Have you ever heard of the Tuskegee Airmen? In celebration of Veterans’ Day 2019, NWPA Stories will highlight a local family whose ranks include one of the famous African American military fighters of World War II and whose family has honorably served our country for generations.
Until the Tuskegee Airmen, no African American man or woman was a United States military pilot. Testing was done to determine IQ, dexterity, and leadership scores. When he was in eleventh grade, Jesse H. Johnson took an IQ test and scored extremely high. As a result, when World War II broke out he was recruited for and joined the Army which sent him to training with the Army Air Force Tuskegee Group in Alabama. Johnson was shocked to be chosen and began training as a Morse code and radio operator.
Before being selected as a Tuskegee Airman, Jesse Johnson was just a regular guy. He was born on February 21, 1915 in Cape May, New Jersey to Jesse Harrison Johnson Sr. and Ruth Perkins Johnson. He was the oldest of four children with siblings Vivian, Charles, and Courtland. Jesse Sr. was a laborer in building construction and each family member worked hard to make ends meet. The family owned a corner store and lived in a diverse neighborhood where Jesse Jr. learned to speak Italian.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Force was formed in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was comprised of 287 enlisted men and 42 officers including Commander Benjamin O. Davis Jr.,whose father was the first African American Army General. The squadron departed the U.S. on April 2, 1943 en route to Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa where they arrived twenty-two days later.
Johnson spent time in both Morocco and Italy with the 99th and was popular because of his language skills. While in Morocco, he met General George S. Patton with his his pearl-handled pistols. Airmen sometimes went to local homes to dine and learn local cultural practices. The Tuskegee Airmen were some of the best fighter pilots in the military, with many men refusing to go skyward without an Airman in the cockpit. Johnson’s job as the radio and Morse code operator was essential for successful missions.
After the war, Jesse Johnson Jr. moved to Franklin, Pennsylvania. He married Josephine Rhinehart, daughter of Canady O. Rhinehart and Cora Lee Law. Josephine’s step-father, James Carl Law, served in World Wars I and II, first as a cook in the 506th in France and later in the 839th Engineers. Jesse Jr. and Josephine had four children, a daughter who died in infancy, Phillip, James, and Charles.
Post-World War II Franklin was a socially segregated place. Johnson struggled to find a job at local industrial firms and noticed that unlike the place where he grew up, African Americans largely lived in only one area of town. Eventually, he applied for a job with the gas company. According to his son, the company refused to hire him at first but he was so fed up that he returned and demanded they give him a chance. They did and Johnson was hired. Later, he worked for many years as a mailman.
Jimmy Johnson, son of Jesse Johnson Jr., continued his father’s legacy of military service. He spent many childhood summers in New Jersey and learned from his uncle who was a Seafood chef in Philadelphia, also a World War II veteran. After graduating high school, Jimmy enlisted in the Air Force and was based in Michigan. His brother, Charles “Yogi” Johnson, also enlisted, served in Operation Yellowstone, and was wounded in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart. After Jimmy’s service was over, he returned to Franklin newly married.
Jimmy worked for Penelec as the chief meter reader until his retirement. He was elected to Franklin City Council in 2017. He is passionate about helping people experiencing homelessness in Franklin and getting them shelter and a path forward. The Johnson family has a long history of service to our country. Their sacrifices, and the sacrifices of countless local veterans, will never be forgotten.
Special thanks to Councilman Jimmy Johnson for providing information for this story via an oral history interview with the author in May 2019.
Sources: Oral History Interview with James O. Johnson, May 2019; Library of Congress; U.S. Air Force; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Army