By MAUREEN CALLAHAN
Last Updated: 9:41 AM, December 9, 2012
Posted: 1:24 AM, December 9, 2012
On Dec. 20, 1943, a young American bomber pilot named Charlie Brown found himself somewhere over Germany, struggling to keep his plane aloft with just one of its four engines still working. They were returning from their first mission as a unit, the successful bombing of a German munitions factory. Of his crew members, one was dead and six wounded, and 2nd Lt. Brown was alone in his cockpit, the three unharmed men tending to the others. Brownís B-17 had been attacked by 15 German planes and left for dead, and Brown himself had been knocked out in the assault, regaining consciousness in just enough time to pull the plane out of a near-fatal nose dive.
"One of the 56th's worst setbacks occurred on June 26, 1943, when 48 P-47Cs left a forward operating base at RAF Manston late in the afternoon to provide escort for B-17 Flying Fortress bombers returning from a mission against Villacoublay airfield in the Paris suburbs. As the P-47s approached the rendezvous point near Forges-les-Eaux, they were jumped from above and behind by 16 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s of II Gruppe, JG 26. The first pass scattered the Thunderbolts, and Johnson's aircraft, flying at the rear of the 61st Squadron's formation, was seriously damaged by a 20 mm shell that exploded in his cockpit and ruptured his hydraulic system. Burned and partially blinded by hydraulic fluid, Johnson tried to bail out, but could not open his shattered canopy.After pulling out of an uncontrolled spin and with the fire amazingly going out on its own, Johnson headed for the English Channel, but was intercepted by a single Fw 190. Unable to fight back, he maneuvered while under a series of attacks, and although sustaining further heavy damage from both 7.92mm and 20mm rounds, managed to survive until the German ran out of ammunition, who, after saluting him by rocking his wings, turned back. His opponent has never been identified, but Johnson could have been one of three victories claimed that day by the commander of III/JG 2,OberstEgon Mayer.[N 1]After landing, Johnson tried to count the bullet holes in his airplane, but when he passed 200, including 21, 20 mm cannon shell impacts, without even moving around the aircraft, he gave up. While Johnson made it back to crash land at Manston, four other pilots of the 56th FG were killed in action. A fifth, able to extend only one of his plane's landing gear struts, had to bail out over the English Channel and was rescued north of Yarmouth. Five other Thunderbolts suffered battle damage. Johnson suffered shrapnel wounds and minor burns to his face, hands, and legs, and was awarded the Purple Heart. He resumed flying missions on July 1."