Veteran spent years rescuing people in crises

Veteran spent years rescuing people in crises

Ron Johnson looks at his medals while reflecting on accumulating more than 8,000 flying hours in 40 years of flying. While he was fortunate to serve between the wars, Johnson had plenty of adventure in the Navy and flying helicopters in search and rescue missions. He was shipwrecked in the Caribbean and once flew in a snowstorm trying to find a hospital for a woman in labour. (Lyonel Doherty photo)

By Lyonel Doherty

Oliver Chronicle

Perhaps Ron Johnson’s calling was not to fight in any war, but rather to be a different type of hero, like a guardian angel of the skies.

“I was very fortunate; I served between the wars, between Korea and the mess in the Middle East,” he said, relaxing in a lounge chair.

Many people know Johnson as the coordinator of Oliver Crime Watch and an officer (and a gentleman) in 232 Bighorn Air Cadet Squadron.

Born in Edmonton, Johnson was an avid member of the local Cub group and later joined Scouts and Army Cadets.

Just after his 17th birthday he joined the Royal Canadian Navy in 1960 and became a sonar man, serving on the frigates HMCS Stettler, St. Therese and destroyers Margaree, MacKenzie, Fraser and Saskatchewan. Interestingly, Johnson said the MacKenzie and the Saskatchewan were totally decontaminated and sunk to provide scuba divers a place to explore and enjoy. “A lot of ships, including aircraft carriers, were sunk as man-made reefs to provide fish a place to hide and for divers to explore.”

In 1969 Johnson was given the opportunity to attend pilot training and was subsequently posted to Borden, ON where he flew the “Chipmunk” aircraft. He was then posted to Moose Jaw to fly Tutors, and then on to Gimli where he trained on T-33s. He graduated and received his pilots wings in 1970.

Johnson took a liking to helicopters and began his training on Hillers in Portage la Prairie.

In 1973 he was posted to Lahr, Germany, serving in 444 Tac Helicopter Squadron.

“It’s an excellent country to be flying in . . . (but) I think it was my fourth flight over there when I had an engine failure.”

He notified the base and said he had to make a forced landing. “The tower asked me, ‘are you declaring an emergency?’ Ah, ya, I guess so.”

Johnson landed in a field and stepped out into knee-deep mud, where he then watched the helicopter settle up to its belly in muck.

If he had landed 20 feet over to the right, he would have landed on a paved lane, he laughed.

Johnson flew search and rescue in Italy during an earthquake. He noted they lost a helicopter and a pilot that got tangled up in a wire in a valley.

From Italy he was sent to CFB Chatham in New Brunswick where he flew search and rescue for three years.

One call they attended was for a woman who had gone into labour in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. They got her all bundled up into the helicopter and had to find this hospital.

“We had no radio beacons or anything like that so we’re flying basically on top of the highway. The police were at the hospital and had their lights going and a spotlight shining up (for guidance).”

The woman ended up having a baby boy, which was a nice ending to a tense situation.

In 1979 Johnson was posted to CFB Gagetown where he was a flight instructor. From there he went back to Moose Jaw to instruct in base rescue flight. He taught survival training to recruits who were dropped off on an island to see if they could survive after ejecting from their aircraft.

• Read more: Veteran recognized for 75 years of service with Royal Canadian Legion

After accumulating more than 8,000 flying hours in 40 years, he retired in 1990 and moved to Oliver, where he joined the BC Ambulance Service as a paramedic until final retirement in 2002.

Looking back on his career, he said it wasn’t a job, it was a way of life. “I guess it was just looking for adventure and . . . too lazy to work and too chicken to steal.”

Johnson said he really loved the Navy because of the travel opportunities. He went to the Caribbean once and was actually shipwrecked there.

They were taking a boat to an island where a gunnery shoot was planned. But a storm whipped up and they couldn’t make it back to the destroyer. So they were told to run the boat onto shore.

“All of sudden we were sort of surfing and then we went end over end . . . the coxswain was thrown and landed about 100 feet away from the boat.”

An able seaman and Johnson were left sitting on the sand with the boat on top of them. Where Johnson was sitting is where the motor used to be – it had been ripped out during the incident. A couple of waves later, Johnson was able to free himself and the able seaman, who suffered a broken leg.

“Basically I’d lost all of my clothes; they were ripped off . . . I lost my watch and had one boot.”

While he loved the sea, Johnson really loved navigating the skies, particularly searching for people and rescuing them.

In Moose Jaw he took a first responder’s course, which he enjoyed so much that he decided to upgrade to emergency medical technician.

One day he was on duty with the Moose Jaw ambulance when he received a call about a two-vehicle collision involving 10 people. They took a helicopter from the base and flew to the scene southwest of Regina, where two young mothers and a five-year-old boy needed emergency attention.

“We got them onto the helicopter and I worked in the back doing CPR on this little fellow; he was just the cutest thing.”

They arrived to the Regina hospital, where everyone was gathered waiting for them.

“The police were just about grabbing a hold of the skids pulling us down.”

Sadly, when they took X-rays of the boy, he had a broken neck. “The only thing that was keeping him warm and pink was the CPR, but there was absolutely no hope so we had to stop CPR.”

The two mothers survived.

After the incident, they received a letter from the mother of the boy, thanking them for what they did. “It was very emotional.”

Recalling that incident made Johnson think of another call where a young boy wandered away from his family while picking berries. Search and rescue found him by luck because every time he heard the helicopter, he would hide. They finally found him three kilometres away from where his family was picking berries.

“He loved the helicopter ride, and they caught him next time trying to get lost so he could get another helicopter ride.”

Johnson also recalled rescuing 19 school children stranded by a flash flood during a canoe trip in New Brunswick.

Of course, all these stressful missions can take a toll, and it did for Johnson, particularly some of the calls he responded to in Oliver over the 12 years with BC Ambulance.

In fact, he got hurt while performing CPR on one of three boys who drowned in Okanagan Falls years ago.

“Losing them . . . it’s traumatic. You know, I still think of them.”

Johnson said he really feels for paramedics who deal with these issues day after day.

Reflecting on everything he has done, Johnson considers himself very lucky, not just in avoiding the wars but staying alive.

“I have nothing but admiration for those who served.”