World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
T.J. "Ted" Johnston, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Randy Stange
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Phoenix, AZ, November 28, 2007
The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. More information about the project and a current list of video interviews can be found at 398th Timeless Voices Interviews. In addition to the video interviews, some of the interviews have been transcribed to text.
T.J. "Ted" Johnston, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
MGR: Interviewer, Marilyn Gibb-Rice
TJ: 398th Pilot, T.J. “Ted” Johnston
MGR: Hi, my name is Marilyn Gibb-Rice and today is Wednesday, November 28th and we are at the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association Reunion in Phoenix, Arizona. Please introduce yourself.
TJ: I am T.J. “Ted” Johnston and was pilot of a crew in the 600th Squadron.
MGR: Where were you living and what were you doing in the late 1930’s and early 40’s?
TJ: I was just a kid. I graduated from high school in 1941 in June that was and then as we all know, shortly thereafter, came Pearl Harbor.
In the meantime, I had gone to work for a small aircraft outfit at the local Olympia, Washington airport, and they got moved to eastern Washington because the Air Force came in with a squadron of P-38s and wiped out my job. This was in December.
So, I moved to Seattle and worked for Boeing in my first hitch and went there as a pre-flight mechanic. I was pre-flighting B-17s, which I ultimately flew, and DB-7’s, which was the contract we had with Douglas Company. I did that for about 6 months and got kind of weary about the twelve hour days, ten hour days, seven days a week.
I had friends that were in the boat business and through them I got a job as a deck hand on some small boats that were shipping passengers from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska. These were workmen who were being hired and taken up there to work on then a major ALCAN [Alaska-Canadian] Highway. After they finished there about a year and they would phase out and come back down. So, we were taking them up and bringing them back, making round trips. I did that until December of that year that would have been ’42.
All along, I had decided that I wanted to go flying. So, I had tried the Naval Aviation arm and my teeth were a problem for them. I had an under bite or something and that was kind of interesting one. I had asked the Commander and he said I was rejected. I said, “Will you tell me more?” and he said, “Well, you have an under bite.” Well, he looked a little sheepish and he said, “Well, the truth of the matter is that it’s an old regulation that hasn’t been updated and it was because oxygen was administered to the crew through their mouth with some pressurized oxygen and you controlled the flow of oxygen with your teeth and under bite folks had a little trouble with that.” So, I said, “Thank you, very much,” and went to the Army Air Corp and got selected for Aviation Cadets and proceeded. That was in December (1942).
I got called up in the very first of 1943 and proceeded to do my Cadet training, which was about 12, 14 months long. I went to Pre-Flight at Santa Ana first and Basic at Phoenix, Arizona, where we are now, as a matter of fact. That was Primary. Then Basic at Bakersfield, California and then Advanced where I got my wings and bars and that was in Marfa, Texas. But, somewhere or another, I haven’t dared to go back there because it was so awful.
From there, I went back to B-17’s and did Transition Training at Hobbs, New Mexico, another ghastly place. I then finished that and went to Lincoln, Nebraska; I filled out my ten-man crew. We went on crew training for several months in Alexandria, Louisiana and then finished that training.
We were back to Lincoln and got a brand-new airplane and then proceeded to fly it and their crew ultimately to England. So, that was kind of exciting, that was a very exciting trip that maybe Marilyn would want to get further details from.
Marilyn, it’s back to you.
MGR: So, tell me about your trip over when you flew over to England.
TJ: The trip over was ghastly. We had a brand new airplane, as I mentioned, that got us to a place called Goose Bay, Labrador. A small nothing but it had an airfield there and so we stopped there to get prepared to go across the North Sea – actually to Iceland first and then from Iceland, down to Wales and then Great Britain.
The weather was so bad that we couldn’t even take off for about two days. The third day they said, “It looks like we are going to get a weather break tonight.” So, we crewed up and got to the meeting briefing room. They started briefing us that our flight was going to take off about 11 and we would be in weather for about 8,000 feet and break out in the clear. It was, so to speak, clear sailing from then.
Well, somehow or another, it didn’t work quite that way. First of all, that first 8,000 feet was a lot of icing which we got and couldn’t avoid but we had de-icing boots that worked pretty well. The anti-icing material, as I called it, dripped onto the propeller blades and worked pretty good. But, my pitot heater went out and the pitot tube is the source of clean air that comes in and gives us our airspeed. But, of course, I don’t know that’s happening until we got to 8,000 feet and we’re still in weather and got up finally to 21,000 feet until we broke out in the clear.
But, in the meantime, I had my summer flying gear on and I was getting cold, and the cabin heat didn’t work very well. So, I went back to the radio room and the co-pilot took over and [I] went back to the radio room to get a cup of hot coffee and did that. I was shaking, though, and I am not quite sure because it was that I was cold or just awfully nervous about the whole thing, probably a combination of both.
So, I started back, at any rate, to the cockpit and went through the bomb bay and just got to the front of the bomb bay when I felt the nose go down dramatically. From there on, I crawled as quick as I could to the cockpit area. I looked up as quick as I could. The first instrument I am looking at is the airspeed indicator and it’s going dramatically down. About the time I looked, it was about 80 or 60 or 80 or something like that and going in the wrong direction. Of course the co-pilot, Norm Petrocine, saying he had the nose way down dramatically and that is what I felt because when you do that, you get more airspeed. But, of course, that wasn’t working.
By the time I got there, I saw what was happening, recognized what was the problem, I reached up and grabbed the pilot’s yoke and pulled it back and got the nose back up and back on course. But, we had no airspeed. So, in that case, in order to make sure that you don’t get into a stall mode, you kind of keep on a little more power and a little more airspeed than you normally would to avoid that problem.
We finally broke out at 21,000 feet and had a navigator with us with a sextant. He was able to get a fix and we were pretty well on course, a few adjustments, and we flew clear from there. That was the most wonderful sunrise that I saw then in my life, then and since, coming up over Iceland and beautiful sun and it was just wonderful. It was that way all the way to Iceland.
Then, we overnighted there and went on into England the next day. So, that was a very exciting incident in my life, flying an airplane and a crew over to England.
MGR: And how old were you?
TJ: Oh, I was 20 then, let’s see, I was born in 1923 so I was right at 20 when that happened. [Lt. Ted Johnston flew over in late September 1944 as related later.]
MGR: And flying that plane and having the responsibility of all those guys.
TJ: Oh yes. Well, we were kids but matured kind of early.
MGR: So, where did you land in the U.K.? In Wales?
TJ: Landed in Wales, in a place that I can describe it but I can’t tell you the name of it. It was right on the Western coast of England, Wales, facing the Channel between them, that place, and Ireland.
I remember coming down on final approach, we were coming over water, quite close, and then the rocks that were at the end of the runway, off the runway and down the coast. That was exciting to see those and get landed, too.
MGR: Where did you go from there?
TJ: We got on a truck first and then a train and were transported to Nuthampstead, 398th Bomb Group. Had not a clue who they were, what they were, what they did except they must fly B-17’s and that’s when my tour of missions started with the 398th.
MGR: So, were you a replacement crew?
TJ: Yes, I was a replacement crew, right.
MGR: When did you get there?
TJ: We got there in late September of ’44 and started flying in early of October. I think I recall my first mission was October 3 of 1944 and on October 12th, that was my 21st birthday.
MGR: So, do you remember your first mission?
TJ: Well, not really except a guy who is here, Keith Anderson, who you interviewed, was in my right seat in place of the co-pilot, as a check-out pilot. He checked me out as a lead pilot to fly my mission and [probably 2nd Lt. Norman Petrocine], my co-pilot, lost one mission, and he started one mission later than we did, the rest of the crew. It was an uneventful. In fact, I’ve got three or four uneventful missions for a while for reasons unknown, didn’t have any fighters or significant predator problems. Flak was always a problem; we didn’t get damaged or hurt and that worked out alright.
But, then they started to get -- some of them got a lot meaner.
MGR: Tell me about some of those then.
TJ: Oh, well Schweinfurt was always a bad target and Merseburg was always a bad target. But, mostly though, flak and they just had the Germans – I don’t know how they could produce anything else but flak guns; they had produced in their armament program and I think they had them all aimed at us. So, that was the worst part.
In fact, there was one mission and it was in that group of early ones. It was called Misburg, not Merseburg, in that case [probably 26 November 1944 to Misburg, Germany]. It was a very clear day and we could see miles and miles ahead of us. Of course, the flak batteries could see us as well as we can see ahead of us.
There were a number of groups of us flying in squadrons, flying that day. We all broke up into squadrons at the initial point of the target and so there were at least twelve airplanes in each group flying towards the target. Every time they would get within range of the guns, here comes this black cloud and just engulf each of these squadrons and then it would go away, completely go away, and that was the spacing between squadrons. Which might have been a minute, or two minutes or something like that – I don’t remember.
But, then it’s your turn and you know it’s coming. We could see ahead enough to see that happen maybe four or five times before it was our turn. My co-pilot [2nd Lt. Norman Petrocine, co-pilot] and I, we had a little deal that we flew twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off, no matter where we were, over a target, except for landing and takeoffs. So, about the time that we get over the target, he is on the controls. And, here it comes, “Bam, bam, bam!” It riddled our squadron so bad that it just broke us up and there were about half a dozen of us left that in a kind of a formation. Some of them, that doesn’t mean that all six of them were shot down, but several of them were. The rest of them just got out so far away from us that they couldn’t get back into reasonable formation. So, we just grouped everybody that we could. We had some stragglers from other groups and other squadrons. It was funny; we went back with a squadron of about fourteen or fifteen airplanes when we should have been twelve. We started out with twelve.
So, that was really the worst one, for flak; we did get a lot of damage though. Through my tour, I did twenty missions – thirty missions, excuse me – thirty missions. I didn’t lose a crewmember; I lost one but he was flying with another airplane and another crew. I was prone to lose engines; I was forever getting engines shot out. I wished I had kept a log because I think I could have set the record for the most engines out of any crew coming back to England or trying to. It almost got to be funny.
I came back one day with two engines gone and about half power on the third engine and full power on the fourth engine. I had an engine and a half of power to get back to England. Fortunately, it was on letdown; we had pretty good altitude. I was able to letdown and coast most of the way back. But, still a little ugly to land with. Two were on the right side, number three and four, so they were not good to me on landing. But, we got down alright.
MGR: Did you ever have to bailout?
TJ: No, didn’t have to bail out. I did mention that other crewmember. When I was about halfway through my tour, I was promoted to lead pilot to what they called Flight Commander and started to fly lead missions. In the process, my bombardier [2nd Lt. Donald Robinson] and my navigator [2nd Lt. Chas. Letts] and my co-pilot [2nd Lt. Norman Petrocine] went to other crews and then they were replaced by squadron lead navigators, bombardiers. I flew with different co-pilots because they were mission commanders and they sat in the right seat in place of the co-pilot. But they didn’t have anything to do with flying the airplane. That was my business.
So, when that happened, my navigator [Lt. Charles R. Letts] went off to about a month of lead navigation school and when he got back, his first assignment was to a mission [on January 23, 1945] that was led by our base colonel, Colonel Hunter, and he went down with Colonel Hunter when Colonel Hunter went down, unfortunately. So, we lost some good people.
MGR: What was it like on an average mission? Besides the flak, a day of mission, what was it like?
TJ: Well, it was ugly. It was ugly in that in the morning you would get up and try to get breakfast about 4 o’clock, and get briefed and get in the airplane. It was dark and the weather was usually not very good. Misty, raining, maybe good enough to fly or we wouldn’t have been there. It was cold in the airplanes, damp; it just was really an unpleasant thing. But, we didn’t go over there to be pleasant.
So, the missions themselves were -- unless you had bad flak or fighter problems. I only had fighters one time. I got nailed by a ME262 late in my tour. When the Germans finally got that airplane going and it was an awfully good thing that they didn’t get it going any sooner than they did because it was a very good airplane and it would have given us all kinds of trouble. He didn’t damage me enough to cause any trouble. It was more of a fly by, going down for him.
But, they were long days and you just had nothing to eat. Oh, we had some little bread crust type of boxes of candy and gum and something like that. But, other than that, there was nothing to eat.
We would be gone from the base from eight to ten to upwards of twelve hours; those were long days. We came back to debriefing and the whole crew would debrief with a S-2 officer to tell them what we saw, what happened, any intelligence that they could use. We tried to be as honest that we could and of course, if there was nothing that really significant happened but flak patterns or altitude errors of the Germans, but they weren’t off very often. So, that was our thing.
But, the best part of those debriefings was the little shot of rye whiskey. I had a radio man that didn’t drink so I tried to get next to him every time when we were debriefed. So, somehow or another, I got two instead of one and they were very heartwarming.
MGR: So, the whole crew went into the debriefing?
MGR: Can you us about your crewmembers?
TJ: I can sure do that. They were from all over the United States. Further east, my radio man [Sgt. Larry Miller] was from Massachusetts, my bombardier [2nd Lt. Donald Robinson] was from New York, Upper New York, Elmira; my navigator [2nd Lt. Chas. Letts] was from Florida. I had a gunner from – I guess he was from California. I had a gunner from Texas, Moon, and a gunner [Sgt. Sigmund Szubka] from Midwest, somewhere, Missouri or Illinois or somewhere in there [there were three other gunners in this crew: Sgt. Andrew Moon, Sgt. Frank Fishbeck, and Sgt. William Howarth]. So, it was a group of guys that were all different, at least different heritages.
Interestingly enough, but, you probably wonder why, I didn’t get to know the enlisted very well except for my radio man [Sgt. Larry Miller?], who I designated as the lead enlisted man on the crew. I did that so I had a focal point and he was my eyes and ears of the crew. I used him to develop, as it did happen, when we group training and we had a problem with one of the guys. The problem was that he was getting sick all the time. That went on and I finally had to say, “I understand you have been sick much of the time when we are flying and training and we just can’t go overseas and go and get into combat with that kind of problem.” So, he went away.
Then we had another guy, Szubka [Sgt. Sigmund Szubka, Gunner], and he was very nervous, very withdrawn. He was a Chicago kid. There’s my Illinois guy. I decided that I was going to sit down with him one day after flying. So, we got our shirts off, sat on them under the wing of an airplane, and it was a hot day where we were training and I just sat down – I was practicing Psychology 101 sort of, which I knew nothing about. I thought maybe if I knew the kid better and made him more comfortable with me that he would be better off. So, we chatted, we must spent a half hour, he told me about Chicago and his background, his high school, his gunnery training and so forth and I shared some of the same thing with him. By the time we were done, we knew each other quite well and his nervousness kind of went away and he felt more comfortable with what he was doing.
MGR: That was kind of good. So, when you were over there, what did you do on your time off?
TJ: Played ping pong. With Sirus?, he’ll be here tomorrow night for the welcome dinner. He’s my co-pilot who lives in Tucson now. He and I were ping pong players in the Officer’s Club and we played so much. We were so competitive that I got blisters on my feet from those GI shoes that we were issued, trying to play ping pong in them. If I were to count the number of wins that I had, maybe 40% of the 100%. He always managed to get me, one way or another.
So, we did that and we went to London on leaves and that was kind of interesting. Or Cambridge. Those were wonderful cities and they were so pure English cities that it was a delight to meet the people and see the architecture and the street layouts and their double deck busses and their little cabs that all looked alike and those were fun experiences.
MGR: So, what did you do when you went into London?
TJ: So, first of all, we weren’t very far. We were the closest base to London, about 30 miles north and a little east. We tried to find restaurants that had good food because the base food was marginal, at best. But, the poor English, they didn’t have any food either, very much. So, usually, the best you could do was chicken and Brussels sprouts, which wasn’t a big break but it was a little different than what we got at the Officers’ Club. So, that and there were some movies, I guess. I am really kind of foggy on that. We stayed at hotels or apartment houses, or something like that, that were run by the Red Cross that were well administered, clean and the prices were right. That’s generally were we tended to stay.
MGR: So, you guys had to pay for them?
TJ: Yes, we had to pay for a room, but there weren’t all that dramatic in price.
MGR: So, were you ever in the Woodman Pub?
TJ: No, I never was. We kind of visualized that as the Enlisted Men’s Club. We had our Officers’ Club and I never got in to the Woodman Inn while I was on base there.
MGR: So, tell me about your living conditions.
TJ: Well, we were in a typical Quonset hut, then. I think there were twelve of us in a hut. A couple of crews, several crews’ worth of officers. Two decks, two bunks, two levels high, a bottom one and a top one. A pot belly stove right in the gut of Quonset hut with always a shortage of coal. I am sure other guys have told you, there was a little game we played at night for midnight requisitions for coal supplies with their little pot belly stove. Sometimes, successfully, not always, though. They knew we were coming, so to speak, it wasn’t all that easy.
MGR: So, you tried to steal the coal?
TJ: Well, we didn’t steal; we just borrowed it.
MGR: You gave it back to them? Tell me about your interactions with the local population.
TJ: Did some of that and it kind of hazy now after sixty years. I met a couple of wonderful families. I am not sure I really remember how. But, there was a bland organized system that we were able to spend some time with these folks. It was a pleasure to do that and they were so wonderful and so welcome with their very meager ability in terms of food and anything like that.
Two times, I would do that with different families and they were families mostly with – I don’t think there were any children; I don’t recall any children, they were couples. Whether their children were grown and gone or in the service or something, I don’t really know. But, we had a good system at the base putting together food packages for these folks and I don’t remember how we got them to them but we got them food packages to help them because they had gone out of their way to help us.
MGR: So, did you go to their house?
TJ: Yes, did that. Again, I don’t recall how we knew where they lived or how we got there. Maybe, we cabbed it. I say we but I don’t recall being with anybody other than myself. Maybe it was on a bus route or something. Those were pleasurable events.
MGR: That’s nice. Did you receive any special medals?
TJ: Well, we all did for every five missions; we were awarded the Air Medal, assuming survival. So, I had, I guess, six of those.
I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, too, late in my tour. It had happened I was flying leads then and it was a result of a couple of missions that I had done very well, apparently, somebody had thought. But I didn’t even know that until I was home and sometime later when I was separated from the service. I was to go to a local military installation to check my personnel records and to verify them and update them and so forth. It had to be a couple of years later. In the process, this Staff Sergeant is going through my file and he’s going, “Born here, raised here, did this, did that…” He got to awards and the Distinguished Flying Cross and said, “Oops, wait a minute.” [I said,] “I did not receive that to my knowledge.” [Then the Staff Sergeant said,] “Well, here it is and here’s the order.”
Well, I never got a copy of the order for that award until several years after being out of the service. So, yes, but that was the highest level that I got.
MGR: Did you get the medal?
TJ: Yes, but I had to write them and tell them, “You guys screwed up.” It came in the mail, which didn’t seem very nice, but, at that time, there was no way to do it any other way. Today, I’ve seen that happen several times in the newspaper where a guy has an award like that or higher and there’s an event scheduled at the local military to make that presentation. So, I missed mine.
MGR: Were you there for the D-Day invasion?
TJ: No, Keith was.
MGR: Keith was?
MGR: Okay. So, what was your happiest, funniest, or saddest memory of the war?
TJ: Well, facetiously I can say, finishing thirty missions and saying ‘bye-bye’ to the whole thing, which was satisfying, but I wasn’t necessarily happy or sad or anything else. I was kind of sad to leave England and some of the wonderful things that I had experienced there, but not sad enough to want to stay. That was about it, except it was – you got a minute or two more.
When I got home, my mother had been deeply concerned about my health and a dear family friend of ours – I saw her later – and she said, “I was with your mother a lot at church and other events when you were gone and I don’t know of anybody that prayed more for anybody than she did.” So, that was pleasing to know. Maybe that is why I survived unscratched.
But, when I got home, I was phased out and went to debriefing and reassignment in California when I got back to the States and the – he was Major – I finished as a Captain, by the way, which may mean something or nothing. But, I was 21 years old and there weren’t many of us at that age, well, there were some of us, maybe. At any rate, I got home, this was June or July of ’45 and I am back in this civilian country and I look around and there aren’t many of me there. To people who didn’t know me, I had a feeling – I can’t contribute it to any comments or anything – but I had the feeling that, in spite of my Ugly Duck lapel pin that we got, Ugly Duckling or something, whatever they called it.—the people probably looked at me like I was one of those guys that had gone loony or got a mental problem and that’s why he is not in uniform.
I was kind of by myself for a while until later in that year. Now, it’s in the fall and I started college and then things began to get back to normal and more guys had come home and so I had more company. So, it was a little disturbing for a while.
MGR: So, did you use the GI Bill?
TJ: Oh, yes. Yes, did that. Actually, five years of it and started that again in Olympia, Washington and in Olympia is Lacey and then in Lacey is a Catholic college called Saint Martin’s which now is a university, I see by a sign I saw the other day. I spent two years there and I did it primarily to be able to spend some time with my mother. I am not sure Dad really worried that much and to be at home and keep her feeling better.
Then, I transferred to the University of Washington and finished up. I lost a year in the process and finished up my degree in 1950. So, I did use the GI Bill and used it for a home loan, too. So, it was very valuable. Good votes by a lot of people.
MGR: So, have you been back to Nuthampstead?
TJ: Yes, several times. Those were the first time that I had the privilege of visiting Woodmen Inn. As I told you, I never went in there during the war. It’s a wonderful heritage that still there. That’s the beauty of it, as you know. So, yes, and again, I think the English had shown their prowess to us in the way they treat we, the Vets, and spouses coming back to their country. They just bend over backwards for us.
MGR: So, how did you hear about the Bomb Group Memorial Association?
TJ: Oh, I was with Boeing and was in a job that related to relationships and a lot of other things. Relationships with former military organizations. I was in corporate headquarters of the company. The 351st Bomb Group wrote the company a letter, a letter that ended up with me, asking if we were aware of the fact that the B-17 was going to have a 50th birthday in 1985 – that’s right it rolled out in July of 1935 – and sure enough, it was the 50th birthday coming up. So, my signal was from upper management to suggest a program that we would do. They wanted to come to Boeing and help us celebrate the 50th birthday and what would we do. That’s when I put together some plans for a lunch and a meeting and tours and normal stuff, a one day kind of thing. “How many are you going to have?” I finally got in touch with these people and they were thinking 250.
In the process going through this, I began to think, “Wait a minute, that’s just one group. We were a whole bunch of groups that flew B-17s.” So, I energized some people to agree that we ought to set up a program and invite, as best we could – we had contacts for all the groups that we were aware of that flew B-17s. We did that and the end result was in 1985 our party was not 250, but over 10,000. You may even have even been part of it. But, I get more people, “Hey, remember that party we had?” Our guys – I am getting finally to your question.
In the process, I was involved in terms of counting the groups, trying to figure out how many numbers to do whatever it was that we were going to do, and these group names started to come up and the 398th was one of them.
In the process of getting ready for this, too, in Cincinnati of that year, ’85 – no, it was two or three years prior to that -- Cincinnati was a 8th Air Force Association meeting. I thought, “By golly, I’d better go to that and see if I can get some goody, some intelligence from doing that.” First of all, how do you handle – they were looking at 3,000 people at the 8th Air Force – how do you handle logistically busses, and food and reservations, and all that stuff.
So, in Cincinnati, in my nosing around, I got a list of groups that were participating. This was again, the 8th Air Force Association and lo and behold, there is the 398th. So, I quickly became an attendee of the 398th Bomb Group Association Reunion in Cincinnati. They were coat-tailing the 8th Air Force at that time. I think right about, at, or shortly after, they quit doing that and we started having reunion meetings separately, by ourselves.
MGR: Did the 398th come to the Boeing celebration?
TJ: Yes, yes. I had most of my crew there and we were survivors then. I broke off one night and had hosted a dinner for the crew, and everybody, six or seven of us, with spouses, in addition, at that dinner. We had a barbequed salmon dinner for them.
MGR: So, how did you hear about the bombing of Hiroshima?
TJ: Oh my….I think – let’s see now, that would have been after I had been separated, I think. What’s the date of that? Wasn’t it late or mid to late ’45?
TJ: I was home, at any rate. We got it over the radio.
MGR: And, how did you feel about it?
TJ: Well, I was totally shocked as most people who didn’t know that such thing existed. They were certainly surprised that it would be applied the way it was and I guess, though, when we heard the whole story that numbers of Americans’ deaths would have been resulted if it hadn’t been done, that was a fair trade. So, I had no negative feelings about the event occurring.
MGR: How did you feel about the surrender of Japan?
TJ: Well, I didn’t know anything about that theater. But, there was some terrible horror stories that came out of the Pacific Theater in the war with Japan such that I was probably brainwashed – that may be the wrong word – but unduly negatively influenced by the way the Japanese treated our guys, the mass killings, and so forth. You can’t help but suck it up and put the American flag on in that kind of situation.
I didn’t like them at all. But, I was sure glad, too, that the Germans were bad enough that I was glad that was our opponent over there in Europe, instead of the Japanese.
MGR: So, what are your memories of VE Day?
TJ: I was on a train coming home and I had come back in a ship, across the North Atlantic to get back to the United States. I say that negatively because that was an awful experience. I’ll elaborate a little more on that, maybe.
We landed in Maryland somewhere, or Delaware, and got on trains and, in my case, came across country to Olympia, to Seattle and Olympia. It was a long stop and go train trip. But it was in South Dakota and where we were at a stop, which was often, and the word got to us that the VE Day had occurred. That was, of course, wonderful. I had just gotten out of there. Well, go ahead.
MGR: No, go ahead.
TJ: That trip back, we gathered in England, Southampton, to board these transport to come back, it was a convoy type thing. I don’t know, 120 ships, something like that. I met some guys when we were gathering to come back and a couple of them from the state of Washington. One of them, in particular, was a First Lieutenant Army, First Lieutenant Infantry, and the other guy was a fellow Air Force guy, like me. We were kind of a matched pair, in a sense.
I met them on the ship and no more had got on this bucket than the First Lieutenant approached me, and I was a Captain, and that made a difference. He said, “Well, Captain, my Colonel is the commanding officer of this trip, the ranking officer on board is the commanding officer of the troops, for that particular trip, for any of them.” So, I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” [The Captain then said,] “He is giving me an assignment to staff some of the positions that we were going to have to worry for eleven days when we get back to the United States and one of them is the Mess Officer and I recommended you.” I said, “You did what, Lieutenant?” He repeated what he said and I said, “I can’t even boil water; I don’t even know where the kitchen is and what in the world would I be doing as a Mess Officer?” I said, “I don’t like your idea and go get somebody else.” And he rose to the bay and he said, “My CO is a full Colonel and maybe, Captain, you would like to talk to him.”
So, at any rate, I ended up in the Mess Officer’s job, which amounted to making sure the bakery did their job, particularly with desserts. That I could qualify for and dump the garbage, make sure the garbage got dumped off the fantail every day, or three times a day.
But, there was a meaningful part to the job. The troops, I don’t remember, 1500 or so troops and they had to be fed three times a day. The biggest problem was getting them to eat and get out so we can set up for the next group to come in. That ended up as my logistics job to encourage them to get the hell out of here when they were done eating and to give us the space so we can feed some more.
The guy that did that to me, the First Lieutenant, it turned out he was from Tacoma. I don’t know how much later – about, in 1958, we moved to the south end of West Seattle from the North End. We had answered an ad or something and we went to the door at the appointed time to look at this house. The door was open and here’s this guy. We both look at each other and we said we know each other, don’t we? He was the First Lieutenant who moved from Tacoma to Seattle who was now, in fact, it was his house that we were buying. He was moving to another one and he worked for a real estate company.
MGR: Oh my.
TJ: Small world.
MGR: Very small. So, did you keep in touch with your crew after the war?
TJ: Yes, I attempted to. Well, there are only three left my co-pilot that I talked about, my radioman who is in Massachusetts and the rest are gone. I told you the navigator was killed with Colonel Hunter. I tried to keep in touch with all of them and I have been most successful except the guy in Texas and he was one of the gunners. I just couldn’t get a response; I couldn’t get him to respond positively. The rest of them did in varying amounts of activity with the crew. But, he never did show up. Maybe he didn’t like me; I couldn’t imagine that.
MGR: Alright, anything else that you want to tell us about.
TJ: Not that would be important. I told you about the icing problem going east, that was exciting, and it turned out to be exciting. But, no, it was – I’ll summarize though – it was for myself and for me and for probably a lot of others, it was life’s greatest experience and it just something that you didn’t necessarily enjoy it, but it happened, and most of our cases, and we survived and we sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it again. But, it was a great experience; it was a maturing experience, I am sure for all of us.
MGR: Alright, I want to thank you for your service to your country.
TJ: Thank you, you are welcome.
- Ted J. Johnston's Crew - 600th Squadron - August 1944
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. T.J. "Ted" Johnston was the Pilot of his own 600th Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Jan Silverstein, one of our 398th volunteers in December 2010.
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].