Published: 00:01, 13 April 2014
The bravery of an American pilot who gave his life saving his crew and residents of Hamstreet 70 years ago will be remembered today.
Lieutenant William “Bill” Johnson was the pilot of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, known as Spare Parts, which was part of the 711th Bombardment Squadron, 447th Bombardment Group, of the United States Army Air Forces.
On Thursday, April 13, 1944, having ordered his crew to abandon the plane, which had been heavily damaged over Europe, Lt Johnson intentionally crashed to the south of Hamstreet to avoid killing villagers.
After the crash, Technical Sergeant Frank Hazzard said: “For about 20 minutes after we hit the French coast everything went along smoothly, but then suddenly all hell began to break loose.
“A terrific explosion sounded directly beneath my turret, and I knew we had been hit pretty badly.
“All four officers had been wounded by the flak. The co-pilot had been hit in the arm rather badly and the pilot had been hit in the back of the neck, but he told me to take care of the navigator first.”
Lt Johnson, 23, and his crew were among the lead of a group of 243 B-17’s which were taking part in a raid to bomb the Messerschmitt aircraft plant at Augsburg in Bavaria, southern Germany.
Around 100 miles inland from the French coast the group came under heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns, causing a number of bombers to abort the mission.
The squadron was based at RAF Rattlesden in Suffolk, and on the return journey Lt Johnson ordered his nine crew members to bail out of their stricken aircraft over Hythe.
But he took the decision to attempt to crash-land the Flying Fortress.
As he crossed Romney Marsh and was approaching Hamstreet, Lt Johnson realised that his B-17 was going to come down over the village.
In order to avoid the inevitable loss of life, he sacrificed his own life by nose-diving the huge bomber to the south of Hamstreet.
Sgt Hazzard added: “When I landed I saw the co-pilot a few feet away. The first thing he said to me was, ‘combat’s rough, you can get hurt at this sort of thing’.
“It struck me very funny at that moment but I guess there’s nothing very humorous about what we went through.
“If it hadn’t been for the courage and skill of our pilot in bringing the ship home – the wreck was on one engine – and for the wonderful job done by our navigator, even though he was in constant pain and weak through loss of blood, we never could have made it back.”
In recognition of his bravery, the Americans nominated Lt Johnson for the Congressional Medal of Honour, and he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Hamstreet chooses its own ways to remember his actions.
When the village received a bypass in the mid 1990s, a junction off the road towards Hamstreet, close to where he crashed, was named Johnson’s Corner. A memorial was also erected in his memory.
A memorial service will be held today to mark the 70th anniversary of that fateful day.
Orlestone parish councillor Vince Watkins said: “Whilst Lieutenant Johnson was only one man who lost his life, his story epitomises those of others who also lost their lives to save others.
“His memory lives on thanks to volunteers past and present who built and maintain the memorial along with friends and family from the United States" - Cllr Vince Watkins
“His memory lives on thanks to volunteers past and present who built and maintain the memorial along with friends and family from the United States, who still regularly send flowers and wreaths on Remembrance Sunday to pay their respects.
“A memorial Service will be held to honour Lieutenant Johnson, his crew and all other allied airmen who have fought for freedom in the World Wars and other conflicts around the world since.
“The memorial event is open to any residents of the village. We would welcome as many people along who would like to attend."
The memorial service will start at 11am in the Pound Leas Car Park in Hamstreet.