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05 November, 2014


The practice of presenting tiny gold caterpillar pins to anyone who saved their life by parachuting from a disabled or flaming aircraft, started in 1922. The Caterpillar is symbolic of the silk worm, which lets itself descend gently to earth from heights by spinning a silky thread to hang from. Parachutes in the early days were made from pure silk. Bill Johnston wore his Caterpillar pin with utmost pride and distinction
As Remembrance Day 2014 approaches, I herewith pay tribute to an RCAF flying officer who was shot down over Germany during WW11 and interned in two prisoner of war camps. I do this in memory of all young military servicemen who fought for their country in major world conflicts during the past century.  Lest we forget!

Some people hover under the radar in life because that is exactly the way they want it.  A cousin by marriage, Roy S. "Bill" Johnston of Dresden was one of those individuals.

The youngest of nine siblings born to Mr.and Mrs. William H. Johnson, a Dresden area farm couple, Bill was always quiet-spoken, dry-witted.and congenial, enjoying life to the fullest...Traits that ran through the entire, salt-of-the-earth Johnston clan. Almost from the day he was born, Roy was tagged with the name "Bill" because he looked so much like his father.  He went through life carrying William's name.

 R. S. Bill Johnston
AC2, Flying Officer, RCAF
He graduated from continuation school just as WW11 was breaking out and he answered the call to serve his country by joining in the Royal Canadian Air Force on 8th of December, 1941.  He trained as a navigator and quickly rose to the rank of Flying Officer, ultimately assigned to the historic 115th Squadron RAF and its Lancaster flying bomber ND805.

Aircraft navigation, then as now, demanded much pre-planning. There was the need for a flight plan showing the proposed course, with height, expected flight time and an ETA at the objective. Then, once in the air, the wind made all calculations subject to change, so from observing a position in relation to landmarks on the ground, which continued to vary, calculations made the necessary course and speed alterations.  Bill gained a reputation as being spot on with his navigation calculations.  His calm persona lent itself to the responsibilities of wartime air navigation.

It was one thing to undertake these duties in a small plane over familiar territory, but it was quite another proposition to execute them in a heavy bomber at night, under total blackout conditions, sitting above 9000 or more pounds of bombs and flares, over unfamiliar and hostile territory, while being shot at from the ground or attacked by enemy fighters.  Bill would have have been positioned in the plane at a navigator's table, immediately behind the pilot, as seen in the photo to the right. By today's standards, navigators relied on quite antiquated means, often having to navigate by the stars or use dead reckoning to estimate the aircraft's position.
The navigator's table

After 13 completed missions over Germany, 115th Squadron was airborne at 07:00 hours on 14 October 1944 from Witchford, United Kingdom, as part of first-wave "Operation Hurricane", to bomb a target in Duesburg, Germany. On its return from the the mission, the Lancaster was hit in what was presumed to be a shower of flack. The pilot struggled desperately at the controls as the flaming plane began its hopeless descent. Choosing to stay the course, he ordered the reluctant crew, including his navigator, to bail out.

Bill and Sgt. F. M. French, the flight engineer, were the only members of the seven-man crew to parachute safely to ground.  Bill landed in a dense rural area with an injured hand and promptly found himself being captured by a machine gun-toting German farm woman. The husky, house dress clad, distaff civilian, marched her captive across a field to her home where she cleaned and bandaged the wound on his hand, subsequently turning him over to German military authorities.

The exact landing location of the downed 115th Squadron's aircraft was never determined.  Five of the crew members were eventually declared killed in action.  Bill and French were reported missing in action for several months.
On the eve of receiving news that her son was missing in action, Mrs. Johnson had an epiphany as she lay in bed that night.  Bill appeared before her, saying "It's alright mother, I'm okay!"  When reporting the incident to her family the next day, she revealed that Bill's hand was bandaged.  For almost eight months, she held to the conviction that her "Billy" would eventually come home safely to her.  And when he ultimately did, she learned for the first time that Bill's hand had in fact been injured when he parachuted from his burning aircraft.
Allied air crew who were shot down in Germany and survived were incarcerated after lengthy interrogation at Air Force P.O.W. camps run by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), called Stalag Luft.  Stalag Luft 111 was situated in Sagan, 100 miles south-east of today's Berlin.  French was interned in Camp L7 and Bill in Camp L3.  I have not been able to determine how French was captured, nor what happened to him after the war.

Once at their permanent Stalags, the P.O.W.s' chief complaint was the lack of food. Their diet largely consisted of potatoes and moldy bread at least partially made from sawdust. Watery soup was made with carrots or turnips. In the fall of 1944, as Germany's resources ran low, the P.O.W. rations were reduced, and the Kriegies (POWs) were largely dependent on the supplementary rations in their Red Cross aid packages.

Still, with the help of the Red Cross and the YMCA, the American and Canadian prisoners found ways to take their minds off the hunger. Many Stalags allowed their prisoners to play sports. Cards were also popular and helped pass time. Many Stalags had camp newspapers created by the prisoners. Some camps put on musical or dramatic productions. Sending and receiving mail was perhaps the most important activity to the Kriegies.
POW roll call at Stalag Luft 111, Sagan, Germany.

Most agree that officers and airmen received preferential treatment over enlisted soldiers. And while there were numerous P.O.W.s who recounted horror tales of abuse at the hands of their German captors, most Air Force P.O.W.s also felt that at their respective Stalags, the Nazis for the most part, abided by the rules of the Geneva Convention.

By early 1945, the war was going badly for the Germans with Allied forces poised to overrun Hitler's homeland. As the Russian army approached from the east, the Germans decided to move the occupants of certain P.O.W. camps farther west. During the infamous treks across the country, Allied P.O.W.'s were divided into groups of up to 300 men and marched off under guard.  Bill found himself in one of those groups.

The large mass of Air Force prisoners in Stalag Luft III at Sagan was moved in the last days of January, and marched through the frosts, the snows, and the biting winds which beset the paths of the hundreds of columns at that period slowly making their roughly parallel ways west. Orders were given by senior officer prisoners not to attempt to escape, as it seemed that isolated fugitives who could not prove their identity might be an embarrassment to the advancing Allied forces.

It was moreover impossible, owing to the weather, to travel across country and spend nights in the open; and German troops were streaming back through the villages and towns, many of them in an ugly mood. The Air Force prisoners had only three days on the road, for once they reached Spremberg they were loaded onto trains, hundreds to a car. Some went to Tarmstedt, near Bremen, and marched from there to Marlag-Milag Nord at Westertimke. Bill's party went to Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde, 40 miles southwest of Berlin, a camp which already contained some 16,000 prisoners of various nationalities; another party went to Stalag XIIIC at Hammelburg; and the remainder went to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, in Bavaria.

In later years, and on the rare occasions that he spoke on the subject, Bill would downplay the miseries of his time in captivity at the hands of the Nazi military.  He was obviously uncomfortable in talking about any part of it.

As it turned out, he had only a few months to endure the conditions of his confinement at Stalag 111-A, Lukenwalde.  The Red Army eventually took control of the camp and released Commonwealth and U.S. captives on the 12th of May, 1945.  A little gaunt, but in surprisingly good condition considering what he'd been through, the Dresden farm boy's nightmare was over.  He survived, but he took no comfort in the fact that thousands of fellow P.O.W.s did not.  It had to bother him too, that at the time he did not know the fate of his other 115th Squadron crew members.

He received his RCAF discharge September 14, 1945, and returned  to Canada and his welcoming family to pick up his life where it left off four years earlier.

After a few weeks of adjustment to civilian life and letting off a little steam, Bill joined his brother-in-law Gordon Wees in a Dresden grocery store business.  When Gordon decided to retire a few years later, Bill took over the store which he ran for 30 years until he himself retired.

Destiny continued to play a role in his life when he met and married my first cousin Norma Sharpe, the first girl that he ever really dated after returning home from the war.  Norma and Bill had one son, Curtis, now a prominent dentist in nearby Chatham.

Bill was extremely active in Dresden Legion Branch 113 and a long-standing member of the local Kinsmen Club.  He also served on the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church board of directors.  His passion was golf and he was pretty good at it too.
The ever-relaxed Bill Johnston with his
Caterpillar Pin faintly visible on the left
lapel of his suit.

He rarely shared any of his P.O.W experiences, not even with his wife and son.  He preferred to leave all that in the past where, perhaps, it belonged.  In fact, I do not think that any of his closest friends ever knew the extent of his wartime ordeals.  To everyone, he was just a good guy -- extremely unassuming.-- with the slightest hint of a pleasant smile on his face. Someone that everyone in town was glad to know.  If he ever said anything bad about anyone I didn't hear it...If he ever got angry, I wasn't around to witness it.

Bill loved the truck that he used for business, but he rarely drove the family car.  I always found it rather comical that this former air force bomber navigator did not like highway traffic and driving at night.  Norma was his pilot and he left the controls of their Chrysler to her. He may have done a bit of silent navigation which he kept to himself because...Well, that was just Bill.

My mother used to say that Bill Johnston was the most contented fellow that she ever knew..."He has his comfortable home, an easy chair from which to watch his sports on television and he has Norma to look after him...He simply does not need any more than that in his life to make him happy!"  She was completely right in her assessment of a very humble man who deserved the comforts of life.  He earned them and he thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

I am forever indebted to Bill for his kindness the first Christmas after my father passed away.  I worked in a men's clothing store after school and on weekends as a teenager and on this particular Christmas eve at closing time, the store owner told me to pick out a pair of trousers because Bill Johnston had left $15.00 on deposit for me. When I got home that evening, I told my mother about what Bill had done.  "He did?" my mother gasped..."I bet Norma doesn't know about that.  She already has a gift for you."  It was just another of Bill's many quiet gestures and when I thanked him for it, his reply was typically dismissive: "That's okay Dick.  Think nothing of it!"

When Bill passed away a few years ago, members of Legion Branch 113 carried their comrade's casket and formed an honour guard.  That would have pleased him.

Knowing Roy Stevenson "Bill" Johnston as I did, I know he rests in peace...And I, for one, do not intend to forget on the 11th of November, nor any other day of the year for that matter.

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