"I told Lindbergh I had sold tickets to Michael Murphy's stunt-flying show in the 1920s and he sat in his Waco and imagined myself flying."









"We were stuck for good in about eight or ten inches of water with not a chance for moving forward or backward. And here I was with Charles."



Summer/Fall 2002

My Day
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

, 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 Kincaid’s 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 Murphy’s 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 I’d 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 General’s 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 I’d broken in a beach accident. Lindbergh immediately noticed the problem.

“Why don’t you let me drive, and you just tell me where to go,” he said.

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 island—the 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 Lindbergh’s interest in history, I thought he’d 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 quite miraculous.”

I’d been to this location before but had never studied it like Lindbergh—and 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 didn’t 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 Lindbergh’s 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 don’t like cameras and I wouldn’t 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 they’re 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.

“Let’s go up there and see those native kids,” he said.

Well, that was fine with me, but not with the staff car. The Chevy’s wheels hit the gravel stream bottom and that’s 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 driver’s 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 he’d been so interested in meeting!

In later years I had the privilege of sitting at the same table as Lindbergh’s 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 Guam’s 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 didn’t fit him this day. He couldn’t keep from talking.

A lot of our conversation was about flying—not 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 hadn’t 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 you’d 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 weren’t 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 done—a heroic act that changed the world in which we live.


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