The Airmen of Pacific County: Wartime Adventures in Norway

Colonel Les Johnsen, with an F-102 in the background, ca. 1970.

Major Lester Johnsen

South Bend

Pacific tour

7th Fighter Squadron (plane: P-40 Warhawk)

49th Fighter Group,

5th Air Force, AAF

Australia & New Guinea


European tour

8th Air Force, AAF (plane: P-51 Mustang)

attached to the Royal Norwegian Air Force:

London, The Netherlands, and Oslo


Lester Johnsen, a 1935 graduate of South Bend High, achieved local and regional fame as an outstanding track athlete.

During this time, older brother Arne, Les, and younger sister Irene worked while they attended high school, aiding their mother in the support of the family home on Eklund Park hill. (Their father, John Johnsen, had died while both boys were in their early teen years. Mother Louise Johnsen kept chickens and cows, selling milk and eggs to the local Norwegian families.)

Later, Irene also joined the military, the Women's Marine Corps, after graduating from South Bend High in 1943.

Les developed into a track speedster while in junior and senior high school, setting records in the sprints and hurdle races. His 1934 and 1935 state championships in the 220 low hurdles broke the state record.

Following graduation from South Bend, Les attended San Mateo (California) Junior College and Stanford University, where he graduated in 1940 with a B. A. degree in social science. Morris Stromsness, a cousin who was also from Eklund Park, was a helpful friend for Les during his college years.

Pearl Harbor Aftermath: The Dark Days of 1942

Immediately following graduation from Stanford, Les entered the U. S. Army Air Force as a pilot trainee. Within a year he had won his wings and was in preparation to continue flight training in the Philippines when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Two days later his fighter unit was alerted that they were to be sent to Australia. At the same time Japanese forces were triumphantly invading the western Pacific.

In the meantime, the AAF's 49th Pursuit Group had been issued embarkment orders from San Francisco on Jan. 4, 1942, and was the first to arrive in Australia as a complete unit, with all flying and support echelons fully manned and equipped.

It was not, however, the main force of the 49th that first reached Java. Instead, it was the 17th Provisional Pursuit Squadron, of which Lester was one of the flyers. (Les's widow Eleanor recalls her husband saying that his squadron, fresh from their technical training, had assembled their own P-40 fighters before setting out against the best pilots of the Japanese army and navy. Mechanics had not arrived when the young pilots had arrived in Australia. Les later revealed that after he and his mates assembled their own planes they had leftover parts. They flew them anyway.)

Late in January 1940, P-40s of the 17th Squadron had arrived in Java from a 3,000 mile ferry flight from Australia. About 40 of the planes were readied for action to defend Java, with a few A-24 dive bombers added to the mix. Despite the heroic efforts of the Allies, the Japanese had established bases in the East Indies from which they could strafe and bomb the four American airfields, none of which had anti-aircraft batteries. Although the Americans destroyed many enemy aircraft, they fought against overwhelming odds and eventually lost all their planes and half their pilots in the Battle of Java.

The Struggle For Java

In Australia, newly arrived fighter aircraft and light bombers, originally destined for the Philippines, were diverted to Brisbane and Townsville. Once assembled, the planes were flown to Darwin. From Brisbane they were flown 400 miles due west to Charleville, and then another 500 miles to Cloncurry, Queensland. The aircraft assembled in Townsville were flown 400 miles directly to Cloncurry. The next 500 mile leg was to Daly Waters in the Northern Territory, and finally on to Darwin. The entire route, from Brisbane to Java, which was 3,600 miles in length, was part of what became known as the "Brereton Route."

In the Battle of the Java Sea, at the end of February 1942, Allied air and naval units attempted to stop a Japanese convoy of some 80 ships that approached Java from the northeast. All available U.S. bombers and fighters were put into the air but achieved poor results. The Allied naval force of five cruisers and 11 destroyers under a Dutch rear admiral met Japanese forces near Surabaya, Java and were decisively defeated. Five allied ships were sunk and most of the American Fifth Air Force ground crews had to be evacuated by sea.

The SS Sea Witch had delivered 27 crated P-40s to Tjilatjap, Java, but had to destroy the planes to prevent their falling into the hands of the Japanese.

Thirty-two more P-40s, aboard the seaplane tender USS Langley, had sailed from Australia to India on Feb. 23, but were lost when the Langley was sunk. The Japanese sunk all of the ships in this group with the exception of a destroyer, which brought many of the rescued pilots to Perth, Australia.

Although rumors have long persisted that Les had survived being shot down, he never experienced that fate. To escape the advances of the Japanese forces, however, the Les and his fellow pilots (of his squadron) were able to make their way back to Australia with the other survivors on the last flight of the AAF bomber of "Queens Die Proudly" fame.

Reorganized in Australia, the now battle-seasoned American fighter group took on the task of beating enemy planes away from the port of Darwin, and then spearheaded the long drive for the recovery of New Guinea.

Air Attache to the Royal Norwegian Air Force

Sent home from the Pacific war in 1943, Les was assigned to train fighter pilots, first in Massachusetts and then North Carolina. During this time he was promoted, first to captain, and then to major. An opportunity was then presented that would lead Les in a completely different direction in his military career.

The AAF was looking for a flying officer with a college education, and a person who could speak fluent Norwegian. Les's qualifications were a perfect match. He had been an outstanding student, a university graduate, a combat flier with distinguished service (both as a fighter pilot and squadron leader), an air corps executive of proven ability, and, finally, an American-born son of naturalized citizens of Norwegian descent. All that and he also could speak fluent Norwegian (albeit a northern dialect).

After serving for a time as an American attache of the Royal Norwegian Air Force in exile in Washington, D. C., Les was transferred to London following the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. Bored with the months of office duties, he begged his commanders to be allowed to report to the Norwegian air base (A-65) in Holland. His commander finally relented to this move but had only a P-51 that had been used for training sessions. It was painted a bright red. Les later told of his adventures in the red Mustang.

I was issued a P-51, an early model with a greenhouse canopy, which had been painted a bright red, a beautiful sight. The main fuel tank, normally behind the pilot, had been removed, leaving a compartment big enough for a brave soul to ride in, without the benefit of a parachute. With Major Willie O'Donnell, and many bottles of Schenley's Black Label, I took off on a new adventure. We were welcomed to the base, A-65, at Nijmegen, Holland, by Major Wilhelm Mohr.

(Major Mohr, by the 1960s would become the Commanding General of the Royal Norwegian Air Force.) The wing's mission was to strafe trains, convoys, or anything else that moved, to keep the Germans from regrouping. While I was at A-65, many Norwegians took rides with me, even lining up to take short hops. During some of the missions we shot up German ammo stored in barns and haystacks, and when they were hit they really blew.

By May, 1945, the war began to wind down. We still flew missions, but had time to make excursions into Germany to view some of the destruction to the Nazi war machine ... then came the surrender. Allied intelligence circles were concerned about a rumored last stand that the Germans might make in Norway. As a fighter pilot, I was eager to press on as ordered.

Les was ordered to fly to Norway, to represent the U. S. and to support the returning Norwegian government from its exile in London.

As I flew over southern Norway, with the clouds below me, I wondered what kind of legacy the war would leave. Norway was the land of my forefathers, the birthplace of both my mother and father. It occurred to me to show my U.S. aircraft markings, so around the city of Oslo I flew, pulling tighter and tighter turns. A stadium full of people caught my eye and I went down for a closer look, and then another pass, dipping into the bowl. I was sure the people must have enjoyed my salute, but then I thought that the speaker might have been annoyed.

After I landed I found out that the speaker was Crown Prince Olav, who had just returned to Norway after his five years of exile, and was addressing his countrymen. He and his group had preceded me by several hours and had received a tumultous welcome. I was informed that he had had to stop his speech with each of my passes. During a subsequent audience with him, as a U. S. Embassy official, you can be sure that I didn't mention the flyby.

A first important task as Air Attache was to survey all of Norway's airfields ... My first landing after leaving Oslo was Vernes, Trondheim's airport.

Nazi planes were still there, minus their propellers. There was one Norwegian in overall command, with still-armed German officers under him. They were kept well-armed in order to keep order and prevent looting in the airdrome. The German officers took me to their mess for a lunch of coffee, cheese, and bread. They asked very politely if they could sit down with me. I'll never forget those immaculately dressed officers and airmen, with their Lugers strapped to their sides. I wonder how they felt when an unarmed American emerged from the cockpit?

From Trondheim I flew north to Bodo. The little city, like so many in Norway, had been built entirely of wooden structures. When the Germans had bombed Bodo in 1940, it had burned to the ground.

My parents had come from Kjerringoy, an island 20 miles north of Bodo, and about 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle ... The Germans gave me instructions on how to get there, and after a telephone call it was ascertained that the people on the island knew my parents and who I was because of the mail delivered by the Red Cross during the German occupation. My mother had written that she had a son in the U.S. Army Air Force.

I flew over the island, and after the second pass the people ran up many flags. What an emotional sight. I then returned to the Bodo airfield and made arrangements with a local fisherman to haul me and a load of coffee, sugar, tobacco, raisins, rice, and other food supplies that had not been on the island since the invasion had taken place years before.

Two of the men who brought the small fish boat from Kjerringoy to take Lester to the island turned out to be cousins, the boat owner Jorang Pedersen and Oskar Stromsnes, who had once lived in South Bend, but had returned to Norway in the early 1930s.

Oskar was the brother-in-law of Anna Michaelsen, who also was Lester's aunt.) Anna and her husband John, who had several children, lived on Eklund Park hill. Many of the family's descendants still live in Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.

Meanwhile, Lester was soon to learn just how many cousins he had on Kjerringoy. On arrival at the Kjerringoy dock he was greeted by people from all corners of the island who had gathered to see their Norwegian-American hero. One can only imagine the love and adulation that must have been pouring from the islanders' hearts on that day.

...It was moving to have someone come up and say, 'I am your father's brother,' or 'I am your mother's sister.' It turned out that probably 60 percent of the people dockside were relatives! In contrast to Oslo, where my Norwegian accent produced knowing smiles (because of the far north dialect), I had no trouble understanding every word spoken in the dialect that I had learned growing up on Eklund Park. Here I was among my own people!

There were horse drawn carts on the island, but no cars. We loaded aboard, and, with a procession following, started out for a cousin's house. There the first coffee in years was brewed. The people said that seeing an Allied pilot, and enjoying the aroma of coffee again proved that the occupation had truly ended.

My days at Kjerringoy were spent seeing where my mother and father were born, visiting many relatives, and sorting out the complicated family relationships. There and elsewhere in Norway I learned details about the occupation.

During the war, red had been a forbidden color - it was the color of resistance. With the liberation, red blossomed everywhere. Norwegian ingenuity came into full bloom during the occupation, including a small Oslo apartment I discovered which contained everything from a garden to a pig and chickens. The housewife proudly said, 'My husband had an egg every morning.'

In 1964 Lester, wife Eleanor, and their children returned to Norway when Les, then a colonel, was named U.S. Defense Attache. As he was passing through Oslo customs, the agent asked him, "Do you remember me?" Les answered "Not really." The agent replied, "I flew with you in your red Mustang."

Fifteen years later, in 1979, Les waited in London to board a plane to Oslo. A man approached him and asked in Norwegian: "Weren't you in Norway's 332 Squadron?" Les replied, "Yes, but I'm not Norwegian, I'm an American." The man said, "Yes, I know. I used to refuel your red Mustang and flew with you once."

Post War Duty in the USAF

Beginning with his Norway assignment from 1945 to 1948, Les experienced many opportunities to serve Norway, from the working class to the ruling class. Immediately after the war he helped Henrik Ibsen's son, Tankard, to get to Italy to visit his mother. Les's wife Eleanor remembers visiting the Holmenkollen, with tens of thousands of Norwegians dressed in a sea of red, the color that had been forbidden by the Nazis as a sign of resistance.

During the immediate postwar years, while Henry Jackson was in Norway on official business, the Washington senator went to Kjerringoy, which was also the home of his ancestors. Jackson was suddenly felled by illness and needed penicillin, which was not available. Les personally flew an emergency mission to Germany to pick up the drugs that saved his fellow Norwegian-American's life. Other, more lighthearted moments, included Lester and Eleanor flying members of Norway's royal family to London for weekend soirees.


and Writer's Notes

1. Lester Johnsen held state high school track records (low hurdles and the 880 yard relay) back in the days when there was only one state track championship meet for all schools, regardless of size. He also had been a star athlete in football and basketball. At Stanford, Les was part of a relay team that set a national record. In the military Les was a bona fide hero, having fought bravely against the Japanese forces in 1942 when the war was in its darkest months for the U.S. Later, as an attache to Norway, the Norwegian government honored Les in several ways. Family members still live in the area. His widow, Eleanor, lives in Shelton. Sister Irene Patrick lives in South Bend. It would be safe to say that Les Johnsen was one of South Bend High School's most prestigious graduates.

2. Story written by Les Johnsen appeared in an issue of Air Force magazine. One of the subjects discussed was of his experiences in postwar Norway. Other issues of Air Force magazine tell of the heroics of the 49th Fighter Group. A member of the 17th Privisional Pursuit Squadron for a time, Les then became a member of the 7th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group. The term pursuit was used for only a short time. "Pursuit" was dropped in favor of "fighter."

3. Several interviews with Eleanor Johnsen. She told this writer that on her and Les's first date, he brought along all his track buddies from Stanford (including a fellow named Mushy Girard, who later went on to teach or coach at Santa Clara and San Jose State).

4. Protect and Avenge: The 49th Fighter Group in World War II, by S. W. Ferguson and William K. Pascalis. Internet access.

5. Chronology of Johnsen career

a. At the end of WWII, after Les first became the U. S. air attache to Norway.

b. Years in Air Force after leaving Norway in 1948:

(1) New York to Virginia to Pentagon

(2) Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama

(3) Japan, after the Korean War.

(4) In Okinawa from 1958 to 1960, flying F-102s.

In 1959, Colonel Lester Johnsen was the commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, based at Naha, Okinawa. As a participant at the 1959 World Wide Weapons Meet, Les was known as "Mister Missile," for his leading role in the USAF's "Project William Tell," scheduled at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. As part of the operation Johnsen piloted a 102 Delta Dagger, traveling faster than the speed of sound, to direct the fire of both the radar and an infrared seeking version of the Falcon missile and a 600-mph jet drone trainer, acting the part of the "enemy" designated as the Ryan Q-2A Firebee ... As is the case with all-weather interceptors, the pilot never saw his target even though he destroyed it. -South Bend Journal, Sept. 10, 1959

(5) At Geiger AF Base in Spokane, from 1960 to 1964.

(6) In Norway from 1964 to 1968. Norway commissioned a commemorative stamp of Norway's royal family that included guests at a royal tribute. Lester's was a part of the stamp's imagery.

(7) Les retired ca. 1970, giving him 30 years in the Air Force, beginning in 1940.

6. The Family: Lester and Eleanor (aka Peanuts) had three children: Mike, Kristine, and John. All the children attended schools in Norway for several years. Mike was educated at both the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Washington. Mike lives with his family in San Francisco, where he has recently retired after a career as a pilot with Fed-Ex. Kristine, who was born in Norway, married U.S. Army helicopter pilot Steve Magner. The Magners now live in Leavenworth, Kansas. John, the youngest of the three children, was born in 1951. A University of Washington graduate, he learned to fly in Nationalist China (Taiwan). The Chinese Air Command took on John as a favor to the Johnsen family. John tragically died of cancer while serving as a USAF pilot. His widow Jana lives close to Eleanor on the family tree farm outside of Shelton, where a new generation of Johnsens are doing well.

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