Local News

Saturday, Nov 10 2012 02:00 PM

World War II combat pilots nurture lifelong friendship

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ray Johnson, of Bakersfield, was a B-24 pilot in Europe during WWII. Johnson is 91, and currently lives in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ray Johnson, (standing left) with his flight crew in 1944. Johnson is 91, and lives in Bakersfield.

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  3. 3 of 8

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Dorothy Hutchison, U.S. Army nurse in WWII. Dorothy is the first wife of Stanley Hutchison, 90, who lives in Bakersfield.

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  4. 4 of 8

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Stanley Hutchison, right, receives his Distinguished Flying Cross during WWII. Hutchison, 90, lives in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield's Stanley Hutchison, (front left) with his flight crew during WWII in Italy. Hutchison is 90 and he lives in town.

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  6. 6 of 8

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Stanley Hutchison during WWII. He now resides in Bakersfield and is 90-years-old.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Stanley Hutchison, 90, left, and Ray Johnson, 91, flew a combined 85 bombing missions as B-24 pilots in Europe during WWII. But they didn't meet until they returned home in 1945. They attended UC Berkeley together courtesy of the GI Bill after the war and remain friends to this day. Both live in Bakersfield.

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  8. 8 of 8

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Ray Johnson, 91, left, and Stanley Hutchison, 91, both flew bombing missions during WWII and are good friends years later in Bakersfield.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Separately they piloted B-24 Liberators over Nazi-occupied Europe during what author Studs Terkel called "The Good War."

They were young, with boyish faces that belied the heavy responsibility they shouldered for their crewmen and country. And when they flew into flak-darkened skies over Hitler's Germany to bomb munitions factories and oil refineries, each mission could have been their last.

Ray Johnson, now 91, and Stanley Hutchison, 90, flew a combined 85 bombing missions as B-24 pilots in Europe during World War II. They didn't meet until they returned home from the war, but they've maintained a bond of friendship ever since.

"It's wonderful to see two men who have known each other and been friends this long," said Madalyn Hutchison, Stan's wife of 36 years.

Today, Veterans Day 2012, Johnson and Hutchison will look back at their own experiences during World War II. But they also will remember and honor all veterans, including those who served their country in wartime and those who kept the peace.

It's important, Mrs. Hutchison said, for all Americans to do the same.

"So many people don't know what everyone went through during the war," she said. "It's important to remember the sacrifices people made."

RAY JOHNSON

Imagine steering a four-engine plane carrying tons of fuel and explosives directly into a war zone.

Chalk it up to the confidence of youth -- or maybe the difficulty of dwelling on the stark possibilities -- but Johnson didn't worry much about his own mortality during those heady days, despite the obvious dangers.

"It's very amazing that it never occurred to me that I could be shot down," he remembered. "I had no fear.

"I think the reason for that is I was only 23, though I was the oldest member of my crew."

It was not unusual to return to his base in England, inspect the plane and find holes or other types of damage caused by ground-to-air artillery shells.

"We were hit with flak several times," said Johnson, whose 35 bombing missions for the 8th Air Force extended from summer 1944 into January 1945.

During one mission, a chunk of flak cut through the front windshield and into the cockpit. Johnson was struck in the head by a sliver of Plexiglas, but the injury was minor.

"I shed a little blood for my country," he said, only half-joking.

As tough and dangerous as the bombing missions were, Johnson said he has a lot of respect for the millions of infantrymen who carried a rifle through mud and snow or sand and heat and witnessed the horrors of ground combat close-up. It was not a job he craved.

"I think about D-Day and the decisions (Gen. Dwight D.) Eisenhower had to make," he recalled. "I don't think I could do that."

The GI Bill, a government program that paid college expenses for returning veterans, is often credited for expanding the American middle class in the post-war years. Both Johnson and Hutchison took advantage of the federal program.

"It was tremendous," Johnson said of the benefit.

Johnson married an Army nurse in 1947, and after graduating from Cal, he began working in government administrative positions. He spent years as assistant chief administrative officer in Fresno before becoming the chief administrator in Santa Barbara County in the late-1960s.

He also served for years in the Air National Guard, where he advanced to the rank of colonel.

The father of three children, Johnson now has eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"My wife, Harriet, died last year," he said. "We had 64 years together."

STANLEY HUTCHISON

Unlike his future friend, whose air base was in England, Hutchison flew his bombing missions out of Italy -- 50 missions in all.

He entered the Army as an enlisted man in July 1942, but later put in for air cadet training. Eventually he would get that training, and in 1944 he arrived in Tunisia on the northern tip of Africa, before going to Italy.

"It was right after the Germans were kicked out," Hutchison recalled. "Talk about a mess. Dead horses were everywhere. Dead soldiers, too."

From a base on the Mediterranean Sea in Italy during the spring and summer of 1944, the young pilot led his crew on mission after mission. Attached to the Army Air Corps' 15th Air Force, they bombed a tank works in Austria, oil facilities in Romania and several targets over Germany.

Like Johnson, finding damage to his plane following a mission was not unusual.

Often the anti-aircraft explosions were so thick they caused heavy air turbulence, making it almost impossible to keep the formations together.

On one mission, anti-aircraft flak knocked out the hydraulic pressure on two engines, both on the same side of Hutchison's B-24.

"Oh, God, that was a terrible mission," he remembered.

After dropping all excess weight, including the ball-turret on the belly of the plane, Hutchison was somehow able to guide the crippled bomber back to base and get his crew home safe.

"I never lost a crewman. No one got a Purple Heart flying with me," he said. "I was pretty proud of that."

When his tour was over, Hutchison came back to California where he trained B-29 pilots at March Airfield near Riverside.

"We all expected we would have to go fight the (Japanese)," he recalled. "But when Truman dropped the A-bomb, we didn't have to go."

Like Johnson, Hutchison would attend UC Berkeley on the GI Bill and marry an Army nurse.

The four became fast friends.

Hutchison studied petroleum engineering and ended up working for Standard Oil in several areas of California, including Taft and Bakersfield.

The petroleum engineer helped develop oil production tools and techniques for Standard.

He was awarded 107 patents over the length of his career, Hutchison said.

Dorothy died in 1975. But Hutchison's friendship with Ray and Harriet Johnson continued.

The following year, Stanley and Madalyn would become husband and wife, and Madalyn would be quickly welcomed into the long, enduring friendship.

And when Harriet died, the old friendship would again prove its value by providing the unconditional support and camaraderie Ray needed.

To this day, Ray and Stan still get together for lunch. They talk regularly.

Two friends. Two combat pilots. Two graduates of Berkeley. Both now living in Bakersfield in the winter of their lives.

But living just the same, with purpose and joy and a quiet satisfaction that comes with knowing you are part of a generation that helped save the world.

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