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Manatee County veteran to join 23 for trip to Washington


Golden Gloves boxer. FBI agent. Corporate lawyer. Circuit court judge. Grandfather.

William C. Johnson has led a rich, varied life.

Yet when the 87-year-old joins other World War II veterans on an Honor Flight on Sept. 7 to our nation's capital, he's going to feel like the teen-aged bomber crewman he was once.

"It might stir my memory, make me feel a little better about having survived a few ordeals, remember guys I was with," Johnson said. "I hope they're still alive and doing well, but at this age you don't know."

Johnson, who will be 88 soon, will be among 22 veterans departing from the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 18, 111 63rd Ave. E., Bradenton, to see the WWII monument, among others in Washington, D.C.

He won't be the only one with mixed feelings at the outset.

Take it from DAV Chapter 18 commander John Ra

ber, who's been along on past Honor Flights,which fly veterans to see the memorial honoring millions of Americans in uniform during the war and those who supported them at home.

"Most of these guys are in their 90s and have waited so long for this kind of moment. They don't know how they're going to feel," said Raber, a Persian Gulf War.

"They're all quiet when they leave, but then there's the interaction with the other veterans, the camaraderie, the remembering when they get there.

"After they come back,all they do is talk aboutthe experience. It's moving."

A Duluth, Minn., native, William Johnson was an 18-year-old top gunner aboard a B-26 Marauder, a twin-engine medium bomber with a crew of six.

Unlike the B-17 FlyingFortress, which flew high-altitude missions up to30,000 feet, the B-26 was used on low level mis-sions between 8,000 and 10,000 feet against German railyards, bridges and airfields.

A recipient of the AirMedal with four oak leaf clusters, Johnson flew 15missions with the 394th Bomb Group from bases in France and Holland from October 1944 to May 1945, when the war ended in Europe.

Fittingly, his bomber was nicknamed, "It Ain't Easy."

"War is a lot of mistakes, stupid things that you have to deal with," he said. "When you're younger and full of energy you take chances which were good for our side and bad for the other. Sometimes it was the other way around."

Johnson recalled an early mission when his bomb group missed a target because of cloud cover and disposed of its bombs elsewhere before returning to base.

They found out later they'd bombed a unit of German Panzer tanks.

"Wiped them out," he said.

The shoe was on the other foot on Johnson's 15th and final mission.

Flak knocked out oneof B-26's engines and the bomber went into a steep dive.

"We fell 7,000 feet and I thought we'd crash," he said.

"But we leveled out and made it back on one engine. It was miraculous."

Johnson suffered sig-nificant hearing loss from that last mission, a condition that serves as another reminder of that conflict.

"Most World War II guys are in nursing homes or died off," he said.

"I don't know how many of us are alive any more, but I recognize how lucky I was."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix