1LT Larry Johnston
(Click to Enlarge)
Crew of the B-17F "Jolly Roger".
BACK L-R: Mike Begab (N), Earnest Boyce
(CP), Larry Johnston (B), Phil Higdon (P)
FRONT L-R: Jesse Cronin (TG), Joe Jacobsen (WG), James Jet (TT), Frankie Klonowske (WG)
Ken Cunningham (BT), Richard J. Boenm (RO).
B-17F, Serial Number 2-3459 "Jolly Roger" "BK" is 546th Squadron, "F" is this plane.
This art was produced by the French Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien 39/45
Missing Aircrew Report (MACR) 748 for Larry Johnston's B-17F
Click to expand, zoom to read. These are old and fuzzy. Declassified in 1982.
Larry Johnston was my uncle, my father's half brother. In WWII, he flew in the European Theater in a B-17F with the 384th Bomber Group (Heavy), 546th Bomber Squadron. He was a bombardier and the name of his bomber was "Jolly Roger." I met him several times, but he passed away a few years ago. His widow, Janet Johnston now lives in Maryland. She also contributed greatly to the war effort. She was a "Rosie the Riveter" and helped manufactured B-24s.
(Click to Enlarge)
The 384th Bomber Group (Heavy) with bomb bay doors open and dancing on Flak.
During the early part of the war, American Daylight bombing was a risky proposition. Uncle Larry told me that crew members often left their M1911A1 pistol in their footlockers during missions. During his last mission, he had six pistols in his footlocker; one was his and the others were from crewmembers who had already been shot down. On 23 September 1943, Uncle Larry's squadron flew a late afternoon mission to bomb a harbor at Nantes France to bomb a U-Boat tender ship that would go out to sea and re-supply the U-Boats. They dropped their bombs at approximately 1730hrs. About 50 miles north of Nantes, trouble found the Jolly Roger. They were at the tail end of the formation. Larry said that the enemy fighters would often come straight at the bomber's nose, one fighter after the other. This was manageable for the bomber crew because they could train their guns on each plane as it came by. This evening, Uncle Larry looked up and saw six FW190A5s in two wings of three. They were wingtip to wingtip and all guns firing. A 20 MM shell came through the nose of the bomber and struck the bombsite. Uncle Larry was saved by his flak vest, but he was severely wounded with 80+ small holes in his body and both hands mangled. Apparently, more than the bombsite was struck because the pilot, Bill Higdon, gave the order to bale out. Number 3 and 4 engines were on fire. All 10 crew members made it out of the plane before it exploded in mid-air. All of this happened in the span of 3 minutes. According to the MACR, location of the incident was Lat 4810 Long 0235W. In Luftwaffe code, the location was 3973 14W and was reported to be at 18:39. However, there was a 1 hour time difference, so the Americans were probably on England time which explains the discrepancy.
Crest for 8/III/JG2
The 8/III/JG2 "Richthofen" (of Red Baron fame) was stationed at nearby Vannes, France and their records indicate shooting down the B17 at 18:39. The pilot credited with the kill was Hauptmann (Captain) Herbert Hubbertz. Actually, he shot down two bombers that day. One in the morning and the Jolly Roger at dusk. This was no ordinary kraut. Hubbertz held the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub) and was credited with a total of 78 kills during the war. 17 of them were American bombers. Of these, 13 were B17s, and the other 4 were B24s. While I don't normally hold ill will for our countries' former enemies, this man was a butcher considering there were 170 men in those 17 American bombers. On D-Day, Hubbertz shot down 5 fighters over Normandy including 3 Typhoons, a Thunderbolt, and a Mustang. Fortunately for the Allies, his luck ran out two days later. He was shot down and killed near Caen on 8 JUN 44 in a Fw 190A8, (W.Nr. 730 440).
Hauptmann Hubbertz prior to receiving the oakleaves for his Knights Cross.
Knights Cross with Oakleaves
Back to 23 SEP 43, when Larry landed in his parachute, he was in occupied France in a town called Plouguenast and the plane debris fell outside of Plemet; both of these towns are in the French province of Brittany. Today, one of the engines from Uncle Larry's B-17 is in a local museum. The next morning, a Frenchman tried to help but Uncle Larry told him to leave him for the Germans because he knew he needed professional medical attention or else he would die of infection. In fact, of the crew of 10, 7 were captured and the other 3 were able to evade the enemy. According to the official Gendarmerie (police) records, of the 7 POWs, one was seriously wounded. This was obviously Uncle Larry. The Germans soon came and found Larry and took him to a military hospital at Loudeac where he was treated. Because of this, Uncle Larry never had anything bad to say about the Germans.
Larry's Engine from B17F 42-3459 (Photo by Jean Paul Favrais)
Another angle of the engine (Photo by Jean Paul Favrais)
These are all collected relics from the Jolly Roger.
Photographs provided by Jean Michel Martin who is currently writing a report of the downing of the Jolly Roger and is a member of Association Bretonne du Souvenir Aérien 39/45.
More pics of the Jolly Roger. Notice the 20mm holes in the propeller blades. For me, this is the shocking reality of war; this German was trying to kill my uncle in 1943. Traces of olive drab paint remain on the wing sections around the rivets. Yellow tips uncovered on the propeller blade. Apparently, the excavation of Jolly Roger continues in France. However, considering it blew up at 28,000 feet, the parts must be considerably scattered. Photos from a Private Collection.
Jean Michel Martin provided this map showing the location of the plane crash and the photos of the site.
Jean Michel Martin provided this map showing the location where the crew members landed and the photos of the site where Larry landed.
This aviator kit bag was found by a French hunter several days after the crash. It was in the tail section and belonged to the tail gunner as listed on the MACR 748. When Larry had his photograph taken with the rest of the crew, the tail gunner was Jesse Cronin. However, for some reason, Edward J Humphrey was the tail gunner. This was his third mission and third aircraft. Photographs provided by Jean Michel Martin.
When Larry recovered from his injuries, he was sent to Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany. Barth is on the coast of the Baltic NW of Berlin in what used to be East Germany. I visited Stalag Luft 1 and there isn't much left.The camp was on a peninsula and between the camp and the mainland was a Luftwaffe Anti-Aircraft Gunnery school. The water table was high and the water in the Baltic was freezing. The effect of these conditions meant that the guards were not too concerned about escape attempts. In fact, they let the soldiers wear themselves out by digging tunnels. Since the water table was so high, the tunnels were close to the surface where the guard dogs could easily hear the digging. They would cock their ears and then the guards could play the "kick in the tunnel" game. The guards would also let the POWs walk along the water and dig for mussels in the clay to supplement their diet. Uncle Larry found an ancient obsidian crescent hand knife one day and used it to open the shell fish. He kept it as a souvenir after the war. (I have since seen such a knife in a museum in Ireland. I was told it was an ancient knife know as a Lunate Crescent.)
As the Allies approached, bombing could be heard in the distance and the airmen would often slide out of the windows of the barracks to watch and cheer. Once bombing became a regular event, the Germans put out the order that everyone was to stay in the building. One day, an airman forgot himself and jumped out of the window when the air raid siren sounded. A young guard shot him dead. That was the only war crime that Uncle Larry witnessed.
One morning, the airmen awoke to find the camp abandoned. The guards had left in the night. The Russian were near. Many of the enlisted wanted to run wild across the country side, but the officers seized control and ordered them to stay put and stay out of the way of the dangerous Russian Army. Small, foraging parties were formed and the airmen went to find what they could to eat. Uncle Larry was on one of the foraging parties and they went to inspect the Anti-Aircraft Gunnery School. There, he found a pair of Luftwaffe flight boots that fit him and he also brought back a small Luftwaffe hat eagle. Years later, he gave me the eagle as a present.
(Click to Enlarge)
Luftwaffe Eagle that Uncle Larry scavenged the day he got out of his Stalag. He gave it to me when I was a teenager. I still have it.
Several soldiers volunteered to drive West into the British sector. The Russians were uncooperative with an orchestrated rescue, so the Americans ferried them out with B17s which landed at the airfield which was about 1.5 miles away. The airstrip is still there today. Uncle Larry finally made it back to England and went back to his squadron to visit. He was shocked that there was not one single person that he knew. After the war, he went back to school and got his degree in Chemistry. Uncle Larry was a very quiet and unassuming man. He was extremely smart and thought things through. I am blessed to have known him and to be able to tell his story.
More Stalag Luft 1 Testimony from William T. (Bill) Minor, LTC USAF: I was a POW at Stalag Luft 1 in the South Compound in Barracks 14 along the fence and under which many tunnels were started. I was at Stalag 1 from 10 Jan 1944 to May 1945. As a depressed person I didn't get acquainted with many people outside of my room. However I was one of the POW's selected to guard the camp to keep out Germans and hopefully persuade our fellow POW's to remain in the camp until help arrived. I am now 90 years old and alone as my wife of nearly 65 years died in May of 2008. I did locate a German in the 1990's who as a 15 year old lad saw our B-24 The Gremlins Roost (445th BG- 703rd SQ) blow up . As a result of this contact he sent me a section of our Ball Turret that he plowed up in the 1970's. I also contacted a former German pilot who discovered who had shot us down and sent me a picture of him. This Fighter pilot was killed in April of 1944 by a P-38. Regards William T. (Bill) Minor, LTC USAF Retired from reserve in 1980
Visit Stalag Luft 1
My thanks to Jean Paul Favrais who helped me fill in the pieces of the puzzle. He is an avid French WWII aviation buff and researched the downing of Uncle Larry's plane. He spotted my name on a posting on the 384th Bomber Group web site and has given me much valuable information.
"Combat America" starring Clark Gable. He flew 5 combat missions and the last one was the same mission that Uncle Larry was shot down on. This short film was designed to recruit aircraft gunners.
During much of 1943, Major Clark Gable was stationed at Polebrook to produce a recruiting film for aircraft gunners. While there, he flew five combat missions as an observer. Much of the film was shot by MGM cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, who not only accompanied Gable, but who also enlisted with him in the USAAF. Gable's first combat mission occurred on 4 May 43 flying with Capt W.R. Calhoun from the 303rd Bomb Group at Molesworth in the lead aircraft nicknamed 'Eight Ball II' #41-24635 and targeting Antwerp, Belgium. His second mission was on 15 Jun 43 flying with Lt. Theodore. Argiropulos from the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook in the aircraft 'Argonaut III' #42-29851 and targeting Villacoublay, France. His third combat mission occurred on July 24, 1943 flying with Lt.Col . Robert W. Burns from the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook in 'Argonaut III' #2-29851 and bombing Heroya, Norway. His fourth combat mission occurred 12 Aug 43 flying with Capt John B. Carraway from the 351st Bomb Group in the aircraft 'Aint It Gruesome' #42-29863 and hitting the secondary target of Bochum, Germany. Gable had somehow wedged himself in behind the top turret gunner for a better view as fighters made five passes, killing one man, wounding seven others, and damaging eleven 351st Bomb Group planes. At one point a 20-mm shell came through Aint It Gruesome's floor, cut off the heel from Gable's boot, and exited one foot from his head, all without exploding. Afterward, the crew noticed the fifteen holes in the aircraft, and Gable noticed his boot. Brushing off concern with reporters, Gable claimed, "I didn't know it had happened. I didn't know anything about it until we had dropped eleven thousand feet (and could get off oxygen and look around). Only then did I see the hole in the turret." Gable's fifth and last combat mission occurred on 23 Sept 43, targeting Nantes, France with Maj John Blaylock as pilot flying 'The Dutchess' #42-29925. Clark Gable was awarded the Air Medal on October 4, 1943 for completing five combat missions and left the 351st BG on November 5, 1943 returning to the US with over 50,000 ft of 16mm film. In 1944, the film 'Combat America' was shown in theaters.
Learn more about the 384th BG (H) at: http://www.384thbombgroup.com/