The following story ran in the Herald-Whig in 1998. Its author would like to see it reprinted and I felt readers would benefit from that as well.
As a boy living on Spring Street in Quincy during the early 1940s, the writer looked up to his Scout leader as the young man he wanted to become — intelligent, confident, articulate. The boy moved away and his role model went into World War II where he was killed in action.
Fifty years later, the boy returned for a nostalgic look around town and was drawn to the war memorial in Washington Park, seeking his friend’s name among the honored dead. It wasn’t there, nor was there any trace at any local veterans group or the National Military Records Center which had burned in 1973.
Compelled to learn his friend’s fate, and tell the story, he searched three years for information. Finally, with the help of classmates, teacher Elizabeth Hunter, friends and the Air Force Historical Research Agency, here is that story — a long overdue memorial to a fallen hero.
By Herbert Booth
FEBRUARY 1944. The war raged across the world and the outcome remained in doubt. From bases in England, our mighty U.S. Eighth Air Force pounded Germany without let-up. Early on the 24th, the roar of 238 B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the 392nd Bomb Group shattered the dawn at Wendling Air Station. Each 10-man crew was primed for that day’s target: Enemy airfields and factories at Gotha, Germany.
In the pilot seat of the B-24 “Poco Loco,” Lt. John Virgil Johnston of Quincy, Ill., formed up with the 577th Bomb Squadron and headed across the North Sea over Holland into the heart of Germany. This was his third combat mission.
Twenty-one year-old former Quincy High drum major John V. Johnston was a long way from the school where he graduated with honors, Class of 1940. He had lived with his mother, Nelle, in an apartment down on Maine. (His father died before John V. was born in October 1922.)
After the lumbering bombers streamed crossed the German border at 19,000 feet, the flak was intense. This thick barrage caused the squadron to take evasive action. They scattered and lost the massed protection of ten .50 cali-ber machine guns per plane. At 1:15 p.m., just as out-of-formation “Poco Loco” started on its final bomb run, the German fighters pounced.
A blast of 20mm cannon fire caught the vulnerable B-24 in an engine and the bomb bays, killing several crew members and setting the bomber ablaze. As “Poco Loco” fell out of the sky in flames, three or four parachutes were observed, but the pilot’s and co-pilot’s were not among them.
Thirty-three aircraft of the 392nd Bomb Group did not return from that mission. The 577th Squadron got a Distinguished Unit Citation. Lieutenant Johnston never made it back to his home town. His story ended in Belgium’s Ardennes American Military Cemetery — Plot C, Row 11, Grave 12.
Rest in peace, John V., my boyhood friend. You and your comrades in arms will not be forgotten.
Herbert Booth is a retired marketing executive, active jazz musician and long-time resident of St. Louis.