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A tale of three great men; Through WWII service, Roswell football coach Dewey E. Johnson had connections to celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh, ace fighter pilot and former South Dakota governor Joe Foss

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Front row from left, Dewey E. Johnson, Jim Edgar (Johnson’s roommate) and H.M. Britt. Back row, PK Hoelsher, Joe Foss, Charles Lindbergh and Captain Owens (first name not available). This photo was taken at Emirau Island in the South Pacific, circa 1944-45. (Photo courtesy of the personal collection of Dewey E. Johnson)

Dewey E. Johnson and the ‘rest of the story’

Johnson was born Jan. 15, 1917, in Wellington, Texas. His parents were A.N. and Lula Johnson.

He was a 1941 graduate of West Texas State College where he lettered for four years in football and basketball. On July 19, 1941, Dewey married Lena Snitker in Roswell.

He began coaching football and basketball in Midland, Texas, before entering the U.S. Marine Corps. Dewey served in the Pacific during World War II. It was here that he served at Emirau Island in the southwest Pacific as the chief ground officer under Capt. Joe Foss, who later in life went on to become the 20th governor of South Dakota.

It was also here that he met Charles Lindbergh, who spent a week in Emirau as an aircraft civilian consultant flying missions with Foss. Lindbergh is famous for flying nonstop from Long Island, New York, to Paris in 1927. This was the first solo transatlantic flight and the first nonstop flight between North America and mainland Europe.

Fighter pilots were required to carry a handgun in case they were shot down over enemy territory. Johnson was an excellent marksman and part of his job was to train the pilots on the use of a handgun. Foss was also happy to have him because he was tall and a very good athlete.

The flight crews had organized volleyball teams, and he was the star on Foss’ team. Before Johnson got there, the team wasn’t doing that well and then improved dramatically when he showed up.

He was honorably discharged following the war with the rank of major. Johnson was friends with Foss and had a lot of respect for him. He attended every reunion with Foss and his crew until he passed away.

The group photo, which belonged to Johnson, is one of only two known photos of Foss and Lindbergh together.

After coaching in Waco and McKinney, Texas, Johnson came to Roswell in 1952 as the Roswell High School head football coach. During his 10 years of coaching, Roswell won state championships in 1953 and 1955. He was voted Coach of the Year in 1955.

Johnson was chairman of the committee that established the New Mexico Coaches Association and served as its first president. He was inducted into the association’s Hall of Honor in 1985. Johnson was also the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the National High School Coaches Association in 1969.

In addition to the positive influences he had on his athletes, he also touched the lives of many children as assistant principal of Roswell High School from 1960-62 and as principal of Yucca Junior High School from 1962-68.

Johnson was later director of the High School Equivalency Program at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell from 1968-82. The program was recognized by the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, D.C., as the top HEP program in the nation.

From 1971-93, Johnson was owner and operator of S&J Pecan Co.

Johnson served in the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1965-66 and was inducted into the Second Congressional District‘s Hall of Fame by the Democratic Party of New Mexico in 1991. In 1963, he served as president of the Roswell Kiwanis Club, of which he was a member from 1952 until his death.

Johnson was the father of two sons, the Rev. Dewey E. Johnson Jr., who now lives in Albuquerque, and Dr. Max S. Johnson, who is an optometrist in Roswell.

More on Joseph Jacob ‘Joe’ Foss — April 17, 1915, to Jan. 1, 2003

Foss was the leading Marines fighter ace in World War II. He received the Medal of Honor and recognition of his role in air combat during the Guadalcanal Campaign, which was the first major offensive by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan. Foss was an Air National Guard brigadier general in postwar years and served as the 20th governor of South Dakota from 1955 to 1959. He was president the National Rifle Association and first commissioner of the American Football League. He also was a television broadcaster.

Foss was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and died in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 87. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

By the time he was 12 years old, Foss had a fascination with flying and aircraft. He and his father visited an airfield to see Lindbergh on tour with his aircraft, the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Four years later, Foss and his father paid $1.50 apiece to take their first aircraft ride in a Ford Tri-motor at Black Hills airport.

In March 1933, while coming back from the fields during a storm, his father was killed when he drove over a downed electrical cable. His dad was electrocuted as he stepped out of his automobile. Foss, not yet 18 years old, pitched in with his mother and brother Cliff to continue running the family farm. Their life became more difficult over the next two years, as the dust storms of the Dust Bowl days took their toll on the family’s crops and livestock.

After watching a Marine Corps aerial team perform aerobics in open cockpit biplanes, Foss was determined to become a Marines aviator. He worked at a service station and bussed tables to pay for books and college tuition. He began flight lessons at the Sioux Skyway Airfield in 1938 and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1939.

While at the USD, Foss and other like-minded students convinced authorities to set up a Civil Aeronautics Authority flying course at the university. Foss built up 100 flight hours by graduation. He also excelled at sports, fighting on the college boxing team, participating as a member of the track team and as a second string guard on the football team.

He served as a private in the 147th Field Artillery Regiment, South Dakota National Guard, from 1937 to 1940. By 1940, he had a pilot certificate and a college degree and hitchhiked to Minneapolis to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserves, to join the naval aviation program to become a naval aviator.

After becoming a naval aviator and completion of his initial assignment, Foss was eventually transferred to Marine Fighting Squadron 121 VMF-121 as the executive officer. While stateside in 1942, he married his high school sweetheart, June Shakstad.

Starting in October 1942, Foss was sent to Guadalcanal as part of Operation Watchtower. As lead pilot in his flight of eight Wildcats, his group soon became known as “Foss’s Flying Circus.” By March 1943, they had shot down 72 Japanese aircraft, including 26 by Foss. He was shot down twice, but survived both times. Once he had a dead engine with three Japanese Zeros on his tail. He landed at full speed, with no flaps and minimal control, barely missing a grove of palm trees. For this, Foss was accorded the honor of becoming America’s first “ace of aces” in World War II. When he received the Medal of Honor, the White House ceremony was featured in Life Magazine, with a reluctant Foss appearing on the cover.

In February of 1944, Foss returned to the Pacific theater to lead the VMF-115 (Marine Fighter Attack Squadron), flying the F4U Corsair. He was based in the combat zone around Emirau, St. Matthias Group. It was here he had the opportunity to meet and fly with his boyhood idol, Charles Lindbergh, who was on assignment touring the South Pacific as an aviation consultant.

More on Charles Lindbergh — Feb. 4, 1902, to Aug. 26, 1974

In 1927 at age 25, Lindbergh went from obscurity as a U.S. Air Mail pilot to instantaneous world fame by making a nonstop flight from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, New York, to Paris. He covered the 33.5 hour, 3,600 statute miles alone in a single-engine purpose-built Ryan monoplane, the “Spirit of St. Louis.”

Lindbergh was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and received the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for the trans-Atlantic feat.

Before the U.S. entered World War II, some people accused Lindbergh of being a fascist sympathizer. As an advocate of non-interventionism, he supported the antiwar America First Committee, which opposed American aid to Britain and its war against Germany. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1941 after Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. Nevertheless, he supported the U.S. war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater as a civilian consultant. It was on one of these missions that he ended up in Emirau Island. This is where he met Foss and flew a few missions with him.

Roosevelt refused to reinstate his Air Corps colonel’s commission, even though Lindbergh would go up and fight along side America’s best.

In his later years, Lindbergh became a prolific prize-winning author, international explorer, inventor and environmentalist. Lindbergh and his wife, the former Anne Morrow, were the parents of six children. They lost one child in a highly publicized and very heart-wrenching kidnapping and murder case in what the media called the “Crime of the Century.”

Lindbergh died on Aug.26, 1974, in Kipahulu, Maui, Hawaii, at the age of 72. This is where he was buried.

These three men, Johnson, Foss and Lindbergh, were all great in their own right — whether on a national level, international, state or local level — and all a part of what retired journalist and best-selling author Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Though their lives were quite different, they spent a small amount of their time together on an island in the Pacific during the war.

Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or by email at jdunna@hotmail.com.

Editor’s note: The Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico has just finalized its new board roster for 2018. Officers include John LeMay, president; Jennifer Cole, vice president; Jane Nunez Anglin, treasurer; and Amy J. Miller, secretary. Also on the board are Elaine Mayfield, past president; Janice Dunnahoo, chief archivist; Travis Ackerman; Fred Boggs; John Drusedum; Jason Garcia; Kaarina Jager and newly elected to the board are Christina Arnold, Dennis Balthaser and Carol Cunningham.