Carl C. Johnson
Carl Johnson was born in Bellaire, Ohio, where he grew up right across the river from Wheeling, W.Va. His high school was integrated and so was the campus at Ohio State, which he attended until he was drafted.
Johnson joined the US Army in 1945, was accepted as an aviation cadet and assigned to aviation training at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Class 43-I-SE. He became ill during his field training and after a two-week bout of appendicitis, the 12 black airmen of his class had already earned their wings from the Army.
“I was positive they were going to eliminate me,” said Johnson in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post.
Dozens of other students in the final class had already washed out of the program, the premier training ground for African American pilots, navigators and bombardiers in the segregated military of the 1940s. “I had a weekend pass for Atlanta. When I came back, they said they were looking for me. The general who was head of the command had been there in Tuskegee. They told them about this last cadet they had.”
“I was the last cadet at Tuskegee. I was the last Tuskegee Airman to graduate.”
The year was 1946, which made him too late to serve in World War II. Carl was sent to Enid Army Air Field, OK and then to Lockbourne Army Air Force, Columbus, OH where he joined the 617th Bomber Squadron (M) 477th Bombardment Group Composite.
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman made history by ordering the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. But much was left unchanged.
“A lot of the states ignored that,” Johnson remembered.
At a base in Enid, Okla., Johnson shared a room with a supply sergeant because there was no place for a black pilot to live.
He eventually joined the Ohio National Guard. “They had one black unit. They didn’t have any blacks anywhere else in the division except in our battalion. It was all black. The commanding officer was black.”
Johnson made a career out of being an Army aviator. Over the next 31 years, he flew in the Korean War and commanded an aviation battalion consisting of seven companies in Vietnam. Colonel Johnson flew fixed and rotary winged aircraft as well as serving as the Commander of a US Army Aviation Battalion in the Republic of South Korea. Upon retirement from the US Army, he held positions within the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.
He received a Distinguished Flying Cross and 10 Air Medals. “I got the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in Vietnam. We had units on the ground who were being attacked,” Johnson said. “I was called for artillery fire. We were flying over where everything was taking place. I could see tracers coming around.”
In 2007, Johnson and other Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Johnson was among 300 black aviators, most of them in their 8os, who gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to receive recognition for their service.
“You showed America that there was nothing a black person couldn’t do,” said former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who served as the country’s first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President George W. Bush acknowledged the terrible racism that all the Tuskegee Airmen had endured.
“For all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities. . . . I salute you for your service to the United States of America,” Bush told them.
The commander in chief saluted them. And Johnson and the other aviators got to their feet and saluted back.