As a Korean War double jet ace, James K. Johnson's career produced many "firsts. " Graduating from the University of Arizona in 1939, he entered the Army Air Corps and attended pilot training at Randolph and Kelly Fields, receiving his wings and commission in 1940. Johnson's first assignment was to Albrook Field, Panama Canal Zone. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he was the 43rd Pursuit Squadron Commander flying P-40 Warhawks and was responsible for the protection of the Panama Canal. In October 1943, he was assigned as Deputy Group Commander, 404th Fighter Bomb Group.
The following March, with only 50 minutes training in the P-47 Thunderbolt, Johnson's group began combat operations from southern England in preparation for the Normandy Invasion. On D-Day plus 6, his group moved to airstrip A-5 in Normandy. He assumed command of the 48th Fighter Bomb Group, flying from Belgium in October 1944, and by war's end had accumulated 92 fighter missions and 1 victory against an Fw-190. Colonel Johnson next saw combat in Korea as the Wing Commander of the famed 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing flying F-86 Sabres. He entered the record books on 28 March 1953, when he became the 29th jet ace. In 8 months as the "Mayor of Sabre Jet City," he flew 86 combat missions and destroyed 10 MiG-15s to become the first double jet ace wing commander, damaged 9 others, and was credited with 3 probables.
From Korea, he was assigned to the Pentagon as Chief, Air Defense Group in Research and Development. Colonel Johnson's next flying assignment took him to Forbes AFB, Kansas, as Deputy Commander and then Wing Commander of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing in RB-47s. With this SAC experience, he became commander of the test squadron responsible for the combined Air Research and Development Command, Strategic Air Command, and Convair project for the new B-58 Hustler. This led to another first--commander of the first supersonic bomb wing. To prove the performance of the B-58 Hustler, his wing established 11 world records for aircraft performance, most of which were previously held by the Russian Tu-104 aircraft.
As the 43rd Bomb Wing Commander, he became the first and only wing commander to win the Thompson, Bleriot, MacKay, and Harmon trophies. Colonel Johnson retired from a distinguished Air Force career in 1963. His decorations include the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Legion of Merit. Until his second retirement in 1975, he worked for General Dynamics on the F-111 program.
Leading a four-ship of F-86s deep in enemy territory on 30 June 1953, Colonel Johnson sighted 12 MiGs at approximately 35,000 feet. Initiating an attack, he closed on a MiG and held his fire until within 1,200 feet then fired, causing numerous wing and fuselage hits. In spite of the other MiGs, Johnson maintained his barrage until only 50 feet away from the MiG. The enemy aircraft began to burn and disintegrate. Losing engine power due to debris damage, he turned his Sabre and attacked the remaining enemy fighters--they withdrew from the area.