DALEVILLE, Va. — Normally they call him the mayor of The Glebe, the guy who loves to extol the virtues of the retirement community to all potential residents. But Monday the salute was on a much grander scale.
Retired Air Force Col. And Fairfield County native Joseph Johnson was awarded France’s highest decoration — the Legion of Honor, class of Chevalier — in a ceremony that was part pomp, part standup comedy and part wedding anniversary celebration.
The 92-year-old World War II pilot was honored Monday for his heroism on D-Day, when he bombed anti-tank obstacles on Utah Beach, as well as for the 65 missions he flew over France and Germany, and for being one of two survivors of an airplane explosion that blew him 100 feet into the air and put second- and third-degree burns over most of his face and killed 38 of his fellow Airmen.
After waking up scarred in a French hospital, he wrote his wife that she didn’t have to marry him if she didn’t want to. But eight years after Dreama Johnson’s death, he wanted the standing-room only crowd to know that Monday would have been the 67th anniversary of their wedding.
“The biggest event in my life,” he said. “D-Day was second.”
The pair retired to rural Fincastle after his 30 years of military service, which included inspecting base operations for Gen. Robert McNamara in Vietnam. He never spoke much about D-Day or his other war experiences, according to his daughter, Dreama Kattenbraker — not until his six grandsons asked him about it decades after the fact.
Only then did she and her sister learn that Johnson still has flak in his arms and legs from being jettisoned in the explosion on Dec. 9, 1944 while trying to rescue a flight surgeon from the smoking plane.
He was working the control tower that day when a bomber took off loaded with demolition bombs and crashed near the runway.
By the time he pulled up with other rescue personnel, the plane was smoking. Water sprayed on the hot bombs probably caused them to detonate, he later learned.
But Johnson has no direct memories of the explosion — just the “sensation that I was floating alone, enveloped in a warm gentle breeze,” as he wrote in one of his self-published memoirs. He woke up with severe burns, hearing loss that still plagues him and a concussion, but was eventually cleared to fly with the Air Force for another 28 years.
“He never talked about emotional things,” Kattenbraker recalled. “He was just always the colonel, always tough.”
Once the stories started pouring out, Johnson talked and wrote enough to fill two memoirs — about his military service as well as his marriage.
Nicole Yancey, honorary consul of France for Virginia, told a few of the stories as she presented the decoration, created by Napoleon in 1802 to acknowledge services rendered to France by persons of great merit. “To recognize your bravery in combat,” she said, after which Johnson offered a “merci beaucoup” and gave her a European-style kiss on each cheek. Johnson is the fourth veteran in the Roanoke area to receive the honor, Yancey said.
Reared in Clifton Forge, Johnson gave a folksy speech sans notes, recognizing all the other decorated veterans in the crowd as well as his friend Lucille Boggess, whose brothers Bedford Hoback and Raymond Hoback were among the “Bedford Boys” killed in action on the shores of Normandy on D-Day.
He said his goal had been to stay in the war beyond his 65 required flying missions — “I wanted 100. I’ve always been competitive,” he said. But then came the explosion that sent him to a French hospital for four months.
“People in France know how to cook rabbit better than anybody I’ve seen,” he added, before putting his Glebe mayor hat on and shilling for the Botetourt County retirement community. “Come to the Glebe before you get a stroke or a heart attack so you can actually enjoy the place!” he said.
The award application was spearheaded by Kattenbraker and Boggess, who pulled his military history together and filled out the paperwork. “I didn’t want to do it,” Johnson said.
His wife, he said, deserved the accolades more.
This story originally appeared in The Roanoke Times and is reprinted here by kind permission.