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News From The Past

November 15, 1997

General Leon William Johnson, 93; Dies
Aviator Won Medal of Honor

By Wolfgang Saxon


General Leon William Johnson of the Air Force, who won the Medal of Honor for leading a daring low-level raid in the all-out air assault that throttled enemy fuel supplies from Romania's vast oil fields in 1943, died Nov. 10, 1997 at the Belvoir Woods health care center in Fairfax, Va. He was 93 and lived in McLean. 

The target of the engagement, one of the most momentous of World War II, was the refineries and a forest of oil rigs around Ploesti, center of the Romanian petroleum industry. Churchill called it "the taproot of German mechanized power." 

On Aug. 3, 1943, Colonel Johnson led the final bomber group that went in below 100 feet to deliver the death blow. Of the six planes in that formation, his was the only one to limp back to base in Libya, blackened and riddled with bullet holes. 

Ploesti was a logical target for the Allies, and its defenses had been bolstered accordingly. The raid was one of the costliest aerial encounters. On that day, some 50 Axis planes, mostly German fighters, were shot down, along with 20 B-24 Liberators from the 9th Air Force; more U.S. bombers ended up crashing or making emergency landings in enemy or neutral territory.  

At the time, Romania, under the dictator Ion Antonescu, was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union. There were 13 refineries around Ploesti, 35 miles north-northwest of Bucharest, including Europe's largest, the Romano complex formerly run by Standard Oil of New Jersey. 

The raids got under way in earnest in April of 1943. Johnson was on loan from the 8th Air Force in England to join the 2,000 men training in North Africa for the 2,400-mile round trip to Romania. They made their practice runs against a "ghost" Ploesti built in the Libyan desert.  

"It was more like an artist's conception of an air battle than anything I ever thought could be," Johnson said. 

His unit was among those that missed the target on the first run. Johnson became separated from the main force, temporarily lost over cloud-covered mountain tops. When he reached his particular target, a big refinery, parts of it were already ablaze. 

He headed his group into a mass of flames and explosions to drop bombs for the finish. Only he and his own crew survived. 

Johnson, who was born in Columbia, Mo., spent more than four decades in uniform. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1926. He later received a master's degree in meteorology from the California Institute of Technology. 

He transferred to the Army Air Corps after three years in the infantry and was among the first flying officers of the 8th Air Force and an assistant chief of staff for that command during its early days in Savannah, Ga. He went with the 8th to England in June 1942 and assumed command of its 44th Bomb Group the next year. 

His group was attached to the 9th Air Force in Africa specifically to assist in the assault on Ploesti. After returning to England, following the raid and receiving his medal, he was promoted to brigadier general and organized the 14th Combat Wing, heading it until V-E Day. 

Postwar assignments included Washington and Colorado Springs, where he served as commanding general of the 15th Air Force, a unit of the Strategic Air Command. Once more in Britain he organized the 3rd Air Force, which was a mainstay of the Berlin air lift. 

Later postings took him to the Continental Air Command, the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations, NATO and the Supreme Allied Command in Europe. He retired in 1961 but was recalled to active duty to direct a military evaluation panel of the National Security Council. 

He was promoted to four-star rank in August 1957. 

After leaving the service in 1965 Johnson worked as a consultant. A golfer and gardening enthusiast, he was a past president of the National Capitol Dahlia Society. 

His wife, Lucille Taylor Johnson, died in 1983 after 54 years of marriage. Survivors include two daughters, Sue Vandenberg of Tucson, Ariz., and Sarah Abbott of Pensacola., Fla.

1997, by The New York Times


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