In the dark and chaotic weeks and months following Pearl Harbor, International News Service war correspondent Pat Robinson was looking for upbeat stories. He found one in Pvt. John D. Foley, a 19th Bomb Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group "feather merchant," a clerk typist who through finagling or happenstance-sources vary-became the turret gunner of a B-26 Marauder even though he had no gunnery or flight training other than a short practice mission. On his first mission Foley was credited with shooting down two Zeros. After Robinson reported the incident and called him Johnny Zero, others picked up the story and embellished it a bit. Thus was a legend born.
On 25 December 1941, shortly after enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Foley had arrived at Muroc Dry Lake. He expected to be trained as an air crew member. Much to his disgust, he spent the next month on KP while the 22nd BG was preparing to deploy to Australia. Once there, he managed to get assigned to the armament shop, cleaning cosmoline from .30- and .50- caliber guns. While the air crews were still at Brisbane flying practice missions, Foley was sent to clean the guns on the Kansas Comet, Lt. Walter Krell's B-26. It became a regular duty. Later after he had lost his armorer/gunner due to an injury Krell, pleased with Foley's thoroughness in his work, asked for him as the replacement. This even though Foley had never had flown in a plane. After giving Foley an afternoon crash course in firing a .45 automatic, a Tommy Gun and the carbine, the armament sergeant ruled him qualified. On the following day, Foley was shown how to operate the turret, use the intercom, briefed on procedures and taken on a practice mission during which he fired the .50-calibers. Back on the ground, Krell told him the job was his.
Foley's first combat mission was a strike on enemy shipping near Rabaul, New Britain on 24 May 1942. Participating were two flights of four aircraft each, the first led by Krell. Until the enemy fighters gave up the chase, lead was flying in all directions. For aiming the gun, Foley depended on tracer bullets and used an unorthodox method to determine range. When at debriefing Krell was asked if he had any kills to report, he replied in the negative. Another pilot spoke up and reported having seen the Kansas Comet tail gunner send two aircraft plunging towards the ocean in flames. John Foley then admitted that he may have shot down two. He had failed to say anything because he thought he wasn't supposed to start shooting until ordered to: "But these Zeros were firing at me and I thought I'd better fire right back at them."
After newspapers ran the story, two songwriters honored him with a song, "Johnny Got a Zero." Foley flew 31 other missions before being returned Stateside for a public relations tour and recuperation from malaria. While serving as a gunnery instructor, Foley volunteered for a second combat tour and was assigned to a B- 24 group in Europe. There he chalked up another 31 missions. In the meantime, the legend grew and grew. One report gave him credit for shooting down seven Zeros and probably eight more. Another blew up that figure to 15 Zeros. Others said that he had been awarded two DFCs and six Air Medals and personally decorated by Generals MacArthur, Eisenhower and Doolittle.
During an interview at Banning, CA in 1985, Foley stated that in one of the three crashes he had been in, he was the sole survivor. In the first, Lt. Krell was severely burned while unsuccessfully trying to save the co-pilot following a crash landing his flak damaged plane. In the second instance, Foley reported that during the crash after being shot down over Lae he had been the only survivor. His third was said to have been a belly-landing of Martin's Miscarriage at Seven Mile drome in which no one was injured and the plane was repairable.
In the telling, some of the facts got a bit twisted. At this late stage, separating fact from fiction is a bit difficult. A group history dated 21 December 1943 credits Lt. Krell and his crew with confirmed destruction of eight enemy aircraft in flight, the most in the 22nd, and one confirmed kill for Foley as an individual. It gives 13 Sept 1942 as the date of the first crash but fails to mention any event such as his second one is described. But Foley was on board in the crash on take-off of a B-26 #40-1495, carrying a double crew on 10 Jan 1943 at Port Moresby. Six officers and airmen were killed. All others, including Foley, were injured. After forty years, these discrepancies are probably a problem of recall?
But who is to argue? The country needed heroes. Johnny Zero provided one.
Johnny Zero. Music by Vee Lawnhurst. New York: Santly-Joy, Inc., c1943.