75 years after warplane's dedication, history buff brings pieces of Maine Flyer home
After nearly a decade of phone calls, letters, emails and navigating other red tape, Len Johnson was finally able to reclaim pieces of a historic warplane that Maine Township High School students sold $551,000 worth of war bonds in two weeks in 1944 to support.
Saturday marks the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Feb. 16, 1945, dedication of the C-54 Skymaster -- named Maine Flyer to recognize the students' fundraising achievement -- at the Douglas Aircraft Co. factory near Mannheim and Higgins roads in Des Plaines.
Like a page in the history books, it's almost fitting, then, that the Park Ridge aviation enthusiast and history buff will be recognized Saturday for his efforts. He's among the community leaders who will be feted at the Park Ridge Chamber of Commerce's Night of Stars gala at the Cafe La Cave banquet hall -- not far from where local students were honored years ago.
"I love the story about what the kids did," Johnson said of the December 1944 fundraiser that brought in more than $7 million in today's dollars. "(But) I'm not doing it for myself. I'm doing it for the community."
Johnson, a retired lieutenant from the North Maine Fire Protection District and former bricklayer, became interested in the story of the Maine Flyer while serving as a trustee and treasurer on the Park Ridge Historical Society board.
Members of the organization had worked with Maine Township High School District 207 students to interview alumni who helped with the war bond drive, eventually producing a documentary that premiered in 2015.
It was in 2011 that Johnson retired from the fire service and began investigating what became of the plane, which was put into service as a naval hospital aircraft to evacuate wounded sailors in the Pacific theater.
Johnson tracked it all the way to the Gila River Memorial Airport in Chandler, Arizona, where it sat with other abandoned aircraft on what became part of Gila River Indian Community property.
In a quest to acquire parts of the plane to bring back to Park Ridge, Johnson started working the phones and his computer keyboard to obtain permission from the American Indian community and the plane's owner.
But it was no easy task.
By 2012, he was able to reach the owner of Fairbanks, Alaska-based Brooks Fuel, which used the plane into the 1990s to ferry fuel to remote arctic locations. Johnson says owner Roger Brooks stored the C-54 and three similar planes at the Arizona airfield but wasn't able to remove the planes before the American Indian community acquired the land.
Brooks gave Johnson written permission to access the plane and remove pieces for historical purposes, so long as Johnson could also get approval from the Gila River community.
What followed was years of "getting the runaround," Johnson said: trying to contact the right person at the reservation, thinking he got permission, then getting denied.
But on July 5, 2019, Johnson received a letter from Gila River that said he had 60 days to remove a set list of artifacts from the Maine Flyer before the community planned to scrap it and a half-dozen other planes left on the airfield.
Johnson packed up his Ford Expedition with supplies and made the 1,700-mile trip to Arizona, where he spent three days in August working to remove parts of the plane, which had been left graffitied and vandalized over the years.
He toiled in the 110-degree desert heat with power tools, a saw and a generator, taking out the captain's chair, instrument panel, pedals, main door, window frames and smaller artifacts like a cockpit ashtray. He also carved out a metal panel containing the plane's original registration number.
Before Johnson left he, channeling a scene in the 1965 film "The Flight of the Phoenix," repainted a slogan under the captain's window that had been covered up years ago: "Faster and Higher -- That's Maine('s) Flyer."
"Jimmy Stewart inspired me," he said.
It was always Johnson's intention to have the artifacts displayed at the historical society's Solomon Cottage, but he's no longer on the board, which has seen some turnover in recent months.
New board President Cheryl Williams said board members think the artifacts may be best suited at District 207, and specifically Maine East -- the original Maine Township High School for which the warplane was named.
For now, Johnson has the items in safe keeping.
"I loved doing it, and it's for a good cause."