Johnson, Robert “Bob” Samuel, born 21-02-1920, in Lawton, Oklahoma, the son of an automobile mechanic. In his war memoir, Thunderbolt!, he states that he first developed an interest in military aviation in the summer of 1928, when his father took him to see a United States Army Air Corps barnstorming team, “The Three Musketeers”, appearing at Ft. Sill’s Post Field. Four years later, Johnson took his first flight, a 15-minute night excursion over Lawton in a Ford Tri-motor. Johnson attended Lawton public schools, was a Boy Scout, and excelled in athletics. For acquiring the skills and aggressiveness he later employed as a fighter pilot, Johnson credited an interest in shooting and hunting small game with a .22 rifle, boxing competitively to learn about controlling fear, and playing high school and junior college football as a blocking guard.
At the age of 11, Johnson began working as a laborer in a Lawton cabinet-making shop, working 8 or more hours daily after school to earn four dollars a week. At 12, he began applying his earnings to flying lessons, soloing after 5 hours and 45 minutes of instruction. He achieved his student license and logged 35 hours in four years of instruction, before suspending his flying lessons because of a newfound interest in girls. While attending Cameron Junior College, Johnson resumed flying in the Civilian Pilot Training Program , and accumulated 100 hours total flight time by his second year. Johnson gave up his full-time job to allow for his varied interests, but continued to hold a series of part-time jobs, including as a firefighter with the Lawton Fire Department.
In the summer of 1941, Johnson enlisted as an aviation cadet in the United States Army, and entered the service at Oklahoma City on 11-11-1941, as a member of Class 42F. Pre-Flight training was conducted at Kelly Field, Texas, beginning November 12 and was still in progress when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II.
On 18-12-1941, Johnson reported to the Missouri Institute of Aeronautics, a civilian contractor school in Sikeston, Missouri, for Primary Flying Training. His first five hours of the pre-solo training phase were flown in a PT-19A, in which he was instructed in spin recoveries, stalls, and basic turning maneuvers. He then began nearly sixty hours of Primary training in the more agile PT-18 Kaydet, practicing aerobatic maneuvers. All of the training, which included more than 175 landings, was conducted in open-cockpit trainers in the dead of winter.
On 12-01-1942, at the midpoint of Primary, he was forced to switch instructors by the school commander. His new instructor became a flying mentor, for which Johnson wrote: “I shall always be indebted to men like (Phil P.) Zampini. ..(for their) willingness to turn the fledgling into an eagle.” Johnson’s classmates in Primary included several pilots who would become fighter pilots with him in the 56th Fighter Group, as well as Frank K. Everest, Jr.who died 01-10-2004, aged 84.
In February 1942, the USAAF regulation requiring aviation cadets to be unmarried was rescinded. Johnson married Barbara Morgan (whom he had met in high school) in Benton, Missouri, on February 21 immediately upon completing Primary Flying Training.
On 27-02-1942, Johnson began Basic Flying Training at Randolph Field, Texas. As with the other phases of flying training, the 9-week course of instruction included ground school, military training, and intensive flying practice, this time in the North American BT-9. He received 70 hours of instrument, formation, and night flying in March and April 1942. At the conclusion of basic, at the recommendation of his instructors, Johnson requested multi-engine school for his advanced training course.
Johnson began Advanced training at nearby Kelly Field on 03-03-1942. Although in training for transition to bombers, because multi-engine trainers were not yet available his 93.5 hours of Advanced Flying Training were performed in variants of the North American T-6 Texan: the BC-1 basic combat trainer and the AT-6 advanced trainer. Johnson completed his flight training on June 28, and was commissioned 09-07-1942, as a second lieutenant. Although he requested transition training in the Douglas A-20 Havoc, he instead received orders to report to the 56th Fighter Group. 8th USAAF , known as “The Wolf Pack.” Johnson was the first USAAF fighter pilot in the European theater to surpass Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I score of 26 victories.
Captain Rickenbacker suffered from a stroke while he was in Switzerland seeking special medical treatment for Mrs. Rickenbacker, and he then contracted pneumonia. Rickenbacker died on 23-07-1973 in Zürich, Switzerland. A memorial service was held at the Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church with the eulogy given by Lieutenant. General Jimmy Doolittle, and then his body was interred in Columbus, Ohio, at the Green Lawn Cemetery. At the time of his death, he was the last living Medal of Honor recipient of the Air Service, United States Army.
In 1977, at the age of 92, Adelaide Rickenbacker was completely blind, suffering from failing health, and still grieving severely from the loss of her husband. She committed suicide by gunshot at their home on Key Biscayne, Florida.
Johnson finished his combat tour with 27 kills. He was later credited by the Eighth Air Force claims board with a 28th victory when a “probable” was reassessed as a “destroyed”, then reduced back to 27 when a post-war review discovered that the Eighth Air Force had inadvertently switched credits for a kill he made with a double kill made by a fellow 56th Fighter Group pilot, Ralph A. Johnson, on November 26, 1943, a day when Robert Johnson aborted the mission after takeoff. (Their army serial numbers were also nearly identical, O-662216 and O-662217.) Three of the 56th Fighter Group’s 39 aces. (Left to right) Johnson, Hubert “Hub” Zemke and Walker “Bud” Mahurin. Hubert “Hub” Zemke survived the war and died 30-08-1994, aged 80, Oroville, Butte County, California.
Death and burial ground of Johnson, Robert “Bob” Samuel.
After the war, Johnson was chief test pilot for Republic Aviation, maker of the P-47 “Thunderbolt” which was the plane he flew in Europe. He retired form the US Air Force Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel later he became an insurance executive and lived the rest of his life in South Carolina.
Johnson died on 27-12-1998, age 78, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, while visiting his nieces and nephews. He is buried in the cemetery of River Hills Community Church in Lake Wylie, South Carolina. Johnson’s funeral was with full military honors. It included a missing man formation flyover by three F-16 Fighting Falcons and the honor guard from Shaw Air Force Base firing a 21-gun salute and playing Taps.