped through fire when he bailed out. The tail fabric had burned off from the fire and he had to bail out through the flames. As far as he remembers nobody got seriously burned. Johnson bailed out at about 30,000 feet and fell fast at that altitude since there was not much air to hold him. He opened the parachute when he got clear of the plane and had plenty of time to look around on the way down. While descending Johnson saw what was going on below him on the ground. He could see the people attacking the bombers and American planes trying to protect the men that bailed out. He also saw German fighters try to fly past him. It was very peaceful after he opened his parachute. All he could hear the wind blowing by. He did not have the harness on tight because it was very comfortable. Johnson saw white puffs of smoke on the ground as he got nearer. He realized that soldiers and civilians were shooting at the falling airmen. Once he got on the ground German troops came up and put an end to the shooting. Johnson landed in an old cabbage patch. He had a tough time collapsing the parachute and the Germans had to chase him a little bit to catch him from the drifting. He was captured and taken to Bonn, Germany. The crew landed pretty close to one another except the pilot and copilot. The pilot and copilot had been hurt and were in a hospital but Johnson and the other crew members did not know that. They presumed they were dead at the time. After the Germans picked Johnson and his crew up they were taken to a gathering area. It was cold and they had cold weather flight suits on. The Germans put them in a building with other crews and took their parachutes and electric suits. Once they had all of their gear off they got cold. What hurt Johnson the most was the cold and not having enough to keep warm.

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Oscar Johnson was taken to Frankfurt after being held in Bonn for a short time. All he gave the enemy was his name, rank and serial number. That was all they were supposed to give them. The Germans apparently knew what group they were with and where they flew from. They even knew where he kept his plane parked at the airfield. The Germans wanted to know where they came from and what they were doing there. They interrogated him for an hour or an hour and a half. They already knew everything and there was not much to tell. The Germans moved them to a camp in Frankfurt and then to a few other camps. The Germans kept moving them around until they got to Nuremberg. From Nuremberg they were taken to Moosburg. The train Johnson was on was strafed by P-51s. Only one man had his arm hurt in that strafing run. Johnson stayed in Frankfurt for about a week then they were moved to a new location where he stayed for about a month. He was then moved to Moosburg where he spent several months. There were a lot of people there and he had to sleep alongside three people. Their covers looked almost like curtains out of someone's house. It was there that he first saw the Me262 German jet. The plane came low to the ground and made a lot of noise. Johnson did not do anything while in the POW camp. The Germans did not make anyone that was above a sergeant do any work and he was a staff sergeant. He was told not to escape because it would just be a matter of time before they would be liberated anyway. They were told this before taking off on a mission. Some of the prisoners asked questions about current events but most of them seemed to know as much about what was going on in the war as he did. The Germans guarding the camp were older and did not cause much trouble. The prisoners were assembled morning and night for roll call. They had to go out and stand in formation and the guards would come along and count them. Sometimes they would draw it out and make it take longer than it should have. Johnson thinks most of his guards were regular soldiers. Johnson and his crew were all in the camp together. When they got fed they would get it in the morning and at night. However food was scarce. He went from 135 pounds down to about 85 pounds during his time in the POW camp. He did not realize he lost that much until after the war was over. He recalled being fed bread that looked like a loaf of sawdust stuck together and some kind of cabbage soup. Occasionally they would get something with beans or peas in it. It was not enough to live on but they survived.

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Oscar Johnson was in Moosburg until General Patton came in and rescued them. It was quite a day. They could see shells going over the top of the camp from the Americans firing. The soldiers realized where they were and they came up to the gate and stopped. All the guards had taken off so the prisoners could go and do what they wanted. Johnson was there when the Red Cross came by and gave them coffee and donuts. They also got white bread for the first time in a long time. The club mobile ladies handed out the donuts. He was surprised that they were there and that they got there so fast. It was something he would never forget. They only got a donut or two because they were afraid the POWs would get sick from them so they limited what they would give them. He stayed there another week before they were moved out of the camp. He never talked to any of Patton's Third Army when the soldiers were there. They kept moving forward in the war. There were camps set up in harbor cities where most of the POWs were taken for several weeks to eat soups and fattening things to put weight back on them before they came home. While in the camp Johnson was able to write home a couple of times. It took about a month to build up enough weight to go home. He was put on a ship and taken to England and from there he was put on another ship to head back to the United States. He thinks the ship he came to England on was the SS Sea Porpoise. Johnson landed in New York then was placed on a ferry and taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. He remembered passing the Statue of Liberty and the ferry caught on fire. The smoke stack caught the deck on fire. He was impressed by the Statue of Liberty. Johnson stayed at Camp Kilmer for about a week before going home. There was a point system for discharge and he ended up high on the list so he got discharged pretty quickly. When he returned home he did not really talk about what all he had experienced during the war. He has talked more in this interview than he ever had in the past. He did not feel what he did was very important and did not feel like it was worth talking about. Johnson felt that the transition into civilian life was pretty easy. He went back to high school and finished then went to college for three years. He went to the University of Florida and studied pre-med and found out he was not smart enough for that. He tried that for three years, but gave up and came home. He started farming and got into real estate work. The war made Johnson become more aware of what was going on in the world around him than he used to be.

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After the war, Oscar Johnson remained single and never had children. He did not marry until 1986. He feels his wife [Annotator's Note: Gail] was worth waiting on and is his angel. Johnson felt they did a good job back in World War 2 but that things have not gone well since with wars. About 40 years after the war Johnson got a phone call from a guy in Belgium saying he had a package for him. He had trouble understanding him but got someone that could and gave him their address. The man had Johnson's wallet from the war. Johnson remembered on missions that they would leave everything behind but their dog tags. He is not sure if someone gave up his wallet when he did not come back from his mission or how this guy in Belgium could have ended up with it. In it he had photos and a driver’s license. He thinks everything was pretty much there when he got it back. [Annotator's Note: The interview stops abruptly after a phone call.]

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