Dick Johnson, Test Pilot
by Merry Helm
January 7, 2019 —Lieutenant Colonel Richard Johnson was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full Air Force Military Honors on this date in 2003.
Dick was born on September 21, 1917, near Cooperstown, the eighth of 10 children. His father died when he was only eight, and his mother raised the family on very modest means. His first love was flying, and when he was just a kid, he had a homemade airplane he powered with a Model T engine. As he matured, however, it looked like Dick was destined for baseball. In fact, he was actually in spring training with the Boston Red Sox when he decided in 1942 to fight in WWII.
As a fighter pilot in North Africa and Italy, Johnson logged 4500 hours in more than 35 aircraft, including the rocket-propelled Bell X-1, the world’s first supersonic aircraft. In all, he flew 180 missions, mostly in a P-47 Thunderbolt also known as the “Train Buster.”
After the war, Johnson decided that baseball couldn’t compete with flying, so he stayed in the Air Force. Then in 1948, news came back to Cooperstown that Johnson had broken the world’s absolute speed record by pushing an F86 Sabre jet fighter to a speed of 670.98 mph. He beat fellow pilot Chuck Yeager’s record for breaking the sound barrier the previous year. For his efforts, Johnson won the prestigious Thompson Trophy and the French Henri de la Vaulx medal.
As they say in in the movie “Top Gun,” Johnson felt the need for speed. In 1953, he left the military to become chief test pilot for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas. There, he tested and helped deploy the F-102, F-106, YF-102 and made the first flights in the variable sweep wing F-111. He also helped design the F-16, and in 1955, Johnson and five other pilots founded the internationally known Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
Johnson’s skill and courage have earned him world recognition and a host of medals and awards, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Air Medals and many more. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Johnson’s name is etched on a wall bearing the names of world speed record holders.
Also on display is Johnson’s coveted Ivan C. Kincheloe trophy, which he was awarded in 1967 as the nation’s best test pilot.
Through it all, Johnson remained modest and self-effacing. In fact, when he was dying of brain cancer, he expressed a wish to be buried at Arlington Cemetery – but his family couldn’t prove he had gotten his awards, because he had thrown them away. Thankfully, Senator Dorgan was able to cut through the red tape to honor Johnson’s wish and his memory.
Many consider Dick Johnson to be the greatest test pilot in American history. Back in 1948, Cooperstown held a Dick Johnson Day during which Governor Aandahl presented him with diamond-studded pilot’s wings. But other than that, he’s been overlooked. Many have lobbied for his induction into the Roughrider Hall of Fame, hoping the award would come while he was still living. But Johnson hasn’t even been inducted into the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame yet.
Who knows? Maybe that’s how he would’ve wanted it. But a fly-by would be nice. Or how about a nice sonic boom?
by Merry Helm
January 8, 2019 — The United Nations declared 1975 International Women’s Year. The woman chosen for North Dakota’s special honors was Minnie Craig, and January marks the anniversary of that ceremony.
Minnie Davenport Craig was born in Phillips, Maine, in 1883. She was a very bright student, and after graduating from high school, she taught school, went to college and the New England Conservatory of Music.
She married Edward Craig, and they migrated to Esmond, North Dakota, where Edward had a financial interest in the local bank.
The couple soon became involved in the Nonpartisan League, and in 1923, Minnie decided to run for the State House of Representatives.
In a state famous for its political independence and risk-taking, two women won seats that year – just three years after they’d won the right to vote.
She quickly earned a reputation for keeping meticulous notes, but not everybody appreciated her as a political leader.
A 1927 article reported, “The Housed seems to be sort of henpecked. Mrs. M. Craig watches every move that is made and is ready to blast any presumptuous member with that cold, withering glance that the members know so well and dread so much.”
Despite some male opposition, Craig ended up serving for six consecutive sessions. And in 1933, she made history when she was elected Speaker of the House. It was the first time in this nation’s history that a woman served as the head of a legislative body.
That session was not an easy one. The first state capitol had burned down, and their temporary chambers in the Civic Auditorium were noisy and chaotic. The state was also in the midst of the worst agricultural depression in its history, and obstacles to long-lasting relief were enormous. In 1934, she left politics to work for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, touring the state and organizing relief efforts for counties hardest hit by drought and grasshoppers.
This groundbreaking pioneer once gave some advice to women: “Lady, if you go into politics, leave the men alone. Don’t run to them for everything you want to know. Don’t swallow all they tell you. Post yourself first. Establish your own opinions. Build your own knowledge and confidence, and do it by yourself.
“There’s a field – a grand one for women – in politics, but women must…play politics as women and not as weak imitations of their ‘lords and masters.’ Men are all too inclined to ‘stuff’ a lady full of nonsense, treat her with not to much respect for her intellect and be far happier when she’s nicely tucked away in some corner where she can do them no harm – and herself no good.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way…She has certain natural talents which men don’t have. Women are naturally given to detail…If they weren’t, they couldn’t make pies or sew dresses. Men don’t like details. Because of woman’s training…she’s more thorough than man and right there she has a splendid opportunity for politics.”
Minnie Craig, of Esmond. . . the nation’s first woman to be elected leader of a legislative body.
Billy Petrolle, the Fargo Express
by Merry Helm
January 9, 2019 — Think of North Dakota boxers, and you probably think Virgil Hill. But Hill is not the only great boxer to come out of the state. Back in the 1920s and 30s, there was a lightweight, Billy Petrolle, who went by the name of the “Fargo Express.” He is ranked as one of the two greatest fighters to have never won a world championship.
William Michael Petrolle was born in Berwick, Pennsylvania, in 1905, and tomorrow is his birthday.
At some point, Petrolle moved to Fargo where he and his brother, Jimmy, launched their boxing careers.
Billy was only 5’ 7”, weighing between 130 and 144 pounds, but he soon became renowned for his body punching.
Petrolle’s manager was legendary “Deacon Jack” Hurley, a flamboyant promoter who once said, “Putting an ex-fighter in the business world is like putting silk stockings on a pig.”
The WBA reports that Petrolle won his pro debut with a 2nd round knockout over Kid Fogarty in Fargo on October 27, 1922. His style was one of reckless abandon, and he always gave the crowd a good show.
Over his 10-year career, Petrolle fought an amazing 157 bouts with 63 knockouts, often fighting three times a month. Many boxing greats have said it was one of their career highlights to have beaten him.
In fact, Petrolle was so feared in his day, that he was given only one title shot. It came from Tony Canzoneri, who Petrolle had beaten twice before. In one fight, Petrolle knocked him out in the first round, and in the fight right before Canzoneri won the crown, Petrolle soundly beat him in a ten rounder.
It took a little over two years, but Petrolle finally got his title shot, but unfortunately for the Fargo Express, the fight was on Canzoneri’s home turf in New York City. They fought a grueling fifteen-round battle, and Canzoneri got the nod. Sports writers reported that the fight was a tough, close battle, but they thought Petrolle was the victim of a hometown decision.
Besides Canzoneri, Petrolle fought and beat two other Hall of Famers: Jimmy McLarnin and Jackie “Kid” Berg. In 1934, he fought another Hall of Famer, Barney Ross. After losing that one, Petrolle retired from boxing and moved to Duluth to work in the foundry business.
That same year, famed author John O’Hara put Petrolle into his first novel, “Appointment in Samarra.”
He wrote, “Al read his paper. There was always some stumblebum from Fargo fighting in Indianapolis. Every time you picked up the paper and looked under Fight Results, there was somebody from Fargo doing a waltz somewhere. Either they were all would-be fighters in that town, or else they just used the name of the town and didn’t come from there at all… Al wondered where Fargo was. It was past Chicago. He knew that. They had one good boy from that town. Petrolle. Billy Petrolle, the Fargo Express. But the rest of them! God, what a gang of tankers they were. He wondered just what was the angle on there being so many fighters from Fargo.”
Well… the rest of the world has now mostly forgotten Billy Petrolle.
But the World Boxing Association hasn’t.
In 2000, they inducted the Fargo Express into the WBA Hall of Fame.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.