George Johnson going strong at 100

Published 10:08 am Thursday, June 14, 2018

By Jeanna White

For the Enterprise

Everyone has a story, but not many have 100 years worth like Major General George M. Johnson Jr., retired USAF.

A conversation with Johnson is a delightful peek into the past. He has experienced the Great Depression; FDR’s Fireside Chats; World War II; the Civil Rights Movement; America’s first man on the moon; the advent of television, computers and cellular phones; and 18 U.S. presidents beginning with Woodrow Wilson.

A resident of Sarasota, Fla., Johnson maintains strong connections to Davie County and can trace his roots in the area back to 1757 when William Johnson settled on the Yadkin River in what is now Tanglewood Park. Although born and raised in Georgia, he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents and other family members, including his cousins, George and Lester Martin, every summer and Christmas.

He still comes to Farmington a few times a year, although his children quit allowing him to drive by himself when he reached 95. He does drive the 80 miles each way to visit his children, and since his driver’s license doesn’t expire until he is 103, he doesn’t plan to give up driving anytime soon. He is grateful to neighbors Terry Spillman and Laura Mathis who take care of his home and get it ready for his visits.

“I always enjoy my visits up here,” he said. “I have gotten acquainted with a lot of wonderful people, and I still have a lot of family here. I have a standing invitation to the Rotary Club and Bill Junker invites me to events at his barn.”

One of those events at the barn was a celebration of George’s birthday on April 24. A second birthday celebration was held at his home in Farmington on April 28. The 55 friends and family members in attendance commemorated the occasion by presenting him with an iron bench that now sits on his front porch.

Upon meeting Johnson, you would never guess his age. His intelligent blue eyes are filled with warmth and humor, and he still has an encyclopedic memory although he admits he occasionally forgets a date or a name. He carries himself like someone half his age and in a manner befitting his 35 years in the Air Force. He has far too many stories to fit into just one article.   

His story began on April 11, 1918, in Fort Valley, Ga., as the first of three children born to George and Louise Halliburton Johnson. His father left Farmington at 20 and was a traveling salesman calling on wholesale grocers when he met his future wife, the daughter of a fellow salesman.  The family moved to Chattanooga, Tenn. when George Sr. became the sales manager for the Brock Candy Co. and later to Macon, Ga. where Louise grew up.

He recalls the stock market crash in 1929 and the economy suffering. The bus fare was 10 cents from downtown Macon to George’s neighborhood in Vineville. Many people walked instead of paying 10 cents. Buses replaced the streetcars, so the streetcar tracks were removed, sent to Japan, melted down, and shot at us later, he said.

Johnson attended Lanier High School in Macon and served in the school’s Junior ROTC unit throughout high school, not knowing that he would end up making the military his career.

He attended North Georgia College and and earned an associates degree. He later earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from George Washington University. After graduation, he went to work at the Dawson Cotton Oil Company in Dawson, Georgia as the assistant general manager becoming a “jack of all trades,” as a certified cotton grader and inspector, peanut grader, weighmaster, and paymaster.

Suspecting that the United States would soon be joining World War II, he debated what he wanted to do. His uncle, Shine Halliburton, was one of the first Navy pilots. He and George discussed his joining the U.S. Navy or the Army Air Corp (which later became the Air Force) and decided it would be better for him to land on the stable ground rather than a bouncing aircraft carrier deck.

He was sworn into the Army Air Corps on Oct. 2, 1941, at Fort McPherson, Ga. and attended primary flying school at Dorr Field in Arcadia, Fla. from October to January 1942. He was still there Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The base was blacked out for three days because there were rumors that German and Japanese submarines might shell the base. He received his pilot’s wings on May 20, 1942.

At Billy Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, Wisc., he transitioned to the DC-3 twin-engine aircraft, the civilian version of the military’s C-47. Civilian pilots were drafted or recalled to active duty to train new pilots. After only 30 hours of training in the DC-3, He was retained as a flight instructor.

He was soon sent to Dell Valley Army Airfield (later Bergstrom AFB) in Austin, Texas, where he served as a cross-country flight instructor and worked in administration. It was the perfect posting because he met his future wife and the love of his life, Betty Herrington, on a blind date on New Year’s Eve 1942 at the officer’s club at the Stephen Austin Hotel. She was 17 and he was 23. They were married after the war.

Major General Johnson is a walking history book of World War II having served in all seven major campaigns in Europe beginning with the invasion of Normandy.

In January 1944, he was called to join the 440th Troop Carrier Group at Pope AFB. The group picked up brand new C-47 aircraft in Fort Wayne, Ind., and flew the southern route to England making stops in Palm Beach, Puerto Rico, the Ascension Islands, Liberia and up the west coast of Africa to Marrakesh. Each plane carried 1,200 gallons of fuel and burned about 100 gallons per hour making the 11-hour flight from Marrakesh to England a complicated maneuver. Flight plans had to be carefully mapped to avoid running out of fuel, running into  German patrol bombers which were active in the Bay of Biscayne, or accidentally flying too far north and ending up in Ireland and being interned (Ireland was neutral). This happened to several planes. Ireland eventually released the crewmen but kept the aircraft until after the war. His entire group made it due to the expertise of the navigators. The crews stayed busy, practicing for the invasion of the continent, doing formation flying during the day and at night, and paratrooper drops.

“We had to get used to the climate over there as well as the unusual flying conditions.”

He became the operations officer of his squadron, the 96th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group. They launched their part of the invasion into Normandy, France from Exeter, England. At midnight on June 5, 1944, the group dropped paratroopers in the area of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Carentan about 20 miles inland. The squadron commander led the group. Johnson did not go because the squadron commander and operations officer were not allowed to participate in the same mission. At dawn on the morning of June 7, Johnson led a formation of 45 aircraft resupplying the troops previously dropped behind the German coastal defenses. The unarmed and unarmored C-47s went in at 500 feet above sea level and dropped supplies at 120 mph. The planes were targets to almost anyone that wanted to shoot at them. Once they dropped their supplies, they headed out towards the channel and dropped down to about 100 feet to prevent being shot at.

He will never forget seeing the hundreds of allied invasion ships and landing craft across the  English Channel.

“Landing craft were lined up in parallel lines on Omaha Beach as far as the eye could see.”

After the invasion of Normandy, the C-47s would go in and land with Jerry cans of fuel, food, and various supplies. They always carried a couple of nurses with them because they would bring a load of wounded back to the hospitals in England. During most supply runs, each plane also pulled two CG-42 gliders carrying eight combat troops or supplies like jeeps or small artillery pieces.

Johnson flew supply runs for the duration of the war but says he was far too busy and had too much responsibility ever to have time to be frightened.

His only close call was during the crossing of the Rhine River called “Operation Varsity.” George’s plane took a shell after releasing its gliders. Fortunately, his crew chief, knowing that if his pilot got back, he would get back, lined the cockpit around George with flak jackets before takeoff. He placed them under the rudder pedals, underneath the pilot’s seat, and around the sides. Although the shell damaged the electrical and hydraulic lines, it didn’t get George’s feet. Despite smoke and fire in the cockpit, he maintained the formation lead and oriented the flight back towards home base. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this operation.

The most massive airborne operation was in Holland on Sept. 17, 1944, and was the inspiration for the movie “A Bridge Too Far.” The idea was to take gliders with paratroopers, in cooperation with the British, and capture about seven bridges, then barrel across the German plain into Berlin before Christmas, but the British were late linking up. When the operation was over, the second in command of the British forces was asked, “What do you think of this operation?” He replied, “I think it was a bridge too far.”

Johnson stayed in Europe for three months after the war evacuating prisoners and concentration camps including Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and Dachau.

“Those people were just skin and bones; it was a tragic, tragic thing. A lot of people try to say it didn’t happen, but I was there. It did happen.”

He returned home in September 1945 and went to Austin to make arrangements with his fiancee to be married. She had turned 20 the week before the wedding and he was 26. Betty was at his side for 52 years and willingly moved wherever he was sent.

He returned to work at the cottonseed oil plant out of a sense of obligation since they had continued to pay him a small salary during the war but when he was offered a regular commission in the Air Force, he decided to take it.

“I missed flying; I missed the camaraderie of the military life. They offered me a position as a lieutenant colonel, and I’ve been happy about it ever since.”

He returned to active duty in July 1947, and was assigned to McChord AFB, Washington as commander of the 8th Troop Carrier Squadron and accompanied the squadron to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, and Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.

The Johnson’s two children were born in Army hospitals during this time – George III at Fort Lewis in 1948 and Jean at Fort Sam Houston in 1951.

From September 1951 to January 1955, Johnson  was chief of the Equipment Division of the Joint Air Transportation Board at Fort Bragg, responsible for evaluating Air Force equipment used in joint airborne and aerial logistical support operations. One operation involved the replacement for the C-47 aircraft with the C-130 Hercules which is still in use today.

After completing six months of Japanese language training at Yale University in September 1955, he was assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Japan, as deputy chief and later chief of the Air Force section.

“I studied the spoken language only and took classes during the day and studied at night using a dictaphone to prepare the next day’s lessons.  I spent three years at the embassy in Tokyo working with my counterparts in the Japanese Air Force. During that time we established two production lines so that they could learn to build airplanes again. We also set up a program so that their technicians could be trained at our schools in the U.S. ”

Along with the job came a diplomatic passport. He and Betty were allowed to attend embassy affairs including an event at the Emperor’s palace on New Year’s Day. The women were required to wear a dress that hung below the ankles and had full-length sleeves and a high neck. Johnson remembers that Betty’s was beautiful blue velvet. He walked in with Betty a respectable three feet to the rear and to his left. At about 30 feet from the Emperor, they bowed and then backed out because they were never supposed to turn their back on the Emperor.

“Betty got along well with everyone and often assisted ambassadors’ wives with diplomatic teas. She was a good partner in the whole operation,” he said. He still gets Christmas cards from friends they made in Japan.

He attended the Air War College at Maxwell AFB from the summer of 1958 to the summer of 1959 and then received orders to go to the Pentagon.

“I was supposed to be at the Pentagon for three years, but they kept me for seven years and kept giving me a bigger office,” he said with a chuckle. “I had no windows when I went in and five windows, carpeting, and a mahogany desk when I left.”

He received his first star in 1964 while working at the Pentagon, his second in 1966 while serving in Wiesbaden, Germany as deputy director of logistics for the Air Force for all of Western Europe.

“Germany was a great assignment. There was a lot of entertainment there such as the Ice Capades. We also got to go up to Hitler’s special retreat, “Eagle’s Nest.” It had a beautiful view of the Alps.”

In July 1968 he became commander of the Oklahoma City Air Material Area (OCAMA), Tinker AFB.

“The Air Force had five depots in the US, and Oklahoma City was the largest of them. We were responsible for all of the engineering and maintenance of the B-52 bombers, tankers, 60% of the communication systems, and surface to surface missiles. There were 32,000 civilians and 6,000 military. We were the largest employer in Oklahoma, so we got a lot of attention from the politicians both local and national.”

Tinker was followed by a short stint in Dayton, Ohio, which George says was “too cold for a Georgia boy.” After a year and a half, he was offered a position in Rome as chief of the military assistance advisory group.

“Betty would go shopping with the officers’ wives while I was working at the base. Rome was an enjoyable assignment, and I retired at the end of the tour.”

In all, George visited 80 countries serving the Air Force, but says “this is the best country by far.”

Major General George M. Johnson Jr. retired from his extraordinary career in the Air Force on Sept. 1, 1975. His military decorations and awards include the Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Force Commendation Medal, and the French Croix de Guerre.

He attributes much of his success to his Betty.

“Betty was a wonderful and talented serviceman’s wife. She was flexible, self-sufficient, and extremely helpful. Frequently I’d be informed in the morning of a trip, and she’d have my bags packed and ready for me that afternoon. I had complete confidence that everything would be taken care of with the children and with the house. She adapted well to varied environments, became proficient with the languages, cooked the local cuisines and understood the various cultures. She was my partner in my work and a great wife to me for over 50 years.”

After he retired from the Air Force, Johnson and Betty moved to the condo they had purchased in 1971 in Longboat Key, Fla. The couple began a joint career in real estate after attending classes together at Manatee Junior College.

“Life had never been so good. My mate went to school with me, carried my books, helped me with my studies, and she slept with me at night. What a deal.”

Dick and Wanda Wilson settled in Lakeland, and after following Johnson around the world, it thrilled Betty to have her sister so close. The Johnsons built a house in Lakeland that backed up to the Wilsons’ home and lived there for 17 years.

Johnson inherited his family’s homeplace in Farmington from his Aunt Vada around 1977, and he and Betty spent 20 years restoring the old farmhouse which had been built by his grandfather in 1892.

“My wife and I worked right alongside the workers and loved every minute of it,” he said.  “We’d come up around four times a year for several weeks at a time.”

Both of his children live in Lakeland. George III served in the Air Force for 10 years and then entered the real estate market. He now runs Johnson Properties, the real estate company George and Betty started. He has twin sons, George IV and Samuel, who attend Eckerd College and Florida State respectively. Jean worked for the Air Force at the Pentagon and spent a few years in Germany before marrying a developer and also settling down in Lakeland.

The Johnsons moved to Sun City Center, a continuing care retirement community 60 miles north of Sarasota after Betty developed health issues. She passed away in 1997.

Two years after her death, he moved to a  retirement community in Sarasota where he lives in a 9th-floor apartment overlooking the bridge to Longboat Key and Sarasota Bay.

Age has done little to slow him down.

“At 90 I was still serving on five boards of directors and decided to start getting off of them. It took me three years,” he said with a laugh.

He still maintains an active schedule, attending lectures, exercise classes, and participating in a number of discussion groups.

Mondays include a luncheon in the dining room of seven men from a variety of backgrounds. “We have a high-powered patent attorney from New York, a doctor, and I have a military background. There is a lot of knowledge around that table,” he said with a grin.

He enjoys equally entertaining dinners on Monday and Friday nights with groups that are coed.

Johnson began “piddling” in the stock market when he was 17 and saved his money to buy two shares of RJ Reynolds stock. His investment club meets monthly, and each of the 20 members reports on four stocks at each meeting. The group decides together which shares to buy. Each member owns 1/20th of the portfolio and they only take in new members when they lose one.

“We aren’t setting the world on fire, but we are doing better than the Standard & Poor average.”

Although he says it takes a lot of time to take care of himself these days, he has no plans to slow down.

He attributes his long life to good genes, an amazing wife and two fine children, and an abundance of good friends.

His secret to a life well lived?

“Do the best you can every day and don’t quarrel with people. Respect their viewpoints and move on.”