As a child, Kenneth R. Johnson watched intently as World War II bombers and other aircraft flew over his south Minneapolis home. It sparked his dream of an aviation career.
Johnson was a highly decorated pilot with the U.S. Air Force, where he earned a Silver Star Medal for heroism and numerous other commendations during his 24 years of service, which included two combat tours in Vietnam and 453 days as a prisoner of war.
"We were on the north-south runway and planes would go right over the house," said his older brother Phil Johnson, of Edina. "He grew to love airplanes and flying was all he ever wanted to do."
Johnson died Aug. 29 after a year of failing health. He was 77.
Ken Johnson's fascination with airplanes took off while he was in elementary school and he played with model airplanes. When he was about 7 or 8 years old, Ken cut the webbing out of his brother's new football helmet and used it to make a pilot's helmet that he wore while riding his bike around the neighborhood, Phil Johnson said. By age 12, Ken had joined the Civil Air Patrol.
Johnson graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, where he played trombone in the school band and was part of a garage band called the Commodores. In 1955 he enlisted in the Minnesota Air National Guard, then gained his honorable discharge to enroll at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. He received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in June 1961.
After completing undergraduate pilot training and earning his wings at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, he got his first assignment as an F-100 pilot with the 494th Tactical Fighter Squadron. His career featured two combat tours in Vietnam and included flight instructor duties. He flew more than 250 missions, often under heavy enemy fire. He was recognized for his skill and bravery with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Bronze Stars, 15 Air Medals, two Air Force Commendations, two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
"Captain Johnson made nine low-level passes at extremely low altitude against intense hostile fire and friendly crossfire while delivering his ordnance with precision and accuracy," reads a portion of his Silver Star citation posted on the website www.veterantributes.org referring to a run he made on Aug. 7, 1967. "By his gallantry and devotion to duty, Captain Johnson has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force."
Johnson was delivering munitions with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron on Dec. 18, 1971, when his F-4D became disabled over North Vietnam, and he and his navigator were forced to eject. He was captured and held in Hanoi until he was released on March 14, 1973.
"Like most fellows he didn't want to talk about it, but he endured the standard physical and psychological torture," his brother said. "He went through all that stuff."
Ken Johnson retired from the Air Force in 1985. After that he held positions with Boeing Vertol, which is now part of the American aircraft manufacturer's division responsible for defense and aerospace products and services. He also worked for American Bonanza Society and the Flight Safety Corp.
Besides his brother, Johnson is survived by his wife, Linda, of Derby, Kan.; two sons, Kenneth Bradley Johnson, of Houston, and David Eric Johnson, of suburban Los Angeles, and a sister, Delores Vikre, of Phoenix.
A graveside ceremony and burial will be held on Jan. 14, 2016, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.