In Remembrance

Frankie Johnson was having a Molson Export and reading the papers at the Islington Golf and Country Club in west-end Toronto some months back, a Saturday ritual he observed since it allowed him to hold court with “his pals.”

On this particular Saturday, Stan Elsdon was the pal, and Johnson was telling him that he had received a call from the Department of National Defence — as he sometimes did. The kid on the line was phoning to inform the 95-year-old former fighter pilot and veteran of the Second World War that he was the sole surviving member of RAF Squadron 174.

Frankie looked Stan in the eye after offering this bit of information and growled: “Now, why the hell would they want to tell me that?”

“Frankie was quite pissed off,” Elsdon recalls, chuckling. “But that was him.”

Frank C. Johnson died in the early morning hours of Sept. 24, after a long life that had always left him feeling lucky. He survived the fighting and had, in his words, a “ball” when he got back. Marrying his best girl, Sheila, hopping out to Aspen on ski trips, working at a good job in insurance, doting on nephews and nieces, playing tennis, knocking around the golf course and getting as far away from the horrors of Europe as he possibly could.

Johnson would host squadron reunions in the basement of his bungalow. He had a bar, a fridge full of beer — and even a model of his old Typhoon fighter. Old stories would get told, and retold, and the laughs would follow. The last reunion was in 2012. Only six guys made it. War was hell, but so was getting old, and the older Johnson got the more the war scratched at him, a festering sore he would dream about and wake up shaking his head.

“Frankie always had a war story to tell,” Elsdon says. “But every time he got into a conversation he would remember, as he said, the things that weren’t so nice that he had had to do.”

Johnson and I met in November 2013, at his home just west of Toronto. He had a voice made for radio. He had crossword puzzles scattered here and there. He talked to me about flying in low on a bombing run and dropping his payload on a ferry, blowing it — and all the people aboard — sky high.

“We had to kill, see?” he said. The only thing he would point to with some measure of pride was another incident from late in the war. The German air force was almost non-existent by then. Johnson was aloft in his Typhoon when he got a call from the air traffic controller. A German plane had been spotted.

“Anybody who was an experienced fighter pilot would never be flying over an enemy airstrip and would never be flying in a straight line. But this guy was,” he said. “He was obviously a rookie. Maybe it was his first flight in that God-damned aircraft and maybe he had gotten lost, and so I pulled alongside and I looked over at him.

“He was just a boy. And I thought to myself, why the hell would I kill this kid? The war is almost over. He doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. So I waved at him and flew off.”

Johnson did not attend Remembrance Day services. He wore a poppy, but the politicians’ speeches, and the spectacle of the day, bothered him. He didn’t need a special occasion to remember the foolishness of it all.

He was shot down and crashed into a farmer’s field. He had a bullet in his hip, shrapnel in his shin and was, in his words, a “God-damn mess.” He was captured and cold. A German soldier gave him his coat and, the next morning, a German farmer’s wife washed him, spoon-feeding him soup.

“Now, why would she do that?” he said. “I was the enemy. I still can’t get over it. Jesus. She was a wonderful person.”

He realized, right then, that most Germans weren’t a bunch of raving Nazis, but ordinary folks. People with sons and daughters — sons, like Frankie, who were probably just as scared and sick of the killing and dying and waste as he was. He never took a day for granted after he got back. His wounds prevented he and Sheila from having any children, but they had an old Husky dog named Yukon, though Johnson called him Tom. After Sheila passed away from dementia, Johnson lived alone.

Doctors barred him from driving, which he couldn’t quite understand, since at 18 his government had told him he was old enough to kill people — and suddenly he was too old to handle a car?

He told them he planned to live to be 105. He made it to 95 and, up until a few weeks back, was still making his Saturday trips to the golf club to have a Molson, read the paper and hang out with his pals.

On Friday night they are holding a wake for him at the club. Cold beer will be on tap. Frankie Johnson paid for it in advance.


See Also:

(1) RB396’s Journey

(2) No. 174 Squadron RAF

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I posted this story because O’Connor did something that very few of our younger generation never bother to do. Talk to these elderly people before we lose their memories completely. That is a sad thing but it is something that the “Justin Trudeau’s” of this world count on as they try desperately to change our countries in ways young people never envisioned in 1939. And here’s my point: because we forget we are already doomed to repeat Johnson’s scenario unless we wake up. They call his generation the “finest generation” but in truth there have been many generations, rising to… Read more »