with Charles Lindbergh
In the shadow of 9/11, a veteran flyer recalls spending Christmas Day
with his boyhood hero - the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic
Ocean - and Lindbergh's reservations about his own achievement.
by Maj. General (Ret.) Earl Johnson '38
IN THE WINTER OF 1948 ,
I was assigned to Headquarters, 20th Air Force on the island of Guam,
under the command of General A.C. Ack Ack Kincaid.
On Christmas Eve afternoon, the phone rang on the porch near my BOQ [Bachelor
Officers Quarters] room. It was General Kincaid. He told me that Charles
Lindbergh was spending the night and that a few colonels who commanded
our bases would be joining he and the general for Christmas Eve dinner.
He asked if I had any plans for the evening. He told me to dress in khaki,
everyday uniform and to be there about 6:30 p.m.
One can imagine my surprise and eagerness to meet Lindbergh, for he had
been an idol of mine since I was a kid growing up in Crawfordsville. I
showered, put on a clean uniform, and walked across the street at the
appointed time and was ushered into the spacious living room of General
Kincaids cliffside home to meet Charles Lindbergh.
He was dressed very casually in gray flannel slacks and a blue shirt,
open at the collar. The climate on Guam is quite humid, so no one ever
wore a necktie. As I recall, there may have been five or six of us invited.
Filipino houseboys took drink orders and most of us took a Coke or a whiskey
drink. Lindbergh drank either a Coke or ice water.
As the conversation began, Lindbergh was interested in where we were from,
how and where we had learned to fly, and our World War II experiences.
Most of the invited guests were senior in rank to me and had learned to
fly after they had joined the Flying Cadet program or had gone to West
Point and the Army Air Corps.
When Lindbergh got around to me, I told him I had grown up building model
airplanes and had learned to fly before I got into the Air Corps. As a
young boy, I had sold tickets to Mike Murphys stunt flying show
at the Crawfords-ville fairgrounds in the 1920s and had sat in his Waco
and imagined myself flying. Later, I had soloed in a Piper Cub and had
about 50 hours before I entered the Air Corps. Lindbergh wanted to know
if I had ever flown an airplane with an OX-5 engine, and I told him Id
ridden in such a plane, but never piloted it.
He also wanted to know what state we were from and if we had been to a
college he might recognize. I told him I had graduated from Wabash College,
a small, all-male liberal arts college in my hometown two years before
I joined the Air Corps.
We had a delightful dinner that Christmas Eve, all of us leaving for home
by about 9:30.
THE NEXT MORNING AROUND 8 A.M. General Kincaid called me again. He said
Lindbergh wanted to know if I would show him Guam that Christmas Day since
I had been there a few times during World War II and seemed to know my
way around the island. He said Lindbergh had also requested me because
I had learned to fly in light airplanes and knew something about barnstorming.
I was across the street at the Generals quarters a few minutes later.
Usually I drove a Jeep around the island, but on this special occasion
General Kincaid instructed me to take his Chevrolet staff car. Lindbergh
was all ready to go, only this time he was dressed in khaki pants and
shirt like everyone else, though he had no insignia and did not wear a
hat as we did in uniform.
At first I drove with Lindbergh in the front seat. But the car had a manual
shift on the steering column and I had difficulty shifting because of
the cast I wore on my left hand to set a finger Id broken in a beach
accident. Lindbergh immediately noticed the problem.
Why dont you let me drive, and you just tell me where to go,
That was fine with me. I stopped and we changed seats and Lindbergh did
all the driving during what turned out to be a most interesting day.
MAGELLAN HARBOR IS A VERY SMALL PORT near the southern end of the islandthe
anchorage where Ferdinand Magellan put in on his historic trip around
the world in the 1521. The entrance is very narrow and the harbor itself
is no bigger than a football field. With Lindberghs interest in
history, I thought hed want to see the place.
Lindbergh was enthralled with that little harbor. We stopped on a hill
above it so he could get a good view. I noticed he was surveying the entire
area, holding his finger up into the breeze to determine wind direction.
Finally he said, You know, that Magellan was quite a sailor. How
he found this little harbor in a sailing vessel over 400 years ago is
Id been to this location before but had never studied it like Lindberghand
this was his first trip to Guam. It was no quirk of fate that he became
the first man to make that historic flight from New York to Paris in a
single-engine airplane. He was a student of the earth, its land, winds,
weather, and oceans.
I KNEW THAT LINDBERGH HATED CAMERAS so, in spite of the fact that I had
a 35 mm camera on Guam, I left it in my room. Unfortunately an Air Corps
chaplain recognized Lindbergh at the small monument at Magellan Harbor
and asked him if we would consent to having his picture taken. Lindbergh
didnt say much, so the chaplain handed me his little camera to snap
the picture while Lindbergh stood with him. I could tell by the expression
on Lindberghs face that he was not enthralled about having his picture
taken but I snapped it and handed the camera back to the chaplain. He
thanked Lindbergh and went about his sightseeing.
Lindbergh pulled me aside and said, I dont like cameras and
I wouldnt have done that if he had not been a chaplain in uniform.
Several days later the chaplain brought me a copy of that picture but,
for the life of me, I cannot find it among the hundreds of pictures I
have collected over the years.
ON THE ROADS AROUND GUAM one occasionally runs across little concrete
bridges which actually run a few inches under the stream or
river theyre crossing. These are only one lane across, so only one
car can cross at a time. Such an underwater bridge crossed
a stream not far from Magellan Harbor. One should remember that Lindbergh
was driving, so I am excused from what happened next.
As we passed midpoint of this concrete roadbed in about six inches of
water, Lindbergh looked up the little stream a hundred yards or so and
saw several little naked native kids enjoying a swim. Without saying a
word, he turned the Chevrolet staff car off the concrete pad.
Lets go up there and see those native kids, he said.
Well, that was fine with me, but not with the staff car. The Chevys
wheels hit the gravel stream bottom and thats as far as we got.
We were stuck for good in about eight or ten inches of water with not
a chance of moving forward or backward. And here I was with Charles Lindbergh
at the wheel!
All we could do was seek help, so we took off our shoes and socks and
yelled for the kids to come down and assist us. Passengers in other cars,
seeing our predicament, stopped, took their shoes off, and came to help.
We must have had 15 or 20 lifters and shovers with barefooted
Lindbergh back in the drivers seat trying to get some help out of
the staff car.
We finally got the wheels up on the concrete and he was able to drive
the car away from the water. Lindbergh and I thanked all the helpers and
tried to wring the water out of our socks and pants. He sure got plenty
of opportunity to see all the little Guam kids hed been so interested
In later years I had the privilege of sitting at the same table as Lindberghs
oldest daughter, Reeve, at a Chamber of Commerce dinner here in Orlando.
I told her this story of getting stuck in the streambed on Guam. She smiled
and said, You know, that sounds just like him.
AFTER WE HAD DRIED OUT we drove to a little open-air sandwich place on
Guams eastern shore and sat outdoors at a wooden table and ordered.
By this time, Lindbergh was doing most of the talking. I had always heard
him referred to as Silent Lindy, but that didnt fit
him this day. He couldnt keep from talking.
A lot of our conversation was about flyingnot in B-29s or the modern
airplanes of 1948, but about old Jennys, gliders, Wacos, Eaglerocks, and
Travelairs, the planes of his youth, back when I was a kid in knickers.
At one point he asked me if I had ever landed an airplane looking
at the tail. I told him I hadnt but I guessed it could be
done with a little practice.
I used to do it in an old OX-5 Eaglerock, he said. It
took some practice but I finally got pretty good at it. What you need
to do is start looking at the tail the last 50 feet before touchdown and
keep looking as long as you can; then finally you will feel the confidence
to look backwards clear through the touchdown and until you stop.
I could tell he was getting a real thrill as he told me how he had finally
mastered this feat.
I am sure you took several quick glances up ahead to make sure there
were no cows or horses out in front of you, I said.
He laughed and said, You bet I did. But youd be surprised
at the fine three-point landing you could make looking backwards!
I DON'T KNOW HOW the conversation turned to this, but at one point during
our Christmas Day together 54 years ago, Lindbergh made a statement that
I will never forget. As I write this in 2002 during the War of Terror
loosed upon the civilized world, I find his words practically chilling.
As best as I can remember, this is what he said:
I think my flight to Paris came too soon for the civilizations of
the world. They were suddenly thrown together by air travel and they werent
quite ready for it.
I was shocked to hear such a statement from my boyhood hero, and only
now do I really understand what he meant.
Sir, there were several other fliers about to attempt that same
flight, I mumbled, trying to think of some way to respond. You
just happened to do it first.
He had to agree and we dropped the subject. But I could tell he was disturbed
by what he had donea heroic act that changed the world in which
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