Yesterday was my daughter’s seventh re-birthday. As a high school freshman, on January 7, 2013, she underwent neurosurgery at Oregon Health Sciences University to drain a cyst that was that was pushing her brain off its center line and causing her significant issues. She came through the ordeal with flying colors, finished high school as her class valedictorian, and is currently completing her B.S. in biology.
Each year on January 7th, we take the day off and go celebrate together. Part of that ce
Relebration includes a bookstore visit–Powells Books in Portland, or the Barnes & Noble in Eugene. Then we go off and do something else fun. This year, we went and hung out with bald eagles, osprey, hawks and owls at the Cascades Raptor Center in south Eugene.
On the way, I stopped us very suddenly in front of a little house not far from downtown Eugene.
“What are we doing here?” She asked.
I grabbed an advance copy of Race of Aces from the back of the car and answered, “Meeting the owner of that house!”
Very reluctantly, Renee followed me to the front door. I rang the bell. Renee whispered, “It looks like we’re missionaries or something.”
A very kindly older woman answered the door. I introduced us and said, “Your house used to be owned by the Johnson family.”
“Why yes, I’d heard that!” she said, surprised.
“Their son, Gerald, grew up here. He became one of the great fighter leaders for the Army Air Force during WWII, and Oregon’s top ace.”
I handed her Race and said, “Thirty years ago, I wrote a research paper in graduate school about Gerald and all his neighbors here and what happened to them during WWII. That start led to this book.”
They were remarkable neighbors. John Skillern who lived behind the Johnsons, served in the 10th Mountain Division. Jim Bennet was killed aboard a PT-Boat at Iwo Jima. Marge Goodman lived next door. She joined the Navy and documented captured Japanese aircraft brought back from the Pacific. Her brother became Haile Selassie’s personal pilot. Many never came home. Others were blown to the winds by the war, choosing to make the military their career following VJ Day.
In 1942, as Gerald headed off to war in his first combat deployment, his squadron flew through Oregon en route to the Aleutian Islands. Gerald, piloting a Bell P-39 Airacobra, flew right down the street in front of his family’s house, pulled up and executed a mini-aerobatics show for his neighbors, who streamed out of their homes to watch the show.
His family missed it. They’d been off having a spring picnic north of town.
As Renee and I drove down that street, I related the story to her. Witnesses said he flew between the trees lining the sidewalks.
Later that day, after we we met some of the coolest birds we’ve ever seen, I took Renee to Pioneer Cemetery that sits in the middle of the University of Oregon campus. In 1990, as a young grad students, I spent almost two years documenting the veterans who were laid to rest there. It is a remarkable place, full of history. Including a small, but crucial moment for Gerald Johnson.
In 1939, Gerald was a freshman at the U of O, enamored with a girl he’d seen while hiking north of town a few weeks before. He asked around and discovered she was a senior at University High, which was acquired by the college years ago and became the education building. Barbara Hall lived southeast of campus, and each day she would walk through the cemetery on her way home. Somebody told Gerald of her routine, and he dashed off after school to find her.
He caught up with her near the Civil War Memorial and introduced himself. It was the start of a romance that transcended distance, separation and war. That moment the two met in the autumn rain, they became soul mates.
Bill Runey was a classmate and friend of Barbara’s. He stayed in touch with her after graduation, then joined the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor. He ended up in Gerald Johnson’s fighter group in New Guinea. In the fall of 1943, Gerald flew into Bill’s airfield, found him and introduced himself. They hadn’t known each other in Eugene, but Gerald had seen on some paperwork that Bill was from his town. He was delighted to learn that Bill was friends with Barbara. The two put the war on hold for an afternoon and sat under the wing of a P-40, talking of home and their mutual friends. Despite their differences in rank–Bill was a young LT, Johnson a Major, Gerald shared some deeply personal things, including the depth of his love for Barbara. They became fast friends.
When I started researching Gerald’s life, I met Bill through Barbara in 1992. He quickly became like a second father to me. For years, we met for lunch once a week, often with Barbara, sometimes with other veterans from Eugene. The Uni High grads stayed in touch all their lives, meeting once a month to chat about old times, grandkids and life in Eugene. I was fortunate to meet some of them through Bill.
The last time I saw Bill, he was dying at a local care facility. I sat beside his hospital bed and read part of Indestructible to him.
He’d always wanted to meet some of the Japanese pilots he battled against over the skies of New Guinea. I was never able to arrange that for him, but I did introduce him to the head of the Zero Fighter Pilot’s Association in 1999. We had lunch together, and the two warmed up to each other and exchanged letters for years, though they fought in different areas of the Pacific.
On a trip to the USAF archives, I had found a diary and a POW interrogation report of a Japanese bomber crewman captured right near Bill’s airfield. Several crews were shot down during air raids on that American outpost. Some survived by stealing food from American supply dumps, until they were hunted down and killed or captured.
I read Bill the two reports. It was the best I could do for him, and he looked at me and said, “I think his plane was the one I shot down that month.”
Bill passed two days later at 96. He was a great guy. His family asked me to help lay him to rest. So on a day in August, 2016, we gathered at the cemetery where his dear friends Barbara and Gerald first met and fell in love. Only a few yards from the Civil War Memorial, we said our goodbyes. He rests in peace, surrounded by generations of warriors, neighbors and friends.
In the winter rain yesterday, Renee and I visited Bill, and I told her the story of how Barbara and Gerald met.