After 76 years, pieces of WWII plane finally return to Des Plaines
Len Johnson achieved his decadelong quest to reclaim, preserve and display important vestiges of Northwest suburban wartime and aviation history when the artifacts of a World War II plane landed at the Des Plaines History Center.
Johnson, a Park Ridge history buff and retired firefighter and bricklayer, acquired parts from a C-54 Skymaster that was assembled during World War II at the Douglas Aircraft Co. factory, on land that would later become O'Hare International Airport near Mannheim and Higgins roads in Des Plaines.
Tuesday marks the 76th anniversary of the dedication of the plane -- named Maine Flyer, to recognize the fundraising achievements of Maine Township High School students who sold $551,000 worth of war bonds in only two weeks' time.
With the Des Plaines museum reopening this month amid loosened COVID-19 restrictions, it's an opportunity to see parts of a historic aircraft with local ties.
On display is the Maine Flyer's reconstructed cockpit, which includes the captain's seat, instrument panel, yoke and pedals.
"I wanted to redo the cockpit. That was the neatest part of the plane," Johnson said. "This, to me, is where the action was -- flying."
The plane, one of about 660 assembled at the old Douglas plant, was put into service as a naval hospital aircraft to evacuate wounded sailors in the Pacific theater. After the war, the Flyer helped deliver supplies, ferry fuel, and put out fires. It ended up with other abandoned aircraft at the Gila River Memorial Airport in Chandler, Arizona.
Johnson, a one-time trustee and treasurer on the Park Ridge Historical Society board, spent years making phone calls and writing letters and emails to get permission from the plane's owner and Gila River Indian Community, which controlled the airport site, to acquire some parts of the plane.
After getting the runaround for years, Johnson received a letter from the Gila River community in July 2019. In it, they said he had 60 days to remove a set list of artifacts before they planned to scrap the plane.
It didn't take him long to make the 1,700-mile trip to Arizona, where he spent three days in the summer desert heat working to remove the parts. Besides the cockpit components, he brought back the main door and window frames, and carved out a metal panel containing the plane's original registration number.
Much of it has sat in storage in Johnson's basement, garage and shed, but he's long hoped to put it all on public display at the Park Ridge History Center's Solomon Cottage. That site isn't yet able to host such an exhibit, though, amid turnover in the all-volunteer organization and limited resources.
So, last summer, Johnson reached out to their counterparts in Des Plaines where, unbeknown to him, curators were making plans for an exhibit about the city's role in aviation history.
"We made each others' days when he called," said Philip Mohr, the Des Plaines History Center's executive director.
The exhibit, "Des Plaines Takes Flight: Aviation, Aviators and Airports in Our Area," was only on display for a few months -- and the Maine Flyer artifacts, for an even shorter time -- until the museum was forced to close in the fall amid state COVID-19 restrictions.
Now that the museum has reopened, Mohr said, plans are to keep the exhibit on display through 2021.
Located at 781 Pearson St., the history center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Admission is free, though donations are accepted. Masks are required.