June 10, 2006
Tales of daredevil pilots live on
By Chuck Frederick
Not long after the start of World War II, a P-38
turned slowly over the Duluth-Superior Harbor and then, flying low
over the water, made a beeline for the Aerial Lift Bridge.
Ah, the story of Richard Ira Bong, Poplar's ace
of aces, and the day he piloted his plane through Duluth's landmark
bridge. Right? Everyone in these parts knows the tale or has heard
the legend. Or have they?
If the dusty recollections of a lone witness and
the folklore of a longtime Duluth family can be believed -- and
I choose to believe both simply because I want to believe -- then
Dick Bong wasn't the only cockpit whiz to pull off the improbable
stunt. He was just one of three. Believe it.
"Maybe Bong did it, too. I have no idea.
But the story goes in our family that Uncle Jack did it," said
Charlotte Larson, 67, of Duluth. "I was a little kid, but I
can remember Dad telling the story for years. My uncle was a showoff
from day one."
"He was a daredevil," said Betty Jean
Johnson of Phoenix, 71, Charlotte's sister.
Uncle Jack was Jack Daniel Brown, the star of
the paragraph above and a Denfeld kid who used to skip school so
he could hang around the airport. After leaving school, he entered
the military, his family said, and learned to fly. In the summer
of 1943 or 1944 he and another pilot were assigned to fly a pair
of P-38s from a base in Texas to Nova Scotia. From there the planes
were to be hauled across the Big Pond to England for use in the
Approaching Duluth, Brown either radioed to his
brother or the two planes flew low enough to draw his attention.
Robert O. Brown was an operator on the Aerial Lift Bridge for more
than 33 years and was the bridge's boss at the end of his career,
from 1968 to 1974. He and his family lived just a couple of blocks
from the bridge.
"He buzzed (their) house on Park Point,"
said Jack Brown's daughter, Beverly Johnson, 67, a resident of Paynesville,
Minn., near St. Cloud. "My cousins, they all ran out into the
yard. They knew who it was. He was low enough. They could see him
in the cockpit. Then he flew out over the bay and flapped his wings
at them. And then he and the other plane turned around and came
back. From the bay to the lake, they both went through the bridge
and they were gone. They were out of sight within two minutes.
"It was really breaking the rules, and I'm
pretty sure he was reprimanded," Beverly Johnson said. "But
my dad made a living out of breaking the rules. He got called on
it many times. The joke was, and my dad would tell this, that they
had a red carpet just for him inside the general's office because
he got called in there so many times."
"Bong ... Didn't Surprise
Bong's blast through the bridge made headlines. Or so lots of folks
have always seemed to think.
Roy Mahlberg, 79, still can recall the News Tribune's
coverage. "I remember the picture of him under the aerial bridge,
that P-38 of his," Mahlberg said. He doesn't, however, still
have a copy of the paper.
In more than 20 years of scouring old News Tribunes,
longtime columnist and retired editorial page associate Jim Heffernan
never came across such a report. At least twice he put out feelers
via his column, hoping to attract documentation. "No one could
provide any evidence he flew through the aerial bridge, as much
as I invited people to," Heffernan said. "I've worked
my way through all of those old pages and believe me, if there had
been a picture or a story, I'd have seen it. Of course, I suppose
I could have missed it, too."
No such news clipping is on file at the Northeast
Minnesota Historical Center in Duluth. Likewise, at the Richard
I. Bong World War II Heritage Center in Superior, "absolutely
no evidence" exists of Bong's stunt. "But there are a
lot of people who saw him fly along Tower Avenue," the museum's
Executive Director Christabel Grant said. "He did all kinds
of those sorts of things," including flying under utility wires,
flying down Market Street in San Francisco and doing a loop the
loop around that city's famous Golden Gate Bridge.
Grant has no doubt Bong flew through the lift
bridge. "I know the story is true," she said, "because
John Hoff saw it."
John Hoff, now 72 and the CEO of F.I. Salter in
Duluth, was 11 in the summer of 1944 and was visiting his father's
office in the downtown Alworth building.
"I was staring out over the bay," he
said. "All of a sudden this P-38 rose from the water and was
coming right at me. So Bong had apparently been flying over the
bay. It turned a little bit to the left, tipped sideways and went
past the Medical Arts Building. It went up the hill between the
buildings. He was coming at probably 350 mph. If someone had picked
up on the noise and had looked up, Bong would have already been
gone. It happened so fast."
Hoff rushed to the outer office. "Did anyone
see that?" the boy yelled. No one had. He went back into his
father's office and looked toward the lift bridge. "I saw him
fly between the piers then, and I saw just as he came out from underneath
the bridge, and then -- zing -- he was gone." Hoff rushed again
to the outer office. "Bong just flew under the bridge,"
"There were so many tales flying around back
then about what Bong could do with an airplane, it didn't surprise
anyone when I told them," Hoff said. "I always assumed
other people saw it, too, but I've never met anyone who did."
But neither has he met
anyone who didn't believe the tale.