How It Feels Vietnam

Robert Johnson's plane was shot down in August of 1965.

Johnson is a 1962 University of Kansas graduate who flew as a navigator bombardier in the Vietnam War from June 1965 to August 1966.

By August 1965, I had flown on about 25 or 30 missions as a navigator bombardier. We were the second plane in formation, and released our first round of bombs. The explosion sounded closer than usual, I thought to myself. Then, there was a thud.

It seemed strange, but my pilot Larry and I weren’t too concerned. We got back up to 7,000 feet, ready to circle back and release another round. As the bomb bay opened for the second time, we knew something was wrong. The aircraft began to shake. Smoke wafted in.

We had been shot at the opened bomb bay. But we trained for this. We trained for emergencies. We needed to land. We were about 10 miles out from a coastal base near the town of La Trang, so we head toward it.

There was a weird smell in the air, though neither of us knew what it was, exactly. We went through the emergency procedure checklist: secure harnesses and cockpit, and double-check navigation and altitudes. The smell was still there.

Our wingman, who flew the lead plane, swung by and checked our aircraft. He let us know a stream of fuel was leaking from our plane. Smoke filled up the cockpit. Larry and I decided it was time to eject ourselves from the airplane.

The second we flew over the shoreline, I pulled the release on the plexiglass canopy so we could eject straight up into the air. I pulled the ejection handle first and shot up like a rocket into the air. After my parachute opened and I began my descent, I saw something off in the distance. It’s falling through the air — Larry didn’t make it, I thought.

As I looked around some more, I noticed I’m headed toward the water. I put on my “Mae west” floaters, still following procedures I’ve been trained on. I figured I shouldn’t go swimming with my boots on, so I reached down to unzip them.

Water quickly rushed up to me before I could get them off. I could have swum to shore if I had to, but out of nowhere a U.S. helicopter showed up and the crew pulled me up. One of the guys looked and me and said, “We have to go get your pilot.” Larry made it after all.

Larry and I spent the night in the hospital, and we were assigned a mission two days later. I went on to fly 171 ½ combat missions when I was in Vietnam. The half is from the ejection. If you don’t land, they don’t count it as completed.

The shock from the ejection caused back problems I still suffer from today. I go to the doctor every 90 days to get a shot in my back. In the end, I was awarded a Purple Heart for what happened that August day.