By Senior Airman Marcy Glass, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 16, 2011
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "I wanted to learn how to fly, even before the Japanese attacked us, all my life I've like airplanes. In 1937, half a dozen of us rode our bikes about 14 miles to an airport to see Howard Hughes. He had set a world record for flying around the world. It took him three days. On his way back to California, he landed in Chicago to refuel and we rode our bikes to that airport to see him. We would stand out there and just looked at the airplanes. I remember we had to push a couple of airplanes out of the hanger because the men wanted to come out and fly his airplane and we watched them take off and land about half an hour later, and we had to push all these airplanes back into the hanger and I remember when we got home we had to tell our other friends we had touched an airplane. It was almost like I didn't want to wash my hands." This was the beginning of a dream that did not last for Harry Johnson, one of the first members of the 460th Bomb group here at Buckley Air Force base.
Johnson's first obstacle was his parents. They refused to sign his enlistment papers and told him to wait until the draft was initiated. But in 1942, after finishing his first year in college, he decided it was time. He went to a recruitment center in Chicago and enlisted. Having passed the mental and physical exams, he received a notice to bring a guardian with him to be sworn into the Army Air Corps. After two months of anticipation, he received a phone call to report by Feb. 1, 1943 for assignment to basic training in Miami Beach, Fla. "It was a nice time to go to Miami, because we had about eight inches of snow on the ground in Chicago at that time," Johnson chuckled.
"Every morning we would march out to a golf course and learn to march on the fairways, we would do the same thing in the afternoons. We never saw a weapon; the only weapon I carried was when I pulled guard duty which was a big club. We did learn to march very well though."
After being sent to Nashville, Tenn. for further testing, Johnson qualified for pilot or bombardier. After passing his pre-flight and primary flight school, Johnson received orders to basic flying school in Walnut Ridge, Ark. "I was getting along alright there and I had a few more weeks to finish, when I was assigned to another instructor. I reported to him very military and all and there was a chair in that little office and he didn't ask me to sit down. He just said what do you want to fly? I said because of my size, a bomber or a transport and he said ok from now on your name is truck driver, and then he dismissed me," said Johnson.
The flight instructor was so different from the instructors Johnson was use to. Those differences would put Johnson on the path that would determine the rest of his life. After a training flight, Johnson was leaning against the wing with his lieutenant, talking about what Johnson was doing well during his training and what he didn't do well.
"You have a few more weeks here, what do you think you could do to improve?" asked his lieutenant.
"Well I was a young kid and I said maybe if I had a different instructor [I would improve more], and right away I knew that was wrong," said Johnson.
"The next day I rode with the squadron commander, and that was it. A couple days later I had a report for the board of review and about six, seven or eight officers sitting at this long table were asking me questions and my responses were, yes sir, no sir or no excuse sir. There was no explaining," said Johnson.
" All of a sudden I was dismissed and a couple of days later I was called in and the squadron commander told me they had decided to discontinue my flight training, but because I qualified for bombardier that I would go to bombardier school. That didn't pan out like that, there were no openings. So he said we will send you to a school in Colorado where you will learn all about bombs and machine guns so when you get to bombardier school you will know all that. So they sent me out here to Buckley Field."
Tar paper covered wooden buildings, mud and snow greeted Johnson at Buckley Field. Figuring that he only had to spend eight weeks there, he could put up with the quality of living. After learning about machine guns and bombs at armament school, Johnson left for Nebraska. Standing in the barracks with about 50 washed-out cadets, all waiting for bombardier school, the feeling that he was never going to make it crept into his thoughts.
Then, as luck would have it, posted on the bulletin board was a notice for further training in Piute, Texas, Johnson signed up for a six-week training course and left for Texas. Since a conversion of aircraft was taking place at the time of Johnson's arrival, the training he would receive on the B-29 would keep him permanently in Piute. Not wanting to be permanently stationed there, he volunteered for another group that would eventually enlarge the 15th Air Force.
The desire to fly, the original motivation for Johnson's entry into the Army Air Corps, had all of but vanished in a blur of acceptance of other's actions. His dream faded with every train ride to a new base or new school. Now the view from the train transformed into an ocean view as the 15th Air Force loaded the 725-foot long ship "The General Miggs." Sailing past the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean and docking in Naples, Italy, Johnson boarded yet another train and traveled throughout the night until they reached Spinazzola Army Air Base.
Johnson was assigned to the 763rd Squadron in the 460th Bomb Group. At the end of April 1945, knowing that the war was going to end soon, the 460th Bomb Group became non-operational.
"There was no more sense, you know, in going over to bomb Ploesti [Germany] or bomb any factories that were still operating because it wasn't going to do the Germans and good," said Johnson.
The 460th Bomb Group began packing for the return trip home. After spending sometime in Natal, Brazil with the 460th Bomb Group, Johnson returned home to the U.S. He arrived at Fort Sheridan and on Sept. 26, 1945, Johnson was discharged.
He returned home and enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He studied to be an architect and took a part time job with a construction company. A few years later he began working for his friend's father's construction company as an estimator and met the boss's secretary, who would later become his wife. After 66 years, marriage, two children and a grandson later, the dream Johnson had of flying was not replaced but was expanded into what he feels has been a perfect life. "I was sort of in love with airplanes even before I went in and I've never lost that," said Johnson.
Johnson served in the Army Air Corps from 1943 until 1945. "I went in wanting to learn how to fly and I learned how to fly. So they could wash me out, but they couldn't take that away from me," said Johnson.
Today, Johnson lives in Denver, where he still attends school. His son entered the Air Force and graduated from the Air Force Academy as a pilot. His grandson also likes airplanes.