In 1942 as the then United States Army Air Forces were establishing themselves in Britain for action against Nazi Germany, Johnson was one of the first flying officers of the nascent Eighth Air Force and spent time as a staff officer planning missions and tactics for bombing strikes against military and industrial targets in Germany and occupied Europe.
Johnson was given command of the 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy) in January 1943. In June 1943, the group was detached from the Eighth Air Force to reinforce the Ninth Air Force in North Africa and the Mediterranean for Operation TIDAL WAVE, the planned attack on petroleum refineries and infrastructure vital to the Nazi war machine surrounding Ploesti, Romania.
As the group commander, Colonel Johnson opted to focus on simply leading his unit rather than also commanding an aircraft for the mission. He boarded Major William H. Brandon's B-24D Liberator named Suzy Q for the mission on August 1, 1943.
The 44th Bombardment Group was the fourth of five groups in the attack series. The rear three had become separated from the first two during the flight to the target, and weather compounded unit cohesion problems. The bombers could only defend themselves if they could keep tight formation, so the dispersal of planes could prove disastrous.
Flight delays, and a breakdown of the overall attack plan, found the 44th over their target late...and with the target already having been attacked by one of the other groups who didn't make their own assigned targets. The enemy defenders were fully alerted and waiting for them. The last moments of their bomb run are recounted in Into the Fire: Ploesti, the Most Fateful Mission of World War II:
"We flew through sheets of flame, and airplanes were everywhere, some of them on fire and others exploding. It's indescribable to anyone who wasn't there." So wrote Col. Leon Johnson, commanding officer of the Flying Eight Balls, the 44th Bombardment Group...
Should he continue with the mission even though his target had already been attacked, or seek another target in the few seconds left to him to decide? The pilot, Maj. William Brandon, glanced at Johnson, silently asking whether they should turn back. "William," Johnson said, "you are on target!" But Johnson could not yet see the target. He recalled:
"Ahead the target looked like a solid wall of fire and smoke. It appeared that we would have to fly through it. When we got closer to the target we could see that the smoke was staggered a little. Our individual targets were in the center of a clearer spot so we were able to get through."...
Johnson led the 44th into the smoke, as though maneuvering his way through an obstacle course...They were no higher than 130 feet when they jettisoned their bombs, low enough to see them hit...The planes of the 44th flew on past the target but not yet out of danger. Johnson spied an 88-mm gun aimed directly at Suzy Q. He swung the ship left and right and passed over the gun as it fired. A shell went through one wing, leaving a gaping hole. Fortunately it did not explode; had it gone off at that low altitude, no one would have survived.A little more than one month after the attack, for his leadership and incredible courage over Ploesti, Colonel Johnson received our nation's highest honor.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):
JOHNSON, LEON W.
Rank and organization: Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 44th Bomber Group, 9th Air Force. Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943 (Air Mission). Entered service at: Moline, Kans. G.O. No.: 54, 7 September 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 1 August 1943. Col. Johnson, as commanding officer of a heavy bombardment group, led the formation of the aircraft of his organization constituting the fourth element of the mass low-level bombing attack of the 9th U.S. Air Force against the vitally important enemy target of the Ploesti oil refineries. While proceeding to the target on this 2,400-mile flight, his element became separated from the leading elements of the mass formation in maintaining the formation of the unit while avoiding dangerous cumulous cloud conditions encountered over mountainous territory. Though temporarily lost, he reestablished contact with the third element and continued on the mission with this reduced force to the prearranged point of attack, where it was discovered that the target assigned to Col. Johnson's group had been attacked and damaged by a preceding element. Though having lost the element of surprise upon which the safety and success of such a daring form of mission in heavy bombardment aircraft so strongly depended, Col. Johnson elected to carry out his planned low-level attack despite the thoroughly alerted defenses, the destructive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, the imminent danger of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions, and of intense smoke obscuring the target. By his gallant courage, brilliant leadership, and superior flying skill, Col. Johnson so led his formation as to destroy totally the important refining plants and installations which were the object of his mission. Col. Johnson's personal contribution to the success of this historic raid, and the conspicuous gallantry in action, and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty demonstrated by him on this occasion constitute such deeds of valor and distinguished service as have during our Nation's history formed the finest traditions of our Armed Forces.
Major Brandon received our nation's second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his part in flying the 44th's lead ship to the target. A synopsis of his award comes from Military Times' Hall of Valor:
Major (Air Corps) William Harold Brandon, United States Army Air Forces, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a B-24 Heavy Bomber with Headquarters, 44th Bombardment Group (H), NINTH Air Force (Attached), while participating in a bombing mission on 1 August 1943, against the Ploesti Oil Refineries in Rumania. During a long and hazardous attack against a vital enemy oil installation made at low-altitude by a formation of B-24 type aircraft, Major Brandon flew through heavy enemy fire against impossible odds, and then brought his crew safely back to base without the loss of a single man. The personal courage and zealous devotion to duty displayed by Major Brandon on this occasion, even when confronted with practically certain destruction, exemplified the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 9th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.
Suzy Q's navigator, Second Lieutenant Charles J. Selasky, and her bombardier, Second Lieutenant Berthel Swenson, were both decorated with the Silver Star (the third-highest valor award) for their roles in the attack.
The five enlisted crew members of Suzy Q all received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those men were: Staff Sergeant William R. Brady, Jr. (Tail Gunner), Technical Sergeant John F. Irwin (Radioman/Gunner), Staff Sergeant Kelly L. Morrison (Waist Gunner), Staff Sergeant Frank S. Paglia (Waist Gunner), and Sergeant Thomas C. Ray (Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner)
Leon Johnson served throughout World War II and afterwards. He transitioned to the United States Air Force with its establishment as a separate service in 1947. He initially retired in 1961, but was recalled to active duty just weeks later and served until his final retirement in 1965, holding the rank of General. General Johnson throughout his career and wartime service also was decorated thrice with the Army or Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, and twice with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also received the British Distinguished Flying Cross for recognition of his service by our closest ally.
Johnson passed away on November 10, 1997 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.