He was six-foot-four-inches tall. Born May 11, 1919, in Houston, Texas, Harold Johnson would have been a giant among the English during World War II. He had completed 40 missions navigating B-24 bombers over Germany and France—that was the ticket home for U.S. Army Air Corps flyers.
This American war hero was on the first leg of his journey back home from England when he decided to give his medals to a little boy that sat next to him on a train.
His now grown children would like to find that little English boy.
Johnson’s daughter, Mary Lou Johnson Ridinger, recently toured the 390th Bomb Group Memorial Museum in Tucson, Arizona, to learn more about her father’s war service.
She shared with me stories and memories of growing up and trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle in the family history. One missing piece is her father’s medals.
Life After 40 Missions
For Mary Lou and her sister Georgeann, called Georgie, their memories of Dad ended too soon. Their little sister Christina was only 1 ¾ years old when their father was killed in a tragic automobile crash on June 11, 1951, seven years after he had returned from the war, leaving behind his wife and three young daughters.
Tall, blonde and Texan, Mary Lou makes the same impression that her father must have made on the English decades before. According to Mary Lou the Johnsons were Danish immigrants with Great-grandfather Peter Johnson reaching U.S. shores in 1870.
Every family has memories. Cherished moments that remain, pictures that linger, thoughts that seem long forgotten that go away then return at odd times.
Although she lost her father when she was only a young girl, Mary Lou has vivid memories of him after he returned from the war.
“Dad taught me how to ride a bike about a week before he died. My sister and I had a room in the attic of the farm. Dad read to us every night. Dad went to law school. He got his law degree one week before he died. He was 31 years old,” said Mary Lou.
After his return from service Harold Johnson studied law at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He would sit in a big wing chair. Mary Lou and her sister Georgie perched on the wings of the chair above his head and they brushed his hair while he studied.
Harold Johnson had had to quit the University of Texas to enlist for military service in the fall of 1942. He was in flight training when he married on February 12, 1943. After the ceremony, the 23-year old cadet got on a train and returned to resume his flight training in Tucson with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Mary Lou says the choice of the Air Corps may have been because his new brother-in-law and best friend was a flight instructor in Tucson.
It didn’t work out as planned. Harold Johnson washed out of flight school. Mary Lou recounts that he was on his way to becoming a pilot when he upset his flight instructor. He then took training to become a navigator and was sent to North Africa.
“The Allies had the Germans on the run by then and Dad was shipped to Norwich, England a month later,” Mary Lou related.
Describing their visit to the 390th Bomb Group Museum in Tucson, Mary Lou tells of how her father narrowly escaped death one time.
“When we saw the navigator’s seat on the B-24 in the 390th Museum, it was facing backwards in front of the pilot and co-pilot,” said Mary Lou. “On one mission Dad got up to talk to the pilot. When he came back his seat was blown to bits.”
Harold Johnson was stationed in Wendling, England. Airmen would take the train into Norwich for rest and recreation. After completing 40 missions they could go home.
On July 7, 1944, Harold Johnson arrived home.
“Dad was so relieved that he’d done his duty and he was going home. He didn’t send a telegram to my mom. He wanted to surprise her. We think he was being sent home the last week in June 1944. He would have gone from Wendling to Norwich then London. An little English boy sat next to him on the train,” said Mary Lou.
The young lad asked the tall Texan about his medals and whether he’d dropped bombs on Germany. “My father gave the boy his medals. We have a photo of my father being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. When he was discharged from service Dad was a captain.”
Now, Captain Harold Johnson’s family would like to find that little English boy. They are eager to find out what their father told him on the train. “We want to know what happened to the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with Three Clusters that Dad was awarded for his courage and valor in World War II,” said Mary Lou.
They would like to share memories with this child of so long ago that by chance sat next to their father on the first leg of his journey home and perhaps know a little more about a man that died when they themselves were only children.
“That little English boy would be an older man now,” Mary Lou said. “Are you the little boy on the train who was given Captain Harold Johnson’s medals?”
Mary Lou is hoping that perhaps that little boy’s family or friends may have been told about the encounter so long ago.
“There are three daughters of this war hero that would like to meet you,” she said.