Miraculous tales of military pilots and crews surviving against near-impossible odds are not uncommon. However, more often than not, these stories are a testament to the pilot’s own skill, cool-headedness and toughness as much as the durability of their aircraft.
There are a few, however, who readily admit that their unlikely survival is owed, without a shadow of a doubt, entirely to their plane in which they flew. Such is the case for Robert S. Johnson.
Johnson was a fighter pilot in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during the Second World War. After completing his aviation training in 1942, he was assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, part of the 56th Fighter Group. In January 1943, this formation was deployed to England for operations in the European Theatre.
The fighter aircraft used by the 61st FS was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt was an unusually large fighter (nicknamed ‘the Jug’ due to the resemblance of its profile to a milk jug) that was something of a workhorse for the USAAF during the first years of its operations in Europe. It later became the mainstay of the USAAF in all theatres. The aircraft soon became renowned for its incredible durability. Such was the Thunderbolt’s ability to shrug off damage that one German fighter ace, Heinrich Bär, is recorded as stating the P-47 “could absorb an astounding amount of lead (bullets and cannon shells) and had to be handled very carefully.”
On June 26, 1943, that reputation for toughness was put to the ultimate test and Johnson was the unfortunate guineapig.
While escorting a formation of bombers returning from a bombing run against an airfield in France, Johnson and his squadmates were ambushed by 16 German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. These were fast, agile and heavily armed fighters that, together with the famous Messerschmitt Bf 109, formed the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force.
The Fw 190s took the Thunderbolts completely by surprise. Before he could react, Johnson’s P-47 was hammered by German fire. 20mm cannon shells, plane-killing projectiles, riddled the length of Johnson’s fuselage. The glass canopy above his head shattered, sending tiny shards flying into the cockpit. One shell even grazed Johnson’s nose. The instrument panel was destroyed and fire began to lick into the cockpit, which quickly filled with black smoke.
Johnson’s Thunderbolt was sent into a tailspin, plummeting uncontrollably towards the ground. Desperate to escape, Johnson attempted to open the canopy so he could bail out. Unfortunately for him, it opened just six inches before jamming. No amount physical effort on Johnson’s part could make it budge.
Still desperate to bail out, Johnson attempted to climb out through the shattered canopy, but his parachute snagged on the frame. Realisation quickly settled in. There would be no escaping the seemingly doomed aircraft. If he wanted to live, he would have to pilot the crippled Thunderbolt to safety.
Suddenly, the fire miraculously flamed out. But this gave Johnson little respite. One of the enemy shells had ripped through the hydraulic lines, sending fluid spraying into the cockpit. Johnson’s face was quickly doused and his eyes began to burn. Within moments, his eyes became badly swollen, leaving him half blind. Even if his eyes weren’t stinging, engine oil had sprayed onto the windscreen, forcing him to poke his head through the canopy every so often to see where he was going. This too was excruciating, as the icy wind flowed over his swollen eyes.
Through enormous physical effort, Johnson managed to right the still spinning fighter, levelling off. The extensive damage to the hydraulic systems left him with little ability to manoeuvre his battered P-47. All he could do was turn the nose in the direction of England and hope that the aircraft’s gradual descent was slow enough to carry him to the Channel at the very least. If he made it that far, Air-Sea Rescue would pick him up out of the water.
Just when it seemed that, with a bit of luck, the Thunderbolt might be able to carry Johnson to safety, he spotted a lone aircraft behind his plodding P-47. Initially, Johnson held a faint hope that it was a fellow American, but as the fighter drew close enough for his watery eyes to make out details, Johnson was quickly disabused of that notion.
It was a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, likely one of those who had ambushed Johnson’s squadron earlier. And it wasn’t just any German fighter. Johnson’s didn’t know it at the time, but that Fw 190 was piloted by Egon Mayer, a German fighter ace who would, by the time of his death in March 1944, have shot down 102 enemy aircraft.
Johnson was entirely at Mayer’s mercy. If his Thunderbolt was shot down, he would go down with it. He huddled into his seat, seeking refuge behind the inch-thick armour plate behind the pilot’s seat.
Mayer drew close. Very close. At a range of just 45 metres (50 yards), the German began pumping rounds into the helpless Thunderbolt. Bullets and cannon shells tore through the fuselage. Johnson jolted every time a shell thumped into the armour plate.
After several seconds of continuous fire, Johnson had had enough. He stomped on the rudder pedals, sending the P-47 swinging left and right. With his prey’s sudden loss of airspeed, Mayer overshot, flying over the Thunderbolt. In an angry but futile effort, Johnson squeezed the trigger of his flight stick, spraying rounds in the general direction of the German fighter, who casually peeled safely away.
Johnson was surprised when, instead of moving to continue the barrage, Mayer pulled up alongside the P-47, moving within a few feet of the crippled but somehow still flying Thunderbolt. As Johnson watched, Mayer scanned the length of the Thunderbolt before shaking his head in astonishment that the thing was still in the air. Making eye contact with Johnson, Mayer waved his hand before peeling away.
Johnson’s relief lasted only a few seconds before he realised the German was moving back into position behind him. Johnson huddled behind the armour plate once more and Mayer resumed pouring rounds into the shredded Thunderbolt.
Johnson endured several more seconds of punishment. Incredibly, the Thunderbolt was still in the air and showing no signs of going down.
As Mayer pulled up alongside for the second time, Johnson realised they had just reached the English Channel. Safety was only a few miles away. That is, if the German let him get that far.
Once again, Johnson watched as Mayer assessed the Thunderbolt, shaking his head in amazement. He waved once again at Johnson before wheeling away. Whatever relief Johnson might have felt was crushed when Mayer, for the third time, settled into the slot behind the American fighter.
This time the German went all in. Gently swinging the nose of his fighter, Mayer raked the stubborn Thunderbolt from wing-tip to wing-tip. Cannon shells and .30-calibre bullets punched through every part of the P-47. The entire airframe shuddered as it was pummelled with hot lead. For Johnson, it seemed an especially cruel fate: to be shot down so close to safety.
And then, silence.
For the third time, Mayer swung alongside the American fighter. Still shaking his head in wonder, the German observed the wreck of a P-47 Thunderbolt that was, in defiance of all logic, still flying. Seeing Johnson was watching him, the German rocked his wings in salute before peeling away. To Johnson’s eternal relief, this time Mayer was gone for good, heading back towards German airspace.
Though Johnson couldn’t have known it at the time, the reason for the sudden reprieve was not an unexpected show of mercy on the part of the German ace. In truth, Mayer had simply run out of ammunition.
Having miraculously survived a pummeling the likes of which no fighter aircraft had ever or would ever receive again and with safety within reach, Johnson now focused on nursing his indestructible Thunderbolt to an airfield.
With the help of Ground Control, Johnson guided his fighter to his home airfield at Manston, a feat that was itself worthy of admiration. In a dramatic and somewhat uncontrolled landing, given he had no flaps or brakes, Johnson somehow avoided careening into the aircraft parked by the runway. When he climbed out through the canopy, medics rushed to meet him. Upon seeing the state of him, they wanted to take him to the hospital immediately and for good reason.
In addition to the burns on his face, now starting to blister, and severely swollen, stinging eyes, Johnson’s nose had been nicked by a cannon shell. Slivers of lead from bullets and cannon shells were embedded deeply in both hands and two .30-calibre bullets had inflicted flesh wounds on his right thigh.
But if Johnson himself was in a bad way, it was nothing compared to his loyal steed.
He would later describe what remained of his aircraft as “a sieve”, with virtually every square foot punctured with holes. Three 20mm cannon shells had hammered into the armour plate, barely an inch from Johnson’s head. The metal behind the cockpit was twisted, jamming the canopy and trapping Johnson inside. Even the propellor had five holes in it.
Johnson initially tried to count the number of bullet holes but gave up after the tally passed 200 – without even moving around the plane.
Needless to say, this particular Thunderbolt was beyond repair. Still, it had done its job better than anyone could have possibly expected, enduring a torrent of enemy lead with mystifying stubbornness and carrying its pilot home against all odds.
As for Robert S. Johnson, he would return to flight duties just five days later. By the end of the war, he will have accrued 27 aerial victories, making him a flying ace five times over and the second most successful American fighter pilot in the European Theatre.
The memories of his ordeal of June 26, 1943, would remain. The feeling of terror and the grip of despair, the heat of the flames and the horrible sting of his eyes, the roar of cannons and the screech of metal as it tore and deformed. All of it would remain with Johnson, in vivid, sickening detail, for the rest of his life.
He would never forget the day that Death, in the form of a relentless German ace, came for him and the rugged, wounded, unkillable P-47 Thunderbolt that gave him the chance to live another day.
- Johnson, Robert S., Caidin, Martin, Thunderbolt! The P-47, iBooks, 2011.
- Caldwell, Donald, JG 26 War Diary – Volume 2, 1943-45, Grub Street Ltd, 1998.
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