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After completing his aviation training in , he was assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, part of the 56th Fighter Group. In January , this formation was deployed to England for operations in the European Theatre. The aircraft soon became renowned for its incredible durability. On June 26, , that reputation for toughness was put to the ultimate test and Johnson was the unfortunate guineapig.
While escorting a formation of bombers returning from a bombing run against an airfield in France, Johnson and his squadmates were ambushed by 16 German Focke-Wulf Fw s.
The Fw s took the Thunderbolts completely by surprise. The glass canopy above his head shattered, sending tiny shards flying into the cockpit. The instrument panel was destroyed and fire began to lick into the cockpit, which quickly filled with black smoke. Desperate to escape, Johnson attempted to open the canopy so he could bail out. Unfortunately for him, it opened just six inches before jamming.
It was originally supposed to be a ‘light’ fighter
Still desperate to bail out, Johnson attempted to climb out through the shattered canopy, but his parachute snagged on the frame. Realisation quickly settled in. There would be no escaping the seemingly doomed aircraft. If he wanted to live, he would have to pilot the crippled Thunderbolt to safety. Suddenly, the fire miraculously flamed out. But this gave Johnson little respite. One of the enemy shells had ripped through the hydraulic lines, sending fluid spraying into the cockpit. Within moments, his eyes became badly swollen, leaving him half blind.
This too was excruciating, as the icy wind flowed over his swollen eyes. Through enormous physical effort, Johnson managed to right the still spinning fighter, levelling off. The extensive damage to the hydraulic systems left him with little ability to manoeuvre his battered P If he made it that far, Air-Sea Rescue would pick him up out of the water.
P Thunderbolt: The Freedom Fighter (Game) - Giant Bomb
Just when it seemed that, with a bit of luck, the Thunderbolt might be able to carry Johnson to safety, he spotted a lone aircraft behind his plodding P Initially, Johnson held a faint hope that it was a fellow American, but as the fighter drew close enough for his watery eyes to make out details, Johnson was quickly disabused of that notion.
If his Thunderbolt was shot down, he would go down with it. Mayer drew close. Very close. Bullets and cannon shells tore through the fuselage. Johnson jolted every time a shell thumped into the armour plate. After several seconds of continuous fire, Johnson had had enough.
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He stomped on the rudder pedals, sending the P swinging left and right. In an angry but futile effort, Johnson squeezed the trigger of his flight stick, spraying rounds in the general direction of the German fighter, who casually peeled safely away.
Johnson was surprised when, instead of moving to continue the barrage, Mayer pulled up alongside the P, moving within a few feet of the crippled but somehow still flying Thunderbolt. As Johnson watched, Mayer scanned the length of the Thunderbolt before shaking his head in astonishment that the thing was still in the air.
Making eye contact with Johnson, Mayer waved his hand before peeling away. Johnson huddled behind the armour plate once more and Mayer resumed pouring rounds into the shredded Thunderbolt. Johnson endured several more seconds of punishment. As Mayer pulled up alongside for the second time, Johnson realised they had just reached the English Channel.
P-47 Thunderbolt Fighter Aircraft
Safety was only a few miles away. That is, if the German let him get that far. Once again, Johnson watched as Mayer assessed the Thunderbolt, shaking his head in amazement.