Photo of Robert Johnson from his Royal Canadian Air Force Flying Log Book, circa 1944.Robert Johnson
Compass used by Robert Johnson in Burma.Robert Johnson
Letter sent by Robert Johnson to his wife Shirley on February 8, 1945. The letter details his escape from the Japanese after being shot down in Burma.Robert Johnson
Part two of the letter sent from Robert to Shirley Johnson on February 8, 1945.Robert Johnson
Commendation awarded to Robert Johnson on June 1, 1944.Robert Johnson
"I had been hit and by that time, I was burning and so I was leaving the aircraft and he said, “Good luck old chap.”"
My name is Robert Gordon Johnson. I was firstly in the Canadian Army for a little better than a year, after which I obtained a discharge from the army by reason of reenlisting in the air force, which I did on, let me see, it would be about New Year’s Eve of 1940. I was posted overseas. Things weren’t so brisk. The Battle of Britain was just over and so there wasn’t that great a need for pilots. They’d done, had time to do all the fill-ins, so I wasn’t immediately posted. But about four weeks later, they asked if there were any of our people there at the time, pilots, single engine pilots at the time and if there were any people who would like to volunteer for service overseas. And well, I thought that the Middle East was sort of cracking at that point and we anticipated we’d wind up in the Middle East. But such was not the case.
Seventeen of us single engine pilots filled the order and we were all posted. We didn’t know it. We weren’t told where we were going, but within a day or so of being at sea, we learned that we were going to the Far East. And myself and another chap were posted to 28 RAF Squadron and we were serving with the RAF [Royal Air Force] without much contact at all with the Canadian branch of the air force. But we went immediately into operations and I wound up in the Imphal [in the state of Manipur, India], myself and the other chap wound up in the Imphal Valley.
We were strictly on [Hawker] Hurricanes. That’s a single-seater fighter. We were armed with, varied just a little bit, but mostly four cannons, 20 millimetre cannons. Our duties varied with the demand, and we did a lot of just strict reconnaissance. That is to say, searching out for the enemy, the Japanese, they were strictly Japanese, and their movements, to determine their movements and their munitions, or whatever they were moving, and to shoot them up as we saw fit. And other times, we’d do aerial photography.
Generally, we operated in pairs, two aircraft. The lead aircraft doing the actual reconnaissance, and the number two, the second one in the formation, watching the sky for aerial attack on ourselves. But their fighters were single engine fighters. They were very good. A little faster than we were, and a little more maneuverable in some aspects. And we had to be very aware of them because they were faster than we were.
Flying in a formation of two, you didn’t hang around or have to tangle with half a dozen or more. You had to fight your way out of whatever action you got into and then to get home. And to evade the aircraft, low fly and fly in, through the undergrowth and amongst trees and to ditch them, you see.
Our losses were I’d say reasonably heavy. There was, not every day was anyone getting shot down, but very often, if they didn’t get back you never saw them again. They just disappeared into the jungle and that sort of stuff. And your number two probably had to evade to get home.
I was on a long range sortie, I was a flight commander by that time and I was breaking in, about to break in a new pilot to our squadron who was quite an experienced pilot, but had not been on operational flights. And we were assigned a job to do, a reconnaissance, quite a long range one. I guess I was about 150 miles away from my base to do a sortie to investigate roads for the movement of Japanese and whatever else we could find out about them. And I found a good size rivercraft on the Irrawaddy River [in Burma] and my number two, we were low flying down the Irrawaddy, about 25 feet off the water and up a little stream, I had a quick look at a ship being loaded with some stuff and I didn’t have time to call my number two. And I wheeled in there and I was taking a quick snap of this boat being loaded with petrol and oil drums. We had cameras mounted on our aircraft and I was doing a steep turn around the mast of this thing, snapping my camera when I was hit with anti-aircraft fire and there was suddenly a boom boom and there was a hole between my feet and up behind the instrument panel and I was suddenly aware that I was losing altitude… Well, consequently, I was going to have to come down.
And we were by that time maybe about 200 miles from our base. So I managed to gain a little there, gain a little altitude before my kite started to overheat and, and I got just across the Irrawaddy and at that point, I was able to contact my number two by radio, and I told him I was being forced to bail out, I had been hit and by that time, I was burning and so I was leaving the aircraft and he said, “Good luck old chap.” That’s the last I heard of him. But, however, I did bail out and I was at low level, quite low, and I managed a safe landing anyway. And I immediately ditched my parachute and grabbed my escape kit and started running. And I was chased oh, well, immediately I was being chased, but I had about a 500 feet head start. And I managed to hide in some low bush in a crevice in the ground and over which there was some low bush. I dived in there and just lay still and they came all around me and didn’t find me. And that was about 9:00 in the morning, and so I was there all day until a couple of hours after dark, and then I got out and started to leave that area.
And so I decided eventually that I was going to walk at night and not in the daytime. So I made my plans and well, I had good maps with me and I decided to walk at night and so I walked at night for the next 23 nights. But I got away with it. I was sent back to my unit, but within a few days, I was ordered to undertake a trip around all the local squadrons in that part of Burma, to tell my story of how to survive in the jungle.
I enjoyed flying immensely. So I loved that part of it. It’s never any fun to shoot people, but you have to do it. And because of the way they treated our people, I was really kind of glad to do it.