He grew up on Cottage Row in Glen Cove, one of 10 children of Ellis and Lille Johnson, seven boys and three girls.
He was born in September 1925 in Hertford, an old lumber town along the Inner Banks of North Carolina. At 5-foot-5 and all of 128 pounds, he would become a competitive Golden Gloves boxer, but also a man interested in art, literature and Classical music. An excellent swimmer and singer, once, along with his brothers, he won an amateur singing contest down at the old Cove Theatre on School Street in Glen Cove.
Above all, William Joseph "Joe" Johnson wanted to become a pilot.
So not long after his graduation from Glen Cove High School, Johnson set off to join a growing group of young Black men training to become pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Johnson accomplished much in his 95 years.
But until his death Jan. 28 in Glen Cove following a brief illness, he was most proud of his service as one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, said Terry Finney, of McDonough, Georgia, one of Johnson's two daughters.
"I think it was a sense of duty," Finney said. "He was from a very close-knit family that believed in giving back, making something of yourself. My dad always wanted to be a pilot when he was younger, but didn't know it was possible … Going to Tuskegee made him realize it was."
African-American men who sought entrance into the U.S. Army Air Corps were held back by segregation in World War II, their only fighting chance to see combat offered by what was first called "The Tuskegee Experiment." For Johnson, the chance to go overseas never came. Having arrived at Tuskegee on D-Day, June 6, 1944, his class had not yet graduated by the time the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
But Johnson and his family played a role in forcing change that came in the form of a July 26, 1948, executive order integrating the military and signed by President Harry Truman.
Two brothers also served in World War II. One, who later became a Nassau County police officer, served in Europe with the storied all-Black infantry regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers, while the other was in the Navy in the Pacific. A third brother served in the Korean War.
At Tuskegee, Johnson trained with classmates on Boeing-Stearman PT-17 biplanes, an experience revisited in 2019 at the Bayport Aerodrome when he took a 94th birthday ride in one.
"[Johnson] talked about seeing the fighters flying over Glen Cove out of old Mitchel Field and knowing there were no Black pilots in the Armed Forces," said Reynard Burns, spokesman for the Claude B. Govan [Long Island] Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "And he talked about how when he went down to Tuskegee and the fighters flew over him he knew … I could see his excitement … knowing it was possible."
After the war, Johnson studied interior design at the Parsons School of Design. He later attended Farmingdale Agriculture and Technical College, now Farmingdale State College, and studied management at Hofstra University, finally becoming a tool maker at Fairchild Camera and Instrument. He went on to Grumman, where he worked for 28 years, retiring as tooling department supervisor — having made parts for the F-14 Tomcat, among other projects.
Johnson also served as vice president of the Glen Cove NAACP, an executive board member of the Nassau-Suffolk Comprehensive Health Plan Commission, and as a board member of the Nassau-Suffolk Health and Welfare Council and Nassau County EOC. He was also a founding member and president of the Fair Housing Development Fund Corporation, a board member of the Glen Cove Boys & Girls Club, secretary and chairman of the Glen Cove Housing Authority, and a board member and chair of the Glen Cove Child Day Care Center. In his volunteer work with the Govan Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Johnson spoke with members of the military and local youth, encouraging careers in aviation and science.
Johnson was among the Tuskegee Airmen honored in 2007 at the White House by President George W. Bush, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal. Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) have also offered past tributes to Johnson. Suozzi, the former Nassau County executive, once called Johnson "one of my hometown heroes," adding: "As part of the 'Greatest Generation' he persevered to overcome racial barriers and served our country proudly … He personifies all that I love about Glen Cove."
For many years, Johnson wrote a column for the Glen Cove Record-Pilot. Finney said her father also wrote poetry, sketched and loved to sing.
"He was always making us laugh," she said. "He had a great sense of humor."
She said her father loved upstate New York in the fall when the leaves changed colors. He also loved traveling to Brazil, Finney said.
"He lived a long life and he lived a good life," Finney said. "He accomplished a lot of things a lot of people wouldn't have done."
Johnson was predeceased by his first wife, Elise, who died in 1989. Along with Finney and her husband Alton, Johnson is survived by daughter Michele Clark, also of McDonough; son William Ronald Johnson, of Jamaica, Queens; his second wife, Teresita Medina Johnson, as well as six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews. A memorial service was held at the Dodge-Thomas Funeral Home in Glen Cove and interment is scheduled in the spring at Calverton National Cemetery.