Flying aerobatics with a barnstormer convinced Jerry Johnson he was going to be a pilot. To attain his goal, he joined the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College. In 1941, however, Johnson left college early to enter the Aviation Cadet program. In April 1942, he earned his wings and a commission. His first assignment was to the 56th Fighter Group at Stratford, Connecticut. Johnson checked out in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and soon shipped out with his unit to England. He flew his first combat mission in April 1943.
It was his first and last as a wingman! Flying mates labeled the young Kentuckian the Flying Daniel Boone due to his keen eyesight and natural combat sense. He destroyed his first enemy aircraft on 26 June 1943 and 54 days later became the first ace of the 56th Fighter Group, and only the second American ace in the European Theater! Johnson's victories continued to mount during 1943 and 1944 and he became a triple ace, but, in late March, was shot down by ground fire during a strafing attack on a train. He would spend the rest of the war in Germany as a prisoner in Stalag Luft I. After the war, Johnson got a chance to attend the Army Command and Staff College.
It set him on the path to a military career, which took him back to his old Group as Commander of the 62nd Fighter Squadron. Soon, he was flying the North American P-51 Mustang. In 1950, at Boston University, Johnson completed his degree, compressing two years study into only 16 months! He next transitioned to the Republic F-84 Thunderjet in 1951 as Director of Operations for the 31st Fighter Wing at Turner AFB, Georgia. During six years there, he would command a strategic fighter wing and finally the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, the first unit to operate the Lockheed U-2. Next, Johnson checked out in the Boeing B-47 Stratojet and then tackled several staff tours from 1957 to 1962.
After graduation from the National War College in 1963, and a short detour to Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, he checked out in both the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and the KC-135 Stratotanker, and then took command of the 95th Bombardment Wing (BW) at Biggs AFB, Texas. In 1965, Johnson earned his first star while flying the supersonic Convair B-58 Hustler as Commander of the 305th BW at Bunker Hill AFB, Indiana. His career in Strategic Air Command continued to advance until, Johnson finally took command of Eighth Air Force at Anderson AFB, Guam. In 1972, he directed bombardment campaigns, Linebacker I, and Linebacker II, against military targets in North Vietnam. Lieutenant General Johnson completed 33 years of service as Inspector General of the Air Force.
Peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris stagnated and then finally broke down in October 1972. President Nixon ordered an intensive bombing campaign against North Vietnam to begin on 18 December to break the deadlock. Operation Linebacker II struck from the mailed fist of Lieutenant General Johnson's Eighth Air Force. Boeing B-52s conducted a relentless pounding of military targets around Hanoi and other cities in an 11-day War. Fifteen thousand tons of bombs led to renewed talks, and ultimately, release of American prisoners of war!