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September 18, 2013

'Those two incidents gave me nightmares'

WWII veteran recounts service aboard a B-17 bomber

(Continued)

“We were surrounded by aluminum, and that was it,” Johnston said. “It was the same inside as it was outside.”

They wore oxygen masks in order to be able to breathe at such a high altitude. A full-body suit was wired to provide heat by plugging it into an outlet. The men also wore armored vests, a helmet and four pairs of gloves — silk that never came off, a fine leather pair that still allowed them to operate controls, wool, and heavy leather.

“We constantly had to press the oxygen mask to break up the ice crystals formed by our breath,” Johnston said. “(However) when we were over target, I was sweating enough that I didn’t need the suit.”

Once, Johnston’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire off the coast of France. The plane lost a propeller, and the crew prepared to bail over the English Channel. At the last minute, the co-pilot spotted land, and the plane was able to safely land in England.

Another time, Johnston’s crew flew out on a raid with two other crews from the barracks. Only one crew made it back that day.

“Those two incidents gave me nightmares,” he said. “They made the war very personal.”

Despite the danger, all nine members of Johnston’s crew made it home from World War II. When he was discharged in 1945, Johnston came home to meet Carolyn and his infant son, Malcolm Andrew, who was 5 months old. They went on to have two more sons, raised mostly in Andover.

Johnston never saw the other members of his crew again after returning home. However, the group has kept in touch throughout the decades by writing letters. Three members are living. Johnston communicates with them, plus the widows of those who died.

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