Albion Central School Veterans History Project – Interview Transcript
Interviewee: Leighton H. Johnston Interviewer: Peter Lusk
Place of Birth: Dansville, New York Date of Interview: June 6, 2004
Date of Birth: March 17, 1919
Place of Residence: Albion, New York
War(s) in which Interviewee Served: World War II
Branch of Service or Wartime Activity: Air Corps, Air Force Reserves
Battalion, Regiment, Division, Unit, Ship, etc.: 307th Bomb Group
Method of Induction: Enlisted
Service Dates: Sworn in-November 1942; began active duty-February 1943; discharged-November 1945; served in reserves until March 17, 1979
Location of Military or civilian service: Pacific Theater
Other information: Highest rank: Major
Johnston: I’m Leighton H. Johnston, retired Air Force reserves, rank of major. I live at 17 Meadowbrook Drive, Albion, New York. Do you need phone numbers?
Lusk: Give your phone number, please.
Johnston: My phone number is (585) 589-9023.
Lusk: All right, Mr. Johnston, if you could, could you tell us why you enlisted, or were you drafted?
Johnston: This…we’re going back to pre-World War II times. And I always wanted to fly. And not having financial background to be able to go to college at the time I was ready to, I figured the best way I could get an education was to go into the service. And I could also learn to fly, provided I could meet all the requirements. When I got to the point where they needed the pilots, and I was able to qualify for training, I was accepted and ultimately became a pilot.
Lusk: Where were you living at the time you decided to go into the service?
Johnston: I was living in Dansville, New York.
Lusk: Any particular reason you chose the Air Force? Because you liked to fly, right?
Johnston: Well, I could get in it, yeah. I liked to fly, too. I can give you a little short story about this. Another friend of mine, the two of us went together into Rochester, to the recruiting offices, and we’d go into the service together. So we went to the Air Force, and for some reason he couldn’t get accepted in the Air Force at that time and I could. And we went to the Navy and I couldn’t get in the Navy and he could. For what reasons I don’t know, except that I didn’t have enough teeth to get into the navy. I had a couple of teeth that were missing.
Lusk: Oh, okay.
Johnston: So that was the story on that. So we went back home and I said, “well, I’m going to go in the Air Force.” He said, “I’m going to wait for the draft.” And it turned out that we both left about the same time, went different ways…he was drafted, and we both came home almost the same time, three years later. Kind of a strange little story.
Lusk: Turned out good. What was it like in Boot Camp?
Johnston: Boot Camp. I was sent to Atlantic City in February of 1943…quite cold. And there were luxury hotels that they had taken over for basic training for Air Force people and…it was Army at that time, Army Air Force. We were right on the beach in these big old hotels. They had taken all the carpets out of them and everything. And we did everything walking. Atlantic City is noted for its boardwalk and we did a lot of training, marching along the boardwalk. There was an area near there, a few miles away, called Brigantine Field, and we went there also to train, like for maneuvers out in the field. And also to get us whipped into physical shape to go on with further training. So what’s next on the docket there?
Lusk: Where were you assigned and what was your job when you were there?
Johnston: Well, it took from February until June, and we went back to what they called college training detachments to pick up additional college training that we lacked, when I had a minimum amount of training education wise, so we had to go pick up extra. And from there, we went to a classification center and all that sort of thing to see what we were qualified to be. Pilot, navigator, bombardier, or something else. And after all this training and tests and so forth, we finally went through the selection process and I happened to wind up being selected for pilot training.
Lusk: Okay. Did you see any combat?
Johnston: Our pilot training went from single-engine to twin-engine to four-engine. And I was trained to be aircraft commander on a B-24. And had assigned crew members of a co-pilot, a bombardier, a navigator, and six enlisted men. And these people were involved with the gunnery and the other parts of the flights that we were on. And once we got a full crew, we trained as a crew for another 2 or 3 months and then we were shipped overseas and we wound up going to the South Pacific.
Lusk: Were there any casualties in your unit on your plane?
Johnston: Well, from actual gunfire, no. But actual casualties, they had a mission where we were heavily loaded; we had three bomb bay tanks full of gas and only one bomb to carry. We were going to be gone for 18 hours and we’d taken off at night with this load and the aircraft wouldn’t make it out and we crashed in the ocean. And 7 out of 11 of us survived. The 11th person being an aerial photographer, which helped make it that much heavier a load, with all of the equipment and everything. So that was kind of a sad situation. One of the men was severely injured, more severely than the rest of us, wound up being shipped back to the United States and wound up a year in the hospital back in the States before he got back out into civilian life, I guess. And we had kept contact over the years and he just died this past spring. So that fella’s gone, now.
Well, I think we’re down to two survivors out of 11 that I know of on that plane. You know, age gets to them.
Lusk: Yeah, that’s true. Did you get any medals of citations while you were in the war?
Johnston: Well, yeah, we got air medals and so … I hesitate to try to tell you what they all were. There were a few ribbons with extra stars on them. One for being in the area where the combat was and…oh, we got medals for various things. I’m not trying to brag about them or anything, that’s what they were. After so many hours overseas and so many missions, you got an air medal and so many more hours of it you got what they call a cluster on it, which was a little star on it. Then we got a unit citation because our outfit was involved in some major battles. And we got a citation for being in the South Pacific Theater and various battles that were on where we went. And our bombing missions.
Lusk: How did you stay in touch with your family?
Johnston: Pardon me?
Lusk: How did you stay in touch with your family when you were over there?
Johnston: Writing. Correspondence.
Johnston: That’s all, yeah. We didn’t have the electronics that we got today.
Lusk: That’s true. Any…like, how was the food like and how much was it in supply?
Johnston: Always had enough to eat. May crab a little bit about how it might have been prepared, but I had no complaints. I had enough and I was…had enough of a variety…it worked out all right. I never was one to crab about it like that.
Lusk: Right. Was there a lot of pressure and stress when you were over there? Obviously there was some, but…?
Johnston: Well…of course, you’re worried about where you’re going and getting back and so forth. But we were all involved in it, so it was common….a common thing.
Lusk: Did you do anything for good luck, before you went out on a mission? Any…?
Johnston: Prayed a lot.
Lusk: Prayed a lot? I do that a lot myself [chuckling]. Were you ever entertained over there…U.S.O. or anything like that?
Johnston: Yeah, we had U.S.O. entertainment…came by a couple occasions. We always had movies. They had a big screen set up where we were and we saw the movies right after nightfall. Unless we were in an area where we were prone to be attacked at night, so we wouldn’t have any lights on, of course.
Johnston: Yeah, we had entertainment. And we, after so many missions, we had an opportunity to go to Sydney, Australia on rest leave. And I think I had about 19 days of that before they had transportation back. So that was entertainment, too, you might say.
Lusk: Any special memories from when you were in Sydney, or just?
Johnston: Any what?
Lusk: Special memories, or anything that stood out when you were there?
Johnston: Oh, yeah. In Sydney, one of the big things that we enjoyed was going to the zoo and seeing the different kinds of animals that they had from that part of the world. We went on a ferry boat on ocean…open ocean travel to a place called Bondi Beach, which was quite a notorious beach in its day, and I guess it still is. And in those days, I think they were even practicing nude bathing about that time…I don’t remember seeing any of them, but I think it happened. I think it’s a common thing out there now. But it was quite a beach, and it was interesting to see. And, of course, it was interesting to see the city of Sydney, Australia and all their buildings and so forth. And experience the fact that they drove on the left-hand side of the road and their cars were built that way. They had a shortage of fuel, same as everybody during World War II, so they had busses that had a big bag on the top of them, and it was full of gas. And they operated from that type of gas. The engines ran on that. So it might not…I don’t know if it was propane, but it was something similar to propane, probably.
Lusk: I never heard of that before. That’s something. Did you ever pull any pranks with your buddies while you were there?
Johnston: Oh, I suppose we did….I don’t know, I can’t…don’t recall right at the moment.
Lusk: Did you get any pictures? When you came back, did you have any pictures from overseas? Of your buddies?
Johnston: [Referring to a picture in his home:] That’s four of the officers that survived the crash.
Lusk: Oh, okay.
Johnston: That’s myself on the left, my co-pilot, my navigator, and my bombardier. And you can see the tents in the background that we lived in.
[Both talking at once, unclear.]
Lusk: That was on, like, the base where you were stationed?
Johnston: Yeah, it was on an island, and actually, those trees are coconut trees and the Dutch people had plantations, coconut plantations, there. Trees all in a row. And when we took over, we bulldozed a row of trees out so you’d have a company street and then we put tents in between the coconut trees. And the coconuts were still hanging up there.
Lusk: Oh, yeah?
Johnston: And the natives around there would climb those trees and pick coconuts, I guess, for the plantation owners when they harvested them, but there was nobody harvesting them while we were there except when they were falling off. And while we were in the area, we were supposed to wear what we called our helmet liners to protect our heads in case a coconut fell on us.
Lusk: Oh, yeah?
Johnston: And one man, while we were there, did have a coconut fall on him and it killed him.
Johnston: Yup. And…they’re pretty big, heavy things. And that’s pretty high, so they get a pretty good start coming down.
Lusk: Did you ever eat coconut while you were there.
Johnston: We at coconuts, yeah, we ate coconuts. And it’s quite a job to shuck a coconut, to get down to the basic nut. And then after you get to that, you ream out a hole and you get the juice out of it. And you can take that juice and ferment it and you get an alcoholic drink.
Lusk: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Johnston: And that’s quite rich with sugar and so forth, and you open up a coconut, break them open, and the meat is probably, oh, up to a third of an inch thick, maybe, and you break that out of there and eat it. Good pastimes (?) [unclear, coughs] Excuse me.
Lusk: Were you really close with your co-pilot and your buddies?
Johnston: We kept contact over the years. My co-pilot had an opportunity to get checked off as first pilot after he had so many missions. My bombardier had problems. After we didn’t have a full crew anymore, we used to fill in on other crews, and other crews would fill in on what was left of ours, sometimes. And my co-pilot…[corrects self] or my bombardier was off on another mission, another airplane when he was struck by flak by Japanese artillery…hit him in the shoulder, cut him up pretty good. They brought him back and got him in the hospital, which was another group of tents. Finally, he called me…of course, I went to see him routinely…every day if I could. And he, Gerry [Ostfield], says, “Slim [interviewee’s nickname], get me out of here.” He didn’t like it because he was right near the airfield and…where we were out six miles down the strip away from it. And, what they do is, they had an air-raid while they were in the hospital…he’s in a cot, they put another cot on top of him to keep any shrapnel from hitting him. He didn’t think that was too great a protection [chuckling]. Well, anyway, that’s what that was, too.
Lusk: Did you keep a diary when you were over there?
Johnston: Did I keep a diary as such, no.
Lusk: No. Do you remember when your service was over?
Johnston: Do I remember when it was over?
Lusk: Yeah, like the day it ended, or where you were…stuff like that?
Johnston: Well, I was back in the States when the war was over. We had so many missions in and certain things that came up, and of course I was having a tough time not having a full crew and so forth. We finally got sent back to the States. My bombardier got sent back first. I don’t remember what order the rest of us went, but we were qualified to get shipped home. And the war wasn’t over with, yet. And when we got home, we found out we could…had enough points to get out of the service, because the war was running down at that point. I chose to stay in for a while. And then I went out of active duty in November of 1945 and then I chose to stay in the Air Force reserves, the Army Air Corps reserves at that time. And that has since changed from the Army to the Air Force as a department of its own in later years.
Lusk: Did you remember doing anything special the day the war ended? Celebrating or …?
Johnston: Well, I was in Houston, Texas and when the war was declared over, it was quite an experience. People were in the streets, yelling, hollering. Bands playing, all kinds of things going on all through the night, I guess. And I remember going back to my quarters, I stopped at a diner to get something to eat, as many of us were, and I saw…a guy came in, an enlisted man, and hauled off and punched an officer. He said, “I’ve been waiting for the war to get over to do this.” I’ll tell you, the people jumped all over him for that and I know, he must have had a bad time somewhere and he was going to get things evened out.
Lusk: When you got out of the service, did you go back to school or did you go to work?
Johnston: I…both. I went back to work and finally I went back to the University of Buffalo for three semesters and from there I went to Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a year and I got a Weather Officer rating, as well as pilot rating. So if I was to be called back to active duty, if I was too old to fly, I could go as a Weather Officer. And I never did get called back to active duty, except for two-week tours and things like that. But they didn’t…it turned out that they apparently had enough Weather Officers, and except for a major crisis, they didn’t need me. So I stayed 20-some years, until 1966, I stayed in the Air Force Reserves. When I hit 60 years old, I retired.
Lusk: Was your education supported by the G.I. Bill or did you pay for it yourself?
Johnston: The education was under the G.I. Bill, which was good. You got a stipend every month. And it wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough so we were able to live and study and they provided books for us. I think that’s one of the best things that ever happened out of the military. People complain, well, they don’t do anything for you, but I think they did plenty…as far as I’m concerned. You should take advantage of those things, so I’ve never regretted it.
Lusk: When did you join the Legion?
Johnston: I had friends and neighbors in Dansville, when I came out of active duty and they were…encouraged me to join the American Legion and I did, at that time, in 1946…first year. So I’ve been a member of the American Legion since 1946.
Lusk: Anybody have similar stories there that you have or did you meet anybody there that was close to you and you didn’t know?
Johnston: In the Legion?
Lusk: Yeah. Like, they were stationed in the same area and you didn’t know them at the time?
Johnston: Well, they would have similar things, similar duties, if they went to the same area. I mean, you had common things you could talk about. Well, maybe you didn’t know them at the time, or things like that, or you didn’t have any contact with them, but you could relate to what was going on. They were at this point, you were at this point, and you were understanding what was happening between you. You know what I mean?
Johnston: I guess.
Lusk: After you served, did it change your opinion of the military? Did you think more of it, or less of it?
Johnston: No, I’d say it was an opportunity for entering to do. It seems almost to me that everyone should have a little bit of military training somewhere, in my mind, how much depending on what their needs are. Learn to have some discipline, learn some responsibilities. Also, it protects your own country. If things come about that they need manpower, it’s best that they have some background, some training for it, to begin with, I would think. And a little more that you could pick up that may be needed. Of course, listen to me talking...at my age, I’m not going to be getting called…
Lusk: [Laughs] Did you…what activities do you participate in at the Legion?
Johnston: What was that?
Lusk: What activities do you participate in at the Legion?
Johnston: Well, many little things, but one major thing…they have what they call the Graves Registration Committee. And the fella who had been doing that job, had a heart-attack and died. And no one had understudied the job, I guess, in that particular time area. And I was encouraged to see if I would be interested in taking over the job. And so, along with a couple of other people over the years, I was more or less the head of that committee for 20-some years, and learned what needed to be done as far as getting markers out for the veterans and getting a flag on them every year, and that sort of thing. So that’s what that involved and that was a major project as far as I was concerned. And that’s what I, personally, was most involved in.
Lusk: Did you attend any reunions from your unit?
Johnston: Our unit reunions? Oh, yes. They still hold reunions every two years, they have been. And its getting pretty thin when you stop and think about it. Anybody who was a veteran from World War II is going to be a minimum of 76 or 77 years old, right now. That’s the youngest of them. But a lot of them are much older. But they’re picking up families that have been involved with these reunions, like what we called the 307th Bomb Group that I was in overseas. We were able to roster four or five hundred people that are trying to come out to a reunion every two years. But of those people, they were sons, daughters, friends, even, that got involved. And they’ve maintained these reunions over these years. It’s been very interesting…they get together once in…somewhere where they have good hotel facilities and interesting things to see. Major cities in the country like St. Louis, San Antonio, Las Vegas, and all over. We’ve been different places.
Lusk: How did the service affect your life? Like, in just everyday life?
Johnston: Well, I don’t know how to explain that, except that I was born and brought up on a farm. But prior to going into the service, I had already started to work in an automobile agency as a parts manager and mechanic. So I had some start. After the war, I got involved…I took over a gasoline station. And that was my primary occupation for a while. And I still have an interest in flying. And I did a little “fair-weather flying,” I guess you’d call it, ferrying an airplane here, there, somebody needed to go. A friend of mine decided to start a crop-dusting business and he bought three airplanes, war surplus, out in Missouri. And he and I and another friend of ours, took a train out to [Cape Girardeau/Harris Field], Missouri, picked up these airplanes, checked them out, flew them back to Dansville and he modified one for crop dusting. From there, he got his crop dusting business growing.
Lusk: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experiences in the war?
Johnston: My experiences in the war? There’s a lot of things I could tell you, but they could be tall stories at this time because I’ve probably forgotten some of the details. But there were highlights, places we went, things we did. Bill Larimer, who was a Justice of the Peace here that recently died, who was a prisoner in Bataan or Corregidor, I forget just which one was which…but I was in a bombing mission that bombed the area to knock out the Japanese strengths so we could get those people back out. Get them out from being prisoners. Bill Larimer was a prisoner there at the time. So we had that to talk about…had that in common. He was the prisoner, but we were trying to get him out, you know. But that was quite something for me…you think about a little farmer, never been past Buffalo, I guess, at the time I went into the service, flying all over the South Pacific between islands, which are common knowledge today. But the first island we were assigned to, our whole crew and anybody else who was with us didn’t even know where it was…a place in New Guinea called Lae…L-A-E…and that’s all…one of the words you’ll find in crossword puzzles, today. Lae. And right next to it was Nabzad where we had our areas where we went until we got assigned to an air force. So that was a new one…Nabzad…where the hell is Nabzad? [Laughter] But we didn’t know where we were going until we were in the airplanes. And a couple of hours out over the ocean, heading for Hawaii, before we could look and see where our orders were sending us, which was kind of unusual, I thought.
Lusk: Did you make friends with any of the natives, or did you meet any of the natives while you were there?
Johnston: I wouldn’t say as friends, no. We saw natives, going to the area, they…it would be pretty tough to communicate with them, what little we saw of them. And they weren’t supposed to be there, anyway, where we were, because who knew when they were a native or when they were somebody spying, what was going on. We didn’t have much contact with natives, as such.
Lusk: Thank you for your time, Mr. Johnston. It was great and a lot of good stuff there. And I’m sure there’s people all around here that have the same stories but…it’s just great to hear them because there’s stuff that we need to know.
Johnston: Well, like I said, there’s a lot of tales to be told. But to someone who hasn’t seen the background of it all, how things could happen… I mean, just to tell the stories doesn’t mean anything unless can understand what the background of it was, you know.
Johnston: But as I say, we were involved in this crash and that sort of thing….that was pretty much a low point in our career, when you think about it. Pretty sad….still is, actually. But other things that we did…we were basically, you were getting to get the Japanese Aerodromes and their airplanes. And my personal thing was that I was grateful to be in the position where I was where you didn’t have to face that you were killing somebody. You were killing their means to fight back. So we could take over those islands and move back in. That’s…like I tell you, we were after airplanes and runways and things like that…..basically.