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September 16, 2013

WWII veteran: 'They made the war personal'

WWII veteran recounts service aboard a B-17 bomber

1943: It was a big year for Malcolm Johnston.

In just 12 months, he married his childhood sweetheart, Carolyn, became a United States citizen, and joined the United States Air Force.

“It’s surprising how much can happen in a short time,” said Johnston, a Haverhill resident who now is 90 years old.

As his young bride followed him from base to base, Johnston, a technical sergeant, became the radio operator and gunner as part of a nine-man crew flying in a B-17 bomber.

“I wanted to fly, to be a pilot,” Johnston recalled. “But they had filled the pilot position and the next one that they were filling was for the radio.”

Soon, Johnston’s unit was deployed to Lavenham, England. From there, the crew flew bombing raids over mostly strategic targets, like bridges, airfields and oil storage depots.

“It was a very impersonal war for an airman, because you could only see the planes and the guns coming at you,” he said. “Maybe you would see the top of the helmet of someone in the plane.”

The war became more personal when Johnston was involved in the bombing of Dusseldorf, Germany.

“I had nightmares about that,” he said. “You knew you were killing people. We had killed people before — maybe one or two people die when you hit a storage depot. But it was not the same as bombing a city.”

Years later, in his retirement, Johnston and Carolyn visited Dusseldorf as tourists.

“I kept looking over my shoulder. I figured that someone was going to figure out that this SOB was the one dropping bombs,” he said.

The B-17 flew at around 28,000 feet, similar altitude to where commercial aircraft fly today. However, the cabin in the B-17 was not pressurized, meaning that there was little oxygen and temperatures dipped as low as minus 60 degrees.

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