Albion Central Schools Veterans History Project
Leighton "Slim" Johnston
LEIGHTON "SLIM" JOHNSTON: BIOGRAPHICAL & MILITARY SERVICE INFORMATION
- Birthplace: Dansville, New York
- Place of Residence*: Albion, New York
*at time of interview
- Wars of Service: World War II
- Branch of Service: Army Air Corps
- Reserves: Air Force
- Unit/Division/Regiment/Ship: 307th Bomber Group
- Date of Birth: March 17, 1919
- Method of Induction: Enlisted
- Service Dates: 11/42-11/45, Reservist until 3/17/45
- Place of Service: Pacific Theater
Mr. Johnston (“Slim” to his family and friends, which include most of the town of Albion) joined the military for two main reasons: his desire to get a good education and his lifelong interest in flying. Oddly enough, he almost joined the Navy instead of the Army Air Corps when he and a friend tried to enlist in the military together. First they tried to join the Air Corps together…Mr. Johnston was accepted, but his friend couldn’t get in, so the two turned to the Navy. But this time, Mr. Johnson’s friend was accepted and it was Mr. Johnston who couldn’t get in. Since they both couldn’t join the same branch together, Mr. Johnston decided to follow his passion for flying and join the Army Air Corps on his own and his friend returned home to wait to be drafted.
For basic training, Mr. Johnston was sent to Atlantic City, New Jersey, a famous tourist spot. The Army took over a few luxury hotels for the recruits to stay in. The soldiers marched and practiced maneuvers in various places around Atlantic City, including on the famous Atlantic City boardwalk, a raised wooden “street” that runs along the shops and restaurants on the beach.
Mr. Johnston’s air unit was involved in numerous battles and areas of conflict in the Pacific region. Sometimes, due to the need to keep missions secret, he and his crew weren’t even allowed to know where they were going until after their plane had taken off! Only after they had been flying over the ocean for a few hours could they unseal and open their orders to see what their mission was. Mr. Johnston won many medals, ribbons, and citations for his contribution to the war effort. On several of the ribbons, he also earned clusters (little stars), which showed how many years he served.
Arial photos taken from Mr. Johnston's plane during World War II
By strange coincidence, one of the bombing missions Mr. Johnston flew was to help rescue another Albion resident, Bill Larimer, in the Philippines. Larimer and about 75,000 other soldiers had been captured by the Japanese and forced to march from Bataan to a prisoner camp over 100 miles away. The forced march, now known as the Bataan Death March, was extremely difficult and brutal, and around 20,000 of the captured soldiers died or were executed along the way. Later in the war, Mr. Johnston’s crew helped bomb Japanese strongholds near the prison camp, which weakened their hold on the area and made it possible for American ground forces to drive away the Japanese and free the prisoners.
None of Mr. Johnston’s planes were ever shot down, but one did crash into the ocean because it was overloaded and too heavy. On that mission, Mr. Johnston’s plane only carried one bomb, but it was also loaded with 3 full tanks of gasoline and an extra passenger---an aerial photographer who brought along several pounds of extra equipment. Tragically, the plane, which headed out at night, crashed into the ocean and only 7 out of the 11 men onboard survived.
The remaining crew members of Mr. Johnston's plane did a lot of filling in on other planes after their crash, or men from other planes were added to Mr. Johnston's crew from time to time. Mr. Johnston’s co-pilot became a pilot himself and was transferred to another plane. While flying a mission with a different crew, Mr. Johnston’s bombardier was struck with shrapnel and was put in the hospital near the base airfield for a while. (Being so close to the airfield worried Mr. Johnston’s bombardier because he felt it made him more likely to be hit if the Japanese attacked…although usually the hospital was better defended than the soldiers' tents, since the U.S. put more anti-aircraft guns near the airfield to protect it. Mr. Johnston's bombardier had good reason to worry, though...during one air raid attack, his only protection was the tent he was in and another thin cot that was put over the top of him!)
Most of the time he was in the Pacific area, Mr. Johnston lived in tents on islands. To build a landing strip for the planes, the Army had to first bulldoze an area and clear it of coconut trees. Throughout the rest of the camp, however, coconut trees still grew, and natives would climb these to pick the coconuts for local plantation farms. The soldiers who had to live among these trees were told to wear helmet liners at all times to protect themselves from falling coconuts. (Mr. Johnston recalls that one man, who didn’t wear his helmet, was actually hit and killed by a falling coconut!)
Photos of Mr. Johnston and the island on which he was stationed during World War II
Between missions, Mr. Johnston had time to write home and, occasionally, to enjoy the entertainment the Army provided. At night, his base would often show movies on a big screen (although movies would not be shown if the unit was in an area that might be attacked…since the bright screen could provide a beacon/target for enemy planes). On a couple of occasions, the U.S.O. (United Service Organization) put on shows for the troops. These shows included comedy routines, singing acts, and other skits to boost the soldiers’ morale.
For troops who had put in enough time, they might be given passes to Sydney, the largest city in Australia, for a few weeks rest and relaxation. Mr. Johnston enjoyed going there and visiting their zoo to see animals from that part of the world.
Mr. Johnston also remembers that, because of a gas shortage, busses in Australia had to run on something other than gasoline….so busses were powered by giant bags that were attached to the tops of these busses (filled with something other than gasoline…possibly propane or another type of fuel).
Towards the end of World War II, in 1945, Mr. Johnston had earned enough “points” (credits for the missions he flew) to get out of the military, but chose to stay in and continue serving. He was sent back to the United States and was stationed in Houston, Texas when the war ended. He recalls all kinds of celebration when news that the war was over reached the city---bands played and people ran into the streets shouting. In November of 1945, Mr. Johnston ended his active service, but still remained part of the Army Air Corps reserves (a group that could be called up in times of emergency). He continued to be a reservist even when, several years after the war, the Army Air Corps became the Air Force, a new, separate branch of the service.
After the war was over, Mr. Johnston received money from the national government through a program called the G.I. Bill, which paid for him to go to college. At the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mr. Johnston trained to become a Weather Officer, so that, if he was ever called back to active duty but couldn’t return as a pilot, he could still serve his country. (*Click here to read about some of the work Mr. Johnston did as a Reservist Weather Officer.) Mr. Johnston is still thankful to the Army for helping to pay for his education after the war, and considers this to be one of the best things the military did for him.