Remembering 'Junie' — Haverhill man reflects on brave cousin who died in WWII

Courtesy photoThis photo was taken in India two months before George Maxwell Johnson Jr., known as "Junie,'' was killed when his bomber crashed into the Bay of Bengal. Shown are, clockwise from left, Virgil Lewgrenz, George Maxwell Johnson Jr., Abou Ben Gohem, a man identified only as Bob, and Armand Hummell.

HAVERHILL — Veterans Day is a time to pause and remember the brave men and women who in war sacrificed much for their country — even their lives. 

People like George Maxwell Johnson Jr., known to his family as "Junie," is one of those who deserve such a remembrance, says John Schulman of Bradford, a relative of Junie.

A member of the 10th Air Corps during World War II, Junie was on a B-24 bomber that crashed in the Bay of Bengal during a bombing mission to Burma on Oct. 22, 1944. A military report listed all 10 crew members, including Junie, as dead. He was just 19.

An assistant radio operator, Junie had been offered a job training other crew members, something that would keep him out of harm's way, but instead he volunteered for what would be his last mission, Schulman said. Junie was Schulman's first cousin, once removed.

Schulman said he's been researching the military service of Junie, who was his mother's cousin and grew up in Richmond Hill, New York.

"Through a website dedicated to the 10th Air Force, two veterans with ties to Junie contacted me in 2007 and I stayed friends with them over the years," Schulman said. "One of them, Bernie Hoffman, was also on the same mission, but his plane safely returned to its base. 

"We remained friends until he passed two years ago, although he wanted no recognition," Schulman said of Hoffman. "Bernie told me that Oct. 22, 1944, was the worst day of his life when three crews of 10 each were lost."

Schulman said the other World War II veteran who contacted him, Norman Handelman, was a friend of Junie dating back to their time in military radio operators school.

"He sent me three photos of him and Junie together," Schulman said.

Schulman learned from Handelman that he and Junie were stationed at Pandaveswar Airfield, a former wartime U.S. airfield in India that was used during the Burma Campaign in 1944 and 1945.

"They were good friends and I was told that Junie wanted to be where the action was," Schulman said. "Handelman told me that Junie had been offered a training position, but that he refused and decided to go on the mission in which he was killed."

According to an Army Air Corps report dated Oct. 24, 1944, Junie's plane left Pandaeswar Airfield and with the objective to bomb the "jetties" at Moulmein, Burma. Maj. Jack Bradford was the pilot of plane #45 and led one group of bombers.

The plane's last known location was Bilu Kyun, also known as Ogre Island, on the west coast of Burma. 

Lt. Donald Young, who piloted a bomber that made it back safely, wrote in his diary of the mission: "Blair was in #54 hit first on about the second pass made. His #2 engine was really burning. He broke under me to the left and headed for a cloud bank. 

"While that was going on, Maj. Bradford either got hit or was crippled,'' the diary said, adding "Both planes crashed straight into the bay (Bay of Bengal).''

"I read Young's diary from time to time and it still gives me chills," Schulman said. "Guys like Junie so selflessly gave their lives for our freedom. We tend to forget their sacrifices and Veterans Day is a day to remember them."

In 2016 letter to Schulman, Handelman wrote, "As I get older I am constantly aware of how long ago it was when I was a boy along with all the other boys who were torn away from home and forced to face the disruption of war.

"These fellow veterans did and do have one great satisfaction,'' he wrote, "that we literally saved the world and those who died also did their part in saving the world."

 

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