Robert S. Johnson was the first American Ace to exceed Eddie Rickenbacker’s World War I total of 27 aircraft destroyed, and was the second-highest scoring American ace in the European Theater during World War II. Johnson grew up in Lawton Oklahoma, then home of the US Army’s Post Field. At age 8, after watching an aerial display featuring the Army Air Service’s Three Musketeers aerial demonstration team, he decided he would be an Army pilot. At age 12, he got his first flight–one of 15 minutes over his hometown in a Ford Tri-Motor. To finance flying lessons at the local municipal airport, Johnson worked in a local cabinet shop for $4.00 a week. He flew every Sunday morning and by his sixteenth birthday, he had accumulated a whopping 35 hours, most of it in a Wiley Post biplane at the cost of $1.50 for each 15 minutes.
While attending Cameron Junior College, Johnson joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). In 1941, Johnson enlisted in the Air Corps cadet program and joined class 42F at Kelly Field, Texas. Feeling new urgency after the Japanese attack on Hawaii, Johnson attended Primary Flight Training in Sikeston, Missouri, where he flew the Fairchild PT-19 and PT-13. While there he secretly married his sweetheart from Lawton, Barbara Morgan, on his twenty-second birthday. Shortly after his marriage, Johnson then reported to Randolph Field, Texas, for Basic Flight Training in the North American BT-9 Yale. Although he always wanted to fly fighters, one of his instructors guided him to bombers, so that he could keep flying commercially after the war. Returning to Kelly Field to fly the North American BC-1 and AT-6, Johnson received his wings on 3 July 1942.
He requested to fly A-20 attack bombers, but was sent to the 61st Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, then based at Bridgeport Municipal Airport in Stratford, Connecticut. He was to fly the hot new Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. On 6 January 1943, the group went to England on the ship Queen Elizabeth. Johnson shared a room designed for two people with 13 other officers. At their new base, Johnson flew one combat mission before it was discovered that he had never officially qualified for fighters. He had never even fired machine guns in training. He was sent to gunnery school, where he failed to achieve the required percentage of “hits,” and thus did not qualify as a combat fighter pilot. However, due to fighter pilot shortages he was returned to the 61st Squadron “Avengers.” As a member of the 56th Fighter Group, Johnson flew as a neophyte wingman for Francis “Gabby” Gabreski and was “voted” by his commanders most likely to be shot down.
With time, he became fearless and determined, and set a goal to “even the score” for every friend lost to the Luftwaffe. But Johnson never lost a wingman, even though he was wounded himself. He ultimately downed 28 enemy aircraft, including 24 fighters. He credited this to boyhood practice at shooting rabbits and woodchucks with a .22 rifle. Rejecting doctrine, Johnson allowed the first member of his flight to see the enemy to lead the attack. As a result, he and his three wingmen were the highest scoring flight in the US Army Air Force. General “Tooey” Spaatz recognized Johnson’s skill by sending him a bottle of scotch, which he still has. Johnson left the active military after the war to work for Republic Aviation, but he remained in the Reserves. He also served as President of the Air Force Association in the late 1940’s.