by Berna L Johnston (#2346)
as told to his niece Carol Nash on 2 July 2004
I was drafted into the Army Air Force on 24 August 1942. First, I went to Fort Bliss, Texas then to Kerns, Utah for basic training. The training was in a farmer's field where wheat had been cut. The drinking and bath water was ice cold and we 'dined' in a tent. We were there for about one month.
Next, we went to Scott Field, Illinois for radio operator and mechanics training where I graduated in the top 10 of my class. Gunnery school was in Laredo, Texas where they started with BB guns. They even had machine guns that shot BBs! The next step was to learn skeet shooting - from the back of a moving pickup. We progressed to 30 calibre and 50 calibre machine guns.
Blythe, California was the site for our first crew training on B-17s. It was so hot that when the B-17 landed, the runway just "rolled up". Then we went to Dalhari, Texas (where Berna got married to Pansy on 5 June 1943) then to Biloxi, Mississippi for long range training.
I went to Nebraska for a time and then to Newport News, Virginia, where I boarded an Argentine cattle boat to head for Europe. On the way across the Atlantic, we had our first taste of war: we sank 2 German U-boats. I was in the 305th Bomb Group and the 386th Squadron. We were sent to England. l would be a waist-gunner and the radio operator.
I had a boil on my wrist and was sent right to a hospital for 30 days. Then with my 90 pound field pack, I was given a ticket to go to a certain town for more training, but my ticket was to the right town in the wrong county! So I had to get another ticket to the right town in the right county. By this time, I had lost my crew that I had trained with since Blythe.
There was one raid called the Schweinfurt Raid (14 October 1943) when we lost nearly all the planes we had. Our crew started flying raids soon afterward. We got a new B-17 made by Ford Motor Company. The first mission with this new plane resulted in it being so shot up, that it had to have its wings replaced.
On our 14th mission over Germany, an enemy shell exploded near our plane and I caught a piece of shrapnel in my leg. It wasn't too bad compared with many of the other soldiers' wounds.
The very next bombing run (our 15th mission) on 20 February 1944, our crew suffered an attack which shot up the plane. We had been up since 2:30 am. Our mission was to bomb the airplane factories at Leipzig, Germany. We dropped our bombs and were ready to head back to England when we took 2 flak shots: one on each side. We lost power in 2 engines; another engine could not get fuel; so we had only one good engine. Our plane was losing altitude and German fighters were ready for the planes that lost formation. Our pilot warned us that if the fighters came, he would order us to bail out. Someone started calling "Fighters! Two o'clock!" The pilot ordered "Bail out!!" The other waist-gunner couldn't pull the door-opening cable, so I pulled it and jumped out. A fighter seemed to be coming toward me, but didn't shoot.
There was a cloud layer below. I had listened to the briefing that morning that told us that the clouds were 4,000 feet, so I waited until I was in the clouds to pull the rip-cord. When I came below the clouds, there was a forest. I wanted to land near the forest, not in it. So I 'slid' the parachute. By pulling the cords on one side, it would slide one direction, but then I couldn't stop it and I landed in the backyard of a house. I fell all the way down. By the time I stood up, people had rolled up my parachute and cut it loose. They gave me a bicycle and said to follow them. We went to a bar in the town of Xhoris, Belgium. Someone gave me an overcoat (to cover my uniform) and had me follow them by foot to Aywaille, about 3 miles away.
In Johnston's MIS-X report of 16 October 1944 (where the story is only slightly different) the interviewer comments that ‘within about three minutes of landing he was in a bar with a cognac in his hand'.
I was put in a room and questioned by a man that could speak good English. He was seeing if I was a spy. He was also the town photographer. Once he learned who I was, he took my picture and made me a new identification card. The photographer, M Weber of 20 rue du Gare, Aywaille introduced me to Godefroid Diris, a dry goods dealer in the black market. He owned an old abandoned hotel (the Hotel du Commerce). I had a 10 by 14 foot room with a bed, heating stove and a table. Godefroid would come in and visit me. I had a window where I could see German patrols in the street. Godefroid provided me with clothes and food ... whatever I needed. Probably not many people in my circumstances had custom made clothes.
The spelling of Godefroid Diris is taken from the IS9 Belgian Helper Awards file.
Next to my room was a closet full of clothes that opened to the hall. In the back of the closet, was a secret sliding door. It opened to another room where I was to go if the Germans came. I didn't go in there many times. Godefroid kept some money under floorboards in there. Godefroid had a boy of about 12 who taught me to play chess and I helped him with English.
Finally (in April) Godefroid said that it was time to go to Switzerland. A few people gave me good luck souvenirs: a small photo of a priest with a tiny piece of his cloak; a black beaded necklace with a crucifix; a silver necklace with another cross; and a chain bracelet. These items were to help 'see me through to freedom and safety'.
Godefroid took me to a meeting in Liege, Belgium with another American - 1/Lt Marion E Brown (#2091) - and 2 others (Australian airmen F/Lt Bruce Simpson (2439) and F/Sgt Colin A Campbell (2507) from 467 Sqn Lancaster LM376). We all had overcoats. We went by bus to near the French border. We walked around the check station (to Charleville-Mezieres). We were taken to Nancy. We were to follow a certain man, but we were too far behind and we lost him. A German officer came up and spoke. We knew a few words. And then he walked off. Then we found our man and were on our way again. We stayed in Annecy one night and the RAF bombed it the next night.
Finally we were near the Swiss border. We hid behind some rocks. The leader whistled and waited. Nothing. Then a German patrol passed. Later he whistled again. This time someone whistled back. So we crossed 'no man's land' one at a time. Next we climbed up a rock slide. We were in Switzerland!! (1 May 1944) At the top of the climb, we were met by 2 Swiss soldiers who gave us some coffee.
We stayed in Glion, Switzerland, maybe 4 or 5 months. We were interrogated and quarantined for 2 weeks. We ate a lot of dried figs. Breakfast was cheese and a half piece of bread. Lunch was hot soup. Maybe no supper.
At last, we went back to England (arrived 29 September 1944) where we were interrogated again and then arrived back in Albuquerque October 31, 1944.
Afterward I went back to Laredo, Texas, where I completed the Gunnery Instructors course and was sent to Florida to teach. Pansy and I were in Florida when the bombs were dropped on Japan.