Eriksmoen: ND baseball star, aviation enthusiast, became ‘trainbuster’ in World War II
North Dakota’s most dominant junior legion baseball team of the early 1930s was Cooperstown, and a key player on that team later became a highly decorated pilot during World War II.
Cooperstown won state championships in 1931 and 1932, and the ace pitcher on that staff was Floyd Stromme, who later played with the Cleveland Indians. The second-best pitcher was Dick Johnson, who later became a star hurler for the Oregon State University baseball team.
For his action during World War II, Johnson was awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and 14 Air Medals. He was given the nickname “Trainbuster” after destroying scores of railroad locomotives and cars.”
On September 21, 1917, on a farm near Cooperstown, Richard Lowe Johnson became the eighth of 10 children born to John “Johan” and Elina Kristina (Helgsten) Johnson. Johan died when Dick was only
8 years old, and the youngster took on a greater responsibility in the operation of the family farm.
Besides school and farm chores, Johnson found time to play baseball and caught the attention of Oswald Tufte, the legion baseball coach. Besides teaching him the fundamentals of being a good player, Johnson also said that Tufte “instilled in him the indomitable spirit to win,” which he interpreted as “never give up.”
Along with baseball, Johnson also became fascinated with airplanes. In 1935, he purchased a kit to build a Pientenpol Sky Scout, a single-passenger airplane made of spruce and plywood. After completing the body of the plane, Johnson mounted a Model T engine and spent hours flying around the Cooperstown area.
Prior to graduation, Johnson was recruited by Ralph Coleman, the baseball coach at OSU, to play for the Beavers. Largely because of the pitching of Johnson and Clayton Shaw, OSU won the Pacific Coast Conference championships in 1938 and 1940.
He is best remembered for pitching, and winning, “both games of a double header.” Following graduation, Johnson was offered a tryout with the Boston Red Sox.
With the U.S. heavily involved in World War II, Johnson enlisted in the Army on June 18, 1942.
He applied several times for flight training, but was denied each time because of a minor physical issue that made him ineligible.
Remembering the admonition of Coach Tufte, Johnson is alleged to have tried a new tactic. The story goes that he met actress Marlene Dietrich at a USO event and persuaded her to intercede on his behalf. She is said to have convinced a general to grant Johnson a waiver, and on Nov. 5, he entered flight training.
Shortly after his training began, Johnson “was offered a position with the FBI, but turned it down.” He graduated from flight school on Sept. 30, 1943, and the received the commission of 2nd lieutenant the next day.
Johnson was assigned to the 57th Group’s 66th Fighter Squadron involved in action in North Africa, Italy and southern France. He flew a P-47 Thunderbolt, designed as a high-altitude interceptor and adapted to do ground bombing.
During the early months of Johnson’s service in World War II, he flew many missions bombing German troops, ships and supplies around the Mediterranean Sea area. Because of their successes, the 66th became known as the “Exterminators,” and Johnson was recognized as one of their best pilots. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on Aug. 9, 1944; to captain on Nov. 26 and to major on May 14, 1945.
During the winter of 1944, Johnson’s squadron was given a special assignment to initially disrupt and ultimately destroy all of Germany’s ability to resupply their forces in Italy from the north.
The Alps formed the border between Austria and Italy, and the best route through the Alps was Brenner Pass. At that time, 72 German trains traveled through the pass daily, transporting troops and supplies. For six months, Johnson flew many missions knocking out bridges, rail lines, warehouses and moving trains, despite facing constant strafing from the ground.
December 1944 was a particularly busy and difficult month for the pilots of the 66th because of incessant rain and hail that “grounded medium and heavy bombers.” However, Johnson and the other pilots of his squadron remained relentless in their bombing.
Largely because the Germans in Italy were not able to obtain supplies from the north, they “lost most of their fighting strength,” and since they could not escape through the bombed out Brenner Pass, they were forced to surrender on April 29, 1945.
During the war, Johnson had completed 180 combat missions and received numerous commendations. With the war over, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force and was among “a very select group of pilots” sent to Wright Field, located near Dayton, Ohio, to test new airplanes developed by the U.S.
(We will conclude the story about Richard L. Johnson next week, concentrating on his numerous contributions as one of this country’s greatest test pilots.)
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.