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Col Leon W. Johnson

A B-24 conducting a raid on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Of the 177 bombers that left, only 33 returned in flyable condition. (National Archives)
A B-24 conducting a raid on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Of the 177 bombers that left, only 33 returned in flyable condition. (National Archives)

By mid-WWII, Romanian oilfields near Ploesti produced more than half of the German's petroleum — and their anti-aircraft defenses reflected it. Oil, in Winston Churchill's words, was "the taproot of German mechanized power." In August 1943, Army Air Forces Col. Leon William Johnson and his "Flying Eightballs" attempted to knock out the heavily defended refineries. Of the six planes in his formation, only Johnson's returned to its Libyan base.

"Operation Tidal Wave" started poorly for Johnson's element of the 44th Bomber Group, which became separated from the others while dodging dangerous clouds. When they reestablished contact, Johnson's assigned target had already been hit. With the German ack-ack batteries now fully alert, Col. Johnson carried out his planned low-level attack.

He led his group into an inferno of 1,500-foot flames. "Just as the flames lapped over his wings a miracle happens... an updraft opens a tunnel of air in the flames. Johnson and six planes shoot through the tunnel," Yank magazine wrote. Burned jet black and riddled with bullet holes, Johnson's element dropped their bombs and, miraculously, made it out of the inferno.

Following the raid on Ploesti, one of the war's costliest aerial encounters for all concerned, Johnson was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to brigadier general. After the war, he organized and commanded the 3rd Air Division in England, part of the Berlin Airlift. In all, his career comprised 40 years, four stars, and a final assignment with the National Security Council. Not bad for a West Point Class of 1926 graduate who decided after three years in the infantry that "things looked more interesting from the air."

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