Farm kid becomes airplane mechanic for war effort

May 28, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF — At 99, Willard Johnson is the oldest resident at the Western Nebraska Veterans Home in Scottsbluff. While he was growing up in small-town Iowa, little did he know that political events would soon take him halfway across the world.

Growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, Johnson spent his summers setting up equipment at the farm implement dealer.

“I was working for the Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, when President Roosevelt declared war after the Pearl Harbor bombing,” he said.

With the war effort, all the farm machinery companies were converted to the war effort.”

He became a member of the U.S. Military at Fort De Moines in Iowa in March 1942. After he was sent to Jefferson City, Missouri, he was assigned to the 44th Air Depot Squadron with the Army Air Corps. That sent him to Mobile, Alabama, at the aircraft engine repair facility on the Gulf Coast.

“Our first assignment was to replace the graveyard shift at the repair plant after the union went on strike,” Johnson said. “We doubled production in six weeks before the union workers decided they should go back to work.”

Johnson was soon headed north again as one of 20 men picked to take training on the Pratt-Whitney aircraft engine being manufactured for the military in the Dearborn, Michigan, plant of Ford Motor Company.”

Once his training was completed, Johnson was sent to a staging area in New York. As their ship passed the Statue of Liberty, everyone figured they were headed for the European theater.

That assumption changed once the ship turned south, heading toward the Panama Canal. And 27 days later, they docked at Brisbane, Australia.

Johnson joined the 81st Air Depot Squadron, which he said had a foundry and were equipped to do about anything, including installing 20mm cannons on the B-25 bombers that saw a lot of action during the war.

“Our assignment was to transport P-38 and P-47 fighter planes from the aircraft carriers and liberty ships to the air base for preparation to go into combat,” Johnson said. “I was the crew chief and inspector and was responsible for getting the wings back on the planes. I also tested all the engine instruments to make sure they were working. If our test pilots had a problem with the plane, we were responsible for fixing it.”

In order to conserve fuel flying planes from the base into combat, 81st Air Depot Squadron operations were moved to Finch Haven, New Guinea, about a year later.

“Our crew got 1,000 P-38s ready for combat and several hundred P-47s,” Johnson said. “After the commander decided we didn’t need more fighters, the group was split up. I wound up on Biak Island, New Guinea, assigned to the Air Depot Squadron there.”

Because he had experience in working on the engine from the C-47 cargo plane, he was assigned as a crew chief. His responsibility was to assure the plane was safe and ready for flight.

When a night fighter went down, Johnson and his repair crew was preparing to bring in a replacement engine.

“When we were getting ready, the tower notified us that Japan might surrender soon and they’d let us know,” he said. “We unloaded everything on the emergency landing strip and told the tower if the surrender came, we’d buzz the air strip.”

The surrender was announced soon after they were airborne, so they buzzed the air strip — difficult to do in a bulky cargo plane.

Once they got back to base, Johnson said they could hear a pin drop. There were no airplane engines running or noise from the repair facilities. Dispatch picked up the crew while Johnson went back into the plane to make sure everything was shut down.

“When I got back to my tent, I wrote my wife, told her the details and hoped to be home for Christmas,” he said.

Johnson left Biak Island in November 1945 for San Francisco, then on to Fort Logan in Denver for final separation before heading home by train.

“At 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve 1945, I stepped off the train into my wife’s arms,” he said. “I got home for Christmas.”

After the war, Johnson went to work as a mechanic for the Case Implement dealer in Fairfield. Then it was on the Case ag division in Des Moines in the early 1950s as a service representative.

But by 1962, Case transferred its corporate headquarters and Johnson and family was transferred to Omaha. Later, he was transferred to a similar position in Greeley, Colorado, to cover that market.

With another transfer to California pending, Johnson decided to retire. Wanting to stay busy, he went to work for the local Case dealer in Greeley as what he called a “jack of all trades.” Many times, he was driving 500 miles a week making deliveries around the state.

After the dealership changed ownership, Johnson finally decided to sit back and take it easy. Eventually, he landed in Scottsbluff as a resident at the Western Nebraska Veterans Home.

“I like it here because a big percent of us are from farm families,” he said. “That’s how I grew up, so this is where I belong. We all have something in common.”