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Aces of Aviation

Consolidated B-24D Liberator of Leon W. Johnson

Consolidated B-24D Liberator of Leon W. Johnson

Consolidated B-24D Liberator copiloted by Colonel Leon W. Johnson, commander of the 44th Bomber Group of the USAAF (United States Army Air Forces), during the bombings in Ploiesti, the 1st August 1943.

Wingspan: 33.53 meters.

Length: 20.22 meters.

Height: 4.46 meters.

Engine[s]: Four Pratt and Whitney R-1830 of 1200 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 488 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 9750 meters.

Range: 4585 kilometers.

Armament: Ten Browning M2 12.7-millimeter machine guns; maximum bomb load of 3992 kilograms.

Of all of the bombings carried out by United States in the daylight over Europe during the Second World War, none was as remarkable as the one effectuated upon the oil facilities of Ploiesti the 1st August 1943, by 179 B-24D bombers from the 44th, 93rd, 98th, 376th and 389th Bomber Groups of the 8th and 9th Air Forces. The attack was specially remembered for its duration, the low altitude sustained over enemy territory, the huge losses suffered and the fact that five pilots of those who took part in the attack were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. One of the awarded, Leon W. Johnson, having in that time the rank of Colonel, had a remarkable and distinguished career in the United States Air Forces, becoming at the same time the most respected of its commanders.

Born the 13th September 1904 in Columbus, Missouri, Johnson was a graduate of West Point who was assigned to Infantry in June 1926. Three years later he was assigned to the Army Air Corps, completing his training as pilot in 1930. During the ten following years he served in numerous bomber units in United States and in the Pacific, reaching the rank of Major in 1941. When the 8th Air Force was established, Johnson was appointed as Auxiliary Chief in the High Command, thanks to being one of the first four flight officers of the 8th Air Force.

In June 1942 Johnson arrived to Great Britain. The following January he was promoted to command the 44th Bomber Group, piloting then the B-24D in Shipdham, Norfolk, receiving the command from Colonel Frank Robinson. Johnson soon became popular as commander of the "Flying Eightballs" and in July he led his group to North Africa to prepare the "Operation Statesman", a secret attack against the oil facilities of Ploiesti, in Romania.

During this low-altitude bombing, Johnson flew as copilot onboard the famous B-24D "Suzy Q", while the pilot was Major William Brandon. When reaching the target, Johnson found that this one had already been attacked by mistake, by another group, and that its air defenses were in full alert. Despite the hell of fire and flames, Johnson ordered Brandon to led the 44th Bomber Group to attack any sector of the oil plant that were still intact. Only two B-24D of Johnson's group survived the combat and could return to Benina thereafter, for which the 44th Bomber Group received the mention of Distinguished Unit, and its leader the Medal of Honor.

Back in Shipdham, Leon Johnson was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, and in September 1943 he was awarded the command of the 14th Bomber Squadron, position which he occupied until the end of the war. His impressive list of condecorations to heroism included the Medal of Honor, the US Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaves, the Air Medal with Oak Leaves, the British Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Legion of Honor and the French and Belgian War Crosses. His postwar career included the command of the 3rd Air Division of the USAF, in Great Britain, from 1948 to 1950.