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This Memorial Day, remember Lt. Harvey Johnson

2nd Lt. Harvey Johnson

On Memorial Day, many Americans visit soldiers’ graves here in the United States. But American soldiers have fought and died around the world. Some of them met their end and found their final rest far from home.

One of them died in Walthamstow, the corner of East London which I called home for thirteen years. His name was Harvey Johnson and he died on November 22nd, 1942, when his Spitfire crashed onto the sports field at Coppermill Lane. The local newspaper takes up the story:

Mr Johnson was born on January 24 1919 at Northfield, Atlantic City, USA.

Like many young Americans who came to the aid of Britain during WWII, Harvey travelled to Canada where he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and completed his training.

When the USA entered the war these American pilots were needed by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) and were duly reassigned where their skills and experience were needed. 

Local resident Brian Ward, who was just five years old in November 1942, remembers:

“It was a Sunday morning in Morland Road when my parents and I heard the very loud noise of a stricken aircraft flying very low.

“We rushed into the garden, as did all the neighbours. News soon reached us and the neighbourhood that the plane had crashed onto the Elms and the pilot did not survive.

“My good and late friend Doug Curd who lived in Salop Road and was a year older than me was in his garden when the plane passed overhead at a very low altitude.

“Doug said it flew around the church, so low he could see the pilot.

“The church does not exist anymore – it was bombed October 1940, never rebuilt and demolished in the early 1950s.

“While Harvey was flying his Spitfire it developed engine trouble and rather than bail out and abandon it, he choose to remain with his stricken aircraft probably looking for a safe place where he could crash land.

“It was acknowledge at the time by local people, many from Edward Road, that Harvey’s brave and unselfish action had prevented his aircraft from crashing into houses in a densely populated area which would have resulted in a catastrophic loss of civilian lives.”

A few days later Lt Johnson’s death was mentioned in the House of Commons, he was the only individual American airman to be so honored, and he was awarded the D.F.C. USA, posthumously.

Mayor of Walthamstow, Mrs E. M. Miller, presents a tribute, in the form of a propeller tip collected at the time of the crash, with a plaque attached, to Brigadier-General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter from 8th Fighter Command, April 4th, 1943

2nd Lt. Johnson’s memory is kept alive in Walthamstow. In 2011, a history project was launched at Thorpe Hall Primary School where pupils painted a mural of him.

And he is remembered in his hometown, Northfield, New Jersey where the American Legion Hall is named in his honor. In 2017, the local newspaper there reported:

Jeff Long, of Northfield, attended the American Legion open house. He wanted to learn more about the man whose name is on the building. Long said he did a little research and found a Facebook page, Walthamstow Memories, and after some communication with a person associated with the Walthamstow Historical Society, he explained that an open house commemorating Harvey Johnson’s crash was set for Nov. 19. In his honor that day, on both sides of the Atlantic, a moment of silence was held for Johnson at 4 p.m. in Northfield and 9 p.m. in Walthamstow.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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