General Leon Johnson, who received the Medal of Honor for his action during the famed Ploesti raid, is one of America's most highly acclaimed air combat leaders of World War II. A West Point graduate, he was commissioned into the Infantry in 1926. Deciding "things looked more interesting from the air," he transferred to the Army Air Corps in 1929 and entered pilot training. After flying observation aircraft for 5 years, Lieutenant Johnson gave up his temporary rank of captain to study meteorology at Cal Tech. He then served as a weather officer at Barksdale Field until 1939, when he returned to the cockpit to fly bombers at Savannah, Georgia. Shortly after America entered the war, he was one of four pilots who activated Eighth Air Force and, in June 1942, traveled with this newly formed unit to England.
Six months later, Colonel Johnson assumed command of the 44th Bomb Group, then flying B-24D Liberator bombers. In July 1943 he led his group, known as "The Flying Eightballs," to North Africa in preparation for Operation Tidal Wave--a 2,400-mile mission to attack the Ploesti oil installation in Romania. As a result of this daring low level raid, Ploesti ceased to exist as "the tap root of German mechanized power." Following the raid, Johnson was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the 14th Combat Bombardment Wing in England, a position he held until the end of the war.
After the war, he organized and commanded the 3rd Air Division in England, which helped maintain the transport aircraft used in the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. General Johnson took charge of Continental Air Command in 1952 and was promoted to lieutenant general the next year. Following this tour, he held a United Nations' post, pinned on his fourth star in 1957, and then became the Deputy for Air to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. His last active duty assignment was with the National Security Council. General Johnson retired in 1965.
On 1 August 1943, 178 aircraft and nearly 1,800 men from five bomb groups departed their airfields in North Africa to attack the vast Ploesti oil refinery in two waves. From the co-pilot's seat of a B-24D named Suzy-Q , Colonel Leon Johnson led the 44th Bomb Group in the second wave. After being delayed 20 minutes by enroute weather, his group arrived over the Initial Point to find their assigned objective had been bombed in error by another group. Despite having lost the critical element of surprise, and with an inferno of burning oil tanks and a wall of flak in front of them, Colonel Johnson led his bombers to attack the installation. As a result of the hazards and heavy defenses, the 44th lost two-thirds of its original 37 aircraft launched, and almost one-third of the entire strike force failed to return. Of the five men awarded the Medal of Honor for this raid, Leon Johnson was one of only two recipients to return from Ploesti.