Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Faces of Bovina - The Adventures of Allan Johnston.

On January 22, 1944, Allan Johnston posed for this photograph by Bob Wyer. The timing of the photograph is interesting, given it was taken only two months after he had successfully escaped from German-occupied France.

Johnston was the son of T. George and Marjorie Johnston of Bovina. He had joined the Army Air Corps in July 1940. He spent over a year and a half in Panama then returned in March 1942 to the United States. He was appointed an aviation cadet and completed navigation training in Texas. In May 1943 he went to England and served as a navigator on a B-17. It was on his fifth mission that his adventures began, later reported in the local newspapers. He had noted that his first mission was boring and that “Nothing happened, No ground fire, no enemy planes, no nothin’. We got to our target, dropped our bombs and came home.” 

Shot down on the fifth mission, he was reported missing. The Catskill Mountain News noted that he had been missing since September 6. After two anxious months, the Binghamton Press reported in November that “…Second Lieut. Allan G. Johnston broke a long silence Monday when he cabled his parents Mr. and Mrs. T. George Johnston of Bovina, that he had returned to his U.S. Army Eight Air Force base in England.”

On his return, some of his story was reported in the local newspapers. On his last mission, his plane was heading back after dropping its bombs when the crew realized that they were short of gas. They decided to leave the bombing formation to take the shortest distance back to base. This proved to be the start of their troubles. They found themselves under constant attack by 15 to 20 fighter planes. This went on for an hour and a half.  Over occupied France, two engines were shot out and the gas ran out. Lt. Johnston was injured in the left arm. The bombardier had the worse injuries but managed to fire his machine guns at the plane that caused their injuries, shooting it down.

The crew bailed out at around 8000 feet. Johnston decided to wait on pulling his ripcord until absolutely necessary, figuring that if he came down slowly he would be easy to spot by the Germans. They did see him, but because he opened his parachute about 1000 feet above the ground they didn’t have time to figure out exactly where he had landed. He ended up in the tree tops and was noted by a German pilot, who waved at him. Johnston waved back and waited until dark to leave the woods. He later said that the only 30 minutes he would never want to live through again were those 30 minutes stuck in the treetops.

At this point, the story as published in the newspapers ends. Because it was war-time, Johnston could not tell of his adventures getting back to England. He did share the story with his family. In a conversation with his sister, Helen Johnston, I got the rest of the story.

The ill-fated fifth mission was over Stuttgart. When the pilot realized that they didn’t have enough fuel, he told them to bail out. Allan landed in a tree with shrapnel wounds in both wrists and his ankle. When he came down from the tree a little French girl took him to another tree and told him to go up in it. He did and belted himself into the tree in case he fell asleep or passed out. The reason he was directed to that specific tree was because of its dense foliage. A German patrol came under the tree and they even took a cigarette break there. A bit later the girl’s father came and took Allan to his barn. They put him under a large pile of hay in a spot where there were holes designed to prevent spontaneous combustion. This allowed Allan to breathe. He saw when the German patrol came to the house. They then came to the barn and went up on the hay mound right above him. He could hear the bayonets being poked into the hay, but he was far enough down that they didn’t find him. After a day or so in the hay, he was taken into the house.

The underground disguised Allan as a Frenchman and provided him with French papers. He was taught not to respond to any sounds, since his papers said he was deaf and dumb.

Allan likely had landed in Northern France, so he had a long journey to the Spanish boarder. He was guided south all the way to the border. In some areas, German troop trains had an extra car or two at the end that the French could take. Allan at least once took his journey on one of these trains. He had a guide that took him up through the Pyrenees. At the top, the guide told him he was at the Spanish border and that he was to go into a specific village and go to the U.S. Embassy. Allan asked if the guide could go with him but he said no, he was too busy taking other escapees.

The night before Thanksgiving, his family got the word that Allan was ‘back on duty.’ No other details were provided but they knew he was safe. When the family got the word they had been told that the Germans said he was a P.O.W.

Allan was home not long after. The reason for the photograph was not to just get a photo of Johnston in uniform. This was one of three pictures taken when he married Gertrude Truesdell. Here's a picture of them together:

Allan was not sent back into service overseas. Sending him back to Europe was too great a risk. If he was shot down again and captured by the Germans, because he had already been reported as a POW by the Germans, he wouldn’t be protected under the Geneva convention but instead considered to be a spy. He was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi as a navigator trainer. He was honorably discharged at the end of the war.

Allan and his wife moved to Michigan where he went to college on the GI Bill. He ended up working for Lincoln-Continental. In the 70s, Allan survived another major crisis when he became serious ill with a brain aneurysm, spending three months in a coma. He recovered and was put to work dealing with computers. Allan died in Michigan in October 1990 at the age of 70.

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