John Werner Jr. likes to tell a story about his time as a military pilot.
When stationed in Rapid City, S.D., he was told to deliver medical supplies to a base without a landing strip. The only place to land was a nearby lake in North Dakota – aptly named Devils Lake. “I had a B-25, a big plane, so it took me a long time to stop it,” says John, who is now 96 years old. “But I was able to do it,” he adds, flashing a smile.
This was one of many highlights of his 28-year military career. During World War II, he piloted planes that fire-bombed Tokyo, helping to end the war. Later, when posted in Tokyo as a general's aide, he met and dined with Charles Lindbergh. He also provided guidance for the first flight program at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Gregarious and still quick with a joke, John quips that he learned two things in the military: “I learned that you obey your superior officers. And I learned that I enjoyed being a superior officer. So then I could tell other guys to go and drop a plane in a lake.”
John Martin Werner Jr. is named after his father, who also served in the military. His father fought in World War I, earning the rank of sergeant. Later, John Sr. settled in Houston and managed a car-upholstery shop. John Jr.'s mother was a homemaker. Shortly after he was born, on April 9, 1922, his parents separated and he moved with his mother to San Antonio. He spent school years with his mom and summers with his dad.
John made friends easily. In high school, he was active in a fraternity, played for the tennis team and served as class president. He was hoping to attend Texas A&M; University and stay close to home, but his mother wanted him in the Ivy League. Through the family attorney, John landed a spot at West Point. “That’s good enough,” he remembers his mother saying.
At West Point, John took flight training and earned the rank of second lieutenant for the Army Air Corps. He graduated in 1944, just as the Allied Forces were invading Normandy. His first posting was at Lockbourne Air Base in Columbus, Ohio, where he learned to fly the B-17, a four-engine bomber. Shortly afterward he was in Guam, flying bombers over Tokyo. John thrived on the excitement of flying airplanes. “It was great being up in the air,” he says. He logged over 10,000 hours of flight time.
In Tokyo after the war, John was an aide to the three-star general who oversaw operations in the Pacific. When Lindbergh came to visit and asked to be flown over Hiroshima to survey the city, John arranged the flight. He also met General Douglas MacArthur, who had commanded the Southwest Pacific during the war.
After a year in Tokyo John asked to return to the U.S. and was assigned to Rapid City. There, he received navigation as well as bombardier training. That made him “triple rated,” so if anything were to happen to his navigator or bombardier, he’d be able to fulfill the mission.
In the early 1950s, John met his first wife, Mildred. He was in Florida for a junior officer training program, and she was a secretary for a colonel at the school. She moved back to South Dakota with him. They had five children: John, Drew, Ken, Jan and Doug.
They were married about 15 years and living in Colorado Springs when Mildred died suddenly of a heart attack. John later befriended a neighbor named Carol, who had recently been divorced. She was, as he puts it, “a good-looking gal.” They enjoyed going on walks and playing golf. They married in 1967 and raised eight children, while living on a base in San Antonio and later in Honolulu.
John retired as an Air Force colonel in 1971, after 28 years of service. He and Carol then settled in San Diego, drawn by the warm weather and the many military friends in the area. He started a real-estate business and Carol found work at a travel agency. Later, she started her own travel agency and organized golf tours. Eventually, they sold both businesses and John retired once again, spending more time playing golf and poker.
Colonel John Werner Jr. still relishes the years spent serving his country. “I liked everything about the military,” he says. “The discipline. Being a leader. And flying airplanes.”