Parachutes, gunfire and plane engines are what Lambert “Kelly” Johnson may have heard when he jumped out of an airplane on D-Day 75 years ago.
His great-nephew Warren repeated his jump. Minus the gunfire.
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied northern France through beach landings in Normandy. Over 156,000 Allied troops invaded, with 12,004 being killed wounded, missing or captured according to an article in Legion magazine.
Johnson was a Tech Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne 507th Parachute Infantry Company E during World War II. His daughter, Sharon Larson of Breckenridge, Minnesota, and granddaughter, Kelly Larson of Wahpeton shared their memories and knowledge of Johnson as well as the details behind Warren’s jump. Warren’s story was also featured on KARE 11.
Johnson was born in Salina, Kansas, on July 16. He later moved to the Wahpeton area. After his mother’s death he and his brothers moved back to Kansas to live with relatives.
When he was old enough, Johnson began to move back towards the Wahpeton area. He and one of his brothers, Alfred “Fred,” rode a train to Washington state and picked apples. He was drafted into the Army in the Fort Snelling area, Sharon said. He and his five brothers were all in the military. His brother Frank Johnson served in the Pacific theater during World War II. Irv Johnson served in the Army in the Aleutian Islands, Orville was in the Air Force and stayed stateside, Alfred “Fred” was in a tank unit in the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and Warren Johnson, whose grandson made the jump, was a Merchant Marine.
“Dad and his brothers never talked about their service,” Sharon said. “It was just kind of by bits and pieces that maybe they didn’t think the kids were around and something might come out.”
Sharon said that her oldest son, Chad, who was eight years old when his grandfather passed away, probably knows the most about his service of anyone in the family.
His family remembers “Kelly” Johnson as a daredevil. Johnson spoke of how she remembers him talking about how he sneaked up to a tank and threw a grenade into its tracks.
“He was fearless, absolutely fearless,” Sharon said.
As a paratrooper in the Army, Johnson had to go through training at Fort Benning, Georgia as well as more in depth training in Alliance, Nebraska.
On D-Day, Johnson was in plane number 24 with 18 other people (known as a “stick”) in the 11th seat. As they jumped, the person in the adjacent seat was shot down. The plane he rode in, named “Daisy,” is now 76 years old.
Warren made the jump from the same plane his great-uncle flew in 75 years ago. According to (Sharon) Larson he wanted to make the jump as authentic as possible. He even carried a baby picture of Sharon Larson which Johnson carried when he jumped.
“My mom had sent a baby picture to him (Johnson) and he had carried that into battle with him,” Sharon said.
For his heroism in being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge (the last major German counteroffensive), Johnson received a Purple Heart. He was in a foxhole when he was shot in the back with about seven machine gun bullets. An enemy soldier was about to stab him with a bayonet when Johnson’s fellow soldier came to his defense. He spent four months recouping from his wounds in an Army hospital in Europe.
Johnson and his wife, Gertrude, were married on Oct. 31, 1942 while he was in the Army.
“He must have been home on leave maybe, and that’s when mom met him at the station and said ‘we are getting married,’ ” Sharon Larson said. They were married at St. John’s Church in Wahpeton.
They had five children, four sons and one daughter, Sharon. They have seven grandchildren, six boys and one girl, Kelly.
After the war, they lived in Wahpeton where he eventually became sheriff of Richland County. He was sheriff for roughly 10 years in the 1950s-60s.
Johnson died on June 2, 1979 and was buried on June 6 of the same year, the 35th Anniversary of D-Day. Forty years later, his family holds his memory dear.
“He just really helped to shape who I am today,” Kelly said. “I think I have a lot of his same characteristics and qualities.”
She remembers him teaching her how to dance and loving to spend time with family.
Kelly and Sharon are both members of the American Legion Auxiliary.
“It’s a way that I can show my appreciation to him kinda payback to him and to my uncles that I have the freedom to be in this,” Kelly said.
Jumper of New Generation
Johnson’s grand-nephew Warren was also in the Army for nine years and is a sheriff’s deputy in St. Louis County near Duluth, Minnesota.
In a Facebook page dedicated to chronicling the jump over Normandy, Warren Johnson wrote some of his thoughts on “Daisy” returning to England for the jump.
“After that meeting, having both me and Daisy heading to Duxford at the same time feels kind of intense ... like the past and present are about to collide ... can’t really describe it ... just crazy,” Johnson wrote.
He made the jump over Normandy on Wednesday, June 5 at approximately 12:15 CST. A play-by-play description of Warren’s journey can be found on a Facebook page made for the jump: D-Day 75/Warren Johnson. His story has been featured in multiple media outlets, including Minnesota Public Radio and the Duluth News Tribune.