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Fl/Lt. Thomas Randall French Johnson. MiD.


Born on the 14th November 1914 at Gisborne. Missing - believed killed 15th January 1945

Comprehensive details of 'Black Monday' as it became known, can be found here.

We hope that in time we will be able to add further images once we have developed a way that they could all be displayed.

On 29 September 2008, my mother passed away. In a sense I felt I was farewelling two parents. A decade earlier I read an autobiography by Stephen Bogart, Humphrey’s son entitled In Search of My Father. His words struck a chord with me, as he described how he had really only known his father through his mother, Lauren Bacall. I could relate to whose feelings of a mother trying to fill the void in her child’s life. More recently a book written by an Australian nurse Gillian Nikakis entitled 'He’s Not Coming Home' outlined the loss of her Kiwi father Bill Spensley and again the drive to know the lost parent and build on her mother’s account of the man. I too, had a similar quest in my mid-forties. This is my father’s biography much like a jig-saw puzzle with pieces missing.

Thomas Randall French Johnson was born at Makaraka, Gisborne on 14 November 1914, the third son of Charles and Catherine Johnson, farmers in that district. There were three other siblings, Ivy, Harold, Bill and then Thomas, known as Randall by the family; Charles and Isabella ( grandparents), had emigrated from Kent, in England, and there is a possible connection to a family French in that area. Hence the choice of Randell’s third Christian name. Randall’s sister Ivy was 20 when he arrived in the family and she virtually became his nanny. At three or four years of age, he was to suffer a severe facial injury when a horse kicked him in the face. The skill of the family general practitioner saved his life, prior to the advent of antibiotics. The resulting scar passed from the left eyebrow across the bridge of his nose to below the right eye.

Randall attended Makaraka Primary School until 1928 then went on to Gisborne High School from 1929 until 1933. He was a keen sportsman, a member of the 2nd XV, runner-up in the school Boxing championship and Senior Sprint champion. During Term 2 of his form IV year, he was ranked third in the class and was given a good report. There were no absences. In Term 3 however he was absent for 24 half days which adversely affected his results. A very fair performance probably due to illness, but that is unknown.

The following year in form V he had mixed results with some further absences noted. He was educated to matriculation level. His subjects included Maths, English, Science (magnetism & electricity), French, Drawing, Geography and Book keeping. He gained a Senior Free Place at the end of form V. He also attended the Technical School to develop further bookkeeping and typewriting competencies. In 1933 he also qualified for “flags”. A member of the 2nd Cadet Battalion, Hawkes Bay Regiment, he participated throughout his time at High School to become a Sgt. Major.

He was a member of the Wellington–East Coast Mounted Rifles for a period of 18 months, in the role of signalman-trooper and had a general working knowledge of horses.

In appearance he had very dark brown curly hair, grey-blue eyes and a fair skin described as “ruddy”. He reached the height of 5’ 10 ½ ”. At 17 years he had a full clearance of teeth and wore dentures. During the Depression years, after leaving High School, he became a gardener and caretaker on G. Nicholls’ property Riverside Rd. Gisborne. He was to become licensed to drive a car, lorry, and motorbike. Keen to continue an Army career, at 19 ½ years he entered Trentham military camp on 1 May 1934 and spent three and a half years until 4 November 1937, serving with the Royal New Zealand Artillery Regiment as a gunner. Meantime from 13 May 1935, he was attached to the Coast Cadre RNZA and was also posted to Auckland. At his own request he was discharged from the Army on 4 November 1937.

In March 1937 Randall had applied for a short service commission in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, as an armourer. He was accepted but was unable to continue with his career plans. In May 1939 his father Charles William Johnson, died in Gisborne aged 73 years.

As brothers Harold and Bill had independent careers selling insurance, it is likely that Randall may have been involved in managing the family farm. Harold had served in WW1 and Bill was to serve in WW 2, also in the Pacific, on Mono Island. Their mother Kate eventually came to Auckland to spend her latter years close to her daughter Ivy. Ivy had married Stan Kelly a Gallipoli survivor and they raised their family Shirley and Basil in Auckland. Stan Kelly managed Auckland Hospital Board laundry services. Shirley nursed during WW11 and met her husband Jack Hanes who was serving in the USA Navy, when he was sent to NZ on leave. She became a war bride, returning to America with Jack where Debbie their first daughter of three, was born. The three returned to New Zealand at a later date and didn’t return to the USA. Harold married Pat and lived in Nelson and later Belfast, Christchurch. Bill married Dora Evans, previously a school teacher and they had twin daughters Pat and Pam, followed by Peter. Kate Johnson died in 1954 having spent some time in a Mt Eden rest home.

Above L-R: His parents Charles William Johnson and Mrs Catherine Young Johnson, Winifred Pearl Johnson, Randall on leave at Nelcon, with his older brother Harold, Winifred and Randall.

On 26 April 1936, Randall was invited to Winifred Pearl Brownlee’s 21st birthday and dance. This resulted in a period of courtship and they were later married on 11 April 1939, both in their 24th year. They were married in St. Mathews-in-the-City. This brought a degree of confusion to Win’s life. He was known as Randall within the family, Johnny in the permanent staff Army, and Thom in the Air Force. Having resigned from the Army in 1937, Randall gained employment with James Hardie Pty. Ltd. in Penrose and he and Win lived at Green Lane. His job description was that of machinist.

In October 1939 he applied for aircrew training having completed nearly 11 hours dual and 3 hours solo flying experience with the Auckland Aero Club, Mangere. The Club was on land which today is the site of Auckland International Airport. He was also a member of the Auckland Territorial Squadron, as an Air gunner for a period of six months. Prior to entry into the Air Force he was based at North Head in Auckland. For two and a half years he was an instructor within the Defence Dept. : engine driving, wireless operations and in a part-time capacity, mechanical engineering and small arms.

In terms of sports, he participated in the Army Athletic team, played rugby for the Army XV as did William Tennant Gairdner 813203 who was to become Win’s second husband in the post war years. He was also a member of the combined Auckland - Wellington Army team.

Randall aka Thom made the transition from Army to the Royal New Zealand Air Force aged 25 years. He commenced Ground Training School at Levin from 7th April until 4th May 1940. From 4th June until 27th July he commenced his flying training at No.2 Elementary Flight Training School New Plymouth, passing on to Intermediate Flight Training at Woodbourne, Blenheim, on 30th July until 29th September. He was awarded his Flying Badge in September and commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 22nd November 1940, after completing Advanced Flight Training.

In December he proceeded to Whenuapai for a Refresher course and on 2nd January until 13th February 1941, was enrolled in a Flying Instructor’s Course at Hobsonville. This was followed by 18 months of service as a Flying Instructor at Harewood, Christchurch, which commenced on 18th February. He was promoted to Flying Officer on 22nd November 1941 and later attended a Refresher course at Tauranga which followed, 4th May to 22nd May, 1942.

On July 26th, Thom, was posted to No. 6 Army Co-operation Squadron Milson, Nelson. On August 12th he was slightly injured when his aircraft struck a soft patch of ground while landing at Milson and turned on it’s nose. He joined a detached flight to Ohakea in September then in November was posted as Flight Commander to No.21 ( Army Co-operation) Squadron, Palmerston. On 2nd December 1942 he attended the RAAF’s School of Army Co-operation Canberra, Australia which lasted five weeks. On completion of the course he returned to No. 21 Squadron.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 1st July 1943. The day after his promotion Thom’s girl, his only child was brought rather reluctantly into the world. The following month he was engaged on operational training until 30th January 1944 when he departed overseas, with the Squadron to Espiritu Santo. He was engaged in further operational training until 23rd March when he proceeded with the Squadron, this time to Bougainville.

From Bougainville he took part in bombing raids against Japanese positions on New Britain, bombing and strafing Ack-Ack positions on Rabaul. He also took part in raids on Buka and Kavieng on New Ireland.

On 21st May 1944, Thom returned to NZ and after a period of leave was posted to the Communication Flight, Mangere. In September he joined No.4 (Fighter) Operational Training Unit, Ohakea, and was engaged in combat training. He then moved to Ardmore on 21st October where he entered a conversion course to Corsair fighters. On completion of the course he was posted to No. 16 (Fighter) Squadron and departed overseas with the Squadron to Guadalcanal on 30th November. Thom was engaged on combat training until 21st December when he flew with the Squadron to Green Island. For the next month he was engaged on patrols over Rabaul and also took part in bombing raids against Japanese-held positions in New Ireland.

On 15 January 1945...

A strike against the Tobai Wharf in Simpson harbour, Rabaul New Britain, involved 36 Corsair aeroplanes. One was lost. Fl/Lt. Frank Keefe was hit by flak when dropping bombs on the Wharf at 09:05 hours and abandoned his aircraft over the harbour. The pilot, although wounded in the arm, began swimming towards the harbour entrance but drifted back when the tide turned.

Nearby enemy batteries prevented an American Catalina landing to effect a rescue, but throughout the day, sections of Corsairs orbited overhead to fend off enemy attempts at capturing the airman. Towards dusk, at 18:30 hours a Ventura with Corsair escort carried out a daring low level sortie to drop two bamboo rafts close by, but by then the pilot was lying face down over what appeared to be a small log just within the harbour entrance.

Picked up shortly afterwards by the Japanese, he died of blood poisoning 15 days later in camp at Naga Naga, south of Rabaul. He was buried at Rabaul and later re-interred at Bourail, New Caledonia.

On the way back to base, 15 of the Corsairs were confronted with a forbidding tropical front stretching across their path. Low on fuel they had no option but to go on.

Bryan Cox one of the 15 airmen and now the only living survivor of the tragedy, was celebrating his 20th birthday that day. He recalls...

'Soon after passing to the south of Cape St. George, on the southern tip of Japanese occupied New Ireland, there appeared ahead a jet black front stretching from horizon to horizon, the type of which I have never witnessed before, nor have ever witnessed since. It was even blacker than a school blackboard! With no alternative we pressed on, straight into it, prior to which I had seen the other formation of NZ Corsairs (16 Squadron) out to our left and a little below.’

Another account details the conditions and effort to save the returning pilots . . .

Heavy rain was encountered and visibility was practically zero. Vivid flashes of lightening alternating with blackout conditions made flying extremely dangerous. Radar steers could bring them close to base but not get them safely down. Every assistance was being given to guide them home to their little coral atoll (of Green Is.) including shining a searchlight up through the clouds.’

Horn, A. (1992). Wings Over the Pacific, Malaysia: Random Century, pp 168.

My father’s involvement is recorded in No.16 Squadron’s archives . . .

‘F 4U - 1 Corsair NZ5283 ( T.R.F. Johnson )

Took off leading a section of four, only two of which safely returned. The formation entered the front at 1500 feet in line astern and continued to lose height until low over the water. While executing a left turn midway between Feni and Green Is, NZ5283 hit the water and exploded on impact at 1924 hours. T.R.F. Johnson was initially posted as “missing believed killed”.

Martyn, E.W. (1999). For Your Tommorrow Vol.2 Christchurch : Volplane Press, pp 314.

He is now commemorated on the Bourail Memorial ( Panel No.3 ) New Caledonia, in The Auckland War Memorial and Wigram RNZAF Museums and on a plaque at MOTAT 2, Auckland. The planes he had flown included the Vincent, Vildebeeste, Oxford DH 82 / 60, Hawker, Harvard II, Kitty Hawke and Corsair.

In several books written about the war in the Pacific, Bryan Cox has described his feelings about the tragedy that occurred on his 20th birthday....

‘On 21 January 1945, the first Sunday after the catastrophe a memorial service was held for the eight pilots who died on the 15th. It was a beautiful service conducted by our own Padre Roland Hart. The tragedy was that seven pilots had died in a vain attempt to rescue one of their comrades and an even greater tragedy was that Fl/Lt. Keefe died 15 days later in the hands of the Japanese at Rabaul . . .

During the service Sgt. R. Vernon sang There Is No Death which I just couldn’t believe under the circumstances. In fact I began to ask myself the question, to which I have never found a satisfactory answer, why I should have been spared when so many brilliant young chaps were killed. My friends, Ron Albrecht, Grev Randell and Thom Johnson were all men whom I respected as being well above average and I was unable then , and am still unable to reconcile their deaths in my favour, particularly when I had in fact accepted death as a reality myself.’

Cox, B. (1987). Too Young to Die, Auckland : Century Hutchinson Ltd., pp 133.

Aged 30, Fl/Lt T.R.F. Johnson was initially reported as “missing believed killed”. On 17 April 1945 he was posthumously, Mentioned in Dispatches for meritorious service in the Pacific. This was represented by an oak leaf, in addition to his medals: The 1939-1945 Star, The Pacific Star, The War Medal 1939-1945, The NZ War Medal. On 16

October the Casualty Reclassification Committee met at the Directorate of Public Relations. The outcome was recorded and Fl. Lt. T.R.F. Johnson’s death was presumed to have occurred on 15 January 1945.

Winifred Johnson applied for a gratuity on 15 January 1946. As the value of her husband’s the estate was under 1,000 pounds and she had no other income, she received his final pay of 200 N.Z. pounds on 31 March 1946. This was calculated as 6 pounds, 14 5. shillings plus 1 pound, 10 shillings and 8 pence (Army pay); 83 pounds, 16 shillings and 4 pence (Air Force pay); 107 pounds and 19 shillings (Death overseas). Also in March she was in receipt of Thom’s log books. Following application, she and Mrs Catherine Johnson ( Thom’s mother) requested and received the Memorial Cross issued on 11 March 1948. Later in the year on 14 September 1948, the King’s Commission was issued via the Air Department.

EPILOGUE

I have no memory of my father. However I grew up with little vignettes expressed from my mother’s perspective...

As an instructor in Christchurch over an eighteen month period, my father and mother suffered some of the vicious winter weather. He had very early duties at Harewood and relied on the alarm clock. On one occasion in the depths of winter the alarm clock was hurled from the bed in his tiredness and frustration at having to get up so early.

During May 1942 when my father was on a Refresher course in Tauranga family history suggests he buzzed the house where Win was staying. It may have been Bill and Doras’ home in Judea. She ran outside and waved a tea towel in gay abandon and this was repeated whenever he flew over.

When the first WAAFS appeared on base, many of the male personnel were loud in their approval (or disapproval). According to my mother, her husband found a convenient excuse to do some work at the base despite the fact he was officially on leave.

He was teased.

A significant number of male Air Force personnel grew moustaches, specifically “Handle-bar Harrys”. My father did too, at a time when he was on his first tour of duty in the Pacific. On return home he had a change of heart. My mother had gone to bed earlier but awoke to find him with half a moustache remaining. He was considering whether he had done the right thing. There was no question - it had to come off.

During my first summer, 1943-44, I was taken to the beach and introduced to sand and salt water. I wasn’t a fan and howled loudly. However at other times when Dad arrived home on leave, by all accounts I behaved beautifully for a short time and ‘ate all my vegetables’!

My hair was initially dark at birth but as I grew it changed to auburn curls in my first year. This time, my father teased my mother unmercifully, due to the regular appearance of a young baker with red hair who delivered fresh bread to the door each day, (as they did then).

As a toddler, I was put up on my father’s shoulders and we entered the mess at the Auckland Aero Club. This was quite acceptable but my mother was excluded and had to remain in the car (a sign of the times!) I apparently enjoyed meeting the ‘chaps’ and being the centre of attention for a brief spell.

After Dad returned from the School of Co-operation Canberra, he brought with him a Koala bear as a gift for me. Initially Koala was welcomed but as I became increasingly mobile I threw the Koala in the cat’s dish of milk in a fit of pique. My mother did her best to clean him up but it was not a success story.

What would my father have done if he had returned? He studied while serving in the Pacific: his interest was in draughtsmanship and architecture. Yet again, mother mentioned his spiritual beliefs and the possibility of entering the Church, which would have entailed many years of study - who can say?

As the years went by and I matured, I have come to realise how much my father sacrificed. He was not here to carve a career for himself in the post war era; to see me progress at school and in later careers; to see his two bonny grandsons and three beautiful great grandchildren. He did participate in removing an evil presence lurking off-shore and many of us grew to adulthood in a land which became prosperous in the 1950's and despite the wars in Korea and Vietnam, was at peace.

During the early 1970's a NZ made television programme entitled 'The Years Back' was screened on Sunday evenings. One particular evening a clip was shown of an RNZAF debriefing session in the Pacific, originally filmed by the National Film Unit. In it my father reported back, as did others. My mother recognised the film clip and immediately identified my father. After a minute or two of looking and hearing him speak I started to cry uncontrollably. The emotion seemed to come from deep within me. I cried for something like half an hour and could not be consoled. To this day I believe my reaction was based on voice recognition as we already had numerous photos of him. I was later able to obtain a video tape of that particular episode, from the RNZAF Museum, Wigram.

Above: The Bourail Memorial

As next of kin, my mother and I had been invited and attended the official dedication and unveiling of the RNZAF Roll of Honour at the Wigram Base on 20 September 1991. The programme of events included the Unveiling Ceremony by Air Marshal Sir Richard Bolt, the Beating of the Retreat Ceremony, and the Flypast of Sky Hawks (No. 75 Squadron). Visitors were then given access to the Museum displays and enjoyed afternoon tea. We mixed and mingled in the Atrium admiring the aircraft suspended from the ceiling, and I now have many treasured photographs of the occasion. The strange coincidence was as we worked our way though exhibits on display, the wall-mounted VCR played my father being debriefed in 1944, the tape I initially viewed in the ‘70s. My earlier attempt to obtain a copy of the tape from television authorities in Auckland proved unsuccessful, much to my chagrin.

Subsequently, I wrote to Sir Richard Bolt after the Wigram visit. His response in a delightful hand-written letter allowed me to obtain a copy of the video tape in exchange for a blank replacement. Today the contents are once again screened in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, depicting NZ’s involvement in the Pacific war 1939-1945. On each ANZAC day I make a short pilgrimage after the service from the Cenotaph to the second floor to say 'Hi Dad' and to marvel yet again at the chain of events which led me to hearing my father’s voice, in adulthood.

Above: The wonderful memorial with Winifred on the right

On 15 January 2005, my mother and I were again privileged to attend a further commemoration relating to my father’s death. Through contact with Bryan Cox, Marvin Birk from Brooklyn, New York donated US $1,000 to the NZ Fighter Pilots Assn. prior to the 60th anniversary of the Green Island tragedy. Marvin then aged 20, like Bryan, was based on Green Island with the US Navy Seabees and had many fond memories of Kiwi pilots. He was introduced to sailing (with a raft and bed sheets), to playing the ukulele and to a strong form of home brew (contents unknown). With the money provided by Marvin and other member Fighter Pilots, a commemorative stone was prepared and unveiled at MOTAT 2 in Auckland, on a gloriously sunny, 15 January 2005. The ceremony took place outside under the reconditioned Spitfire and many aircrew, families and friends were there to remember those who didn’t return to Green Is.

A poignant epitaph appears on a memorial stone near the entrance to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Kohima Assam, India...

‘When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For their Tomorrow
We gave our Today.’

John Maxwell Edmonds 21.1.1875 – 18.3.1958.

Beverly A. Johnson 17.10.18

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. - Laurence Binyon

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Last Modified: 03 October 2019, 08:36

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