Honors For Dick Johnson at Arlington National Cemetery
by John R. Njaa
It was a bright, brisk North Dakota-like Winter day at Arlington National Cemetery when Richard L. (Dick) Johnson and his wife Alvina (Binky) were laid to rest there after the Air Force Full Military Honor Graveside Funeral that was held for Dick on January 7, 2003. The ceremony was a solemn event that was befitting of the Cooperstown native son who won the Silver Star and other medals when he was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot during World War II and who later became a world famous, award winning test pilot. Dick passed away in Forth Worth, Texas on November 9, 2002.
The Full Military Honor Funeral involved the use of a horse drawn caisson, color guard, firing party, bugler and other elements that were appropriate to recognize and honor Dick’s contributions to his country and his status when he was in the Air Force. After a firing party salute and the playing of taps, the Air Force Chaplain recounted Dick’s heroism and achievements and read one of Dick’s favorite poems; “High Flight” by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF
Dick was born on September 21, 1917 near Cooperstown and grew up in the area with his brothers, Adolph, Kermit, Carl, Roger, and sisters Lilly Hill, Vina Njaa, Ann Meister and Margaret Lear. As a young man, Dick developed into a very talented baseball pitcher. He is also well remembered for flying home built aircraft around the Cooperstown area.
Dick entered the U. S. Air Force in 1942 and flew 180 combat missions in North Africa and Italy. His heroic actions in aerial combat earned him four Distinguished Flying Crosses, fourteen Air Medals and the Legion of Merit in addition to the Silver Star. He flew seven more combat missions in the Korean Conflict. As an Air Force Test Pilot, Dick broke the world speed record by flying an F-86 at 680.891 MPH.
He left the Air Force in 1953 to become a civilian test pilot for General Dynamics Corporation. During his time with General Dynamics, Dick was instrumental in the successful development and deployment of the F-102, F-106, B-58, F-111 and F-16 aircraft. His skill and courage as a test pilot earned him many awards and world wide recognition within the military aviation and aerospace communities.
After retiring from General Dynamics as Director of Flight and Quality Assurance in 1977, Dick remained very active in many aspects of aviation. He flew corporate jets and gave flight instruction. He also regularly flew his own Beechcraft Bonanza until a very few weeks before his death.
In 1947, Dick married Alvina (Binky) Huester. The constant stress and uncertainty of being a test pilot’s wife did nothing to diminish her devotion and support which significantly contributed to Dick’s success. They had three children. Binky passed away on December 28, 1998.
All of Dick and Binky’s children and grandchildren attended the service at Arlington: son Richard II, his wife Sharon, their son Richard III; daughter Kristie Johnson Averitt and Kristie’s sons Kris and John Abernathy; and daughter Lisa Johnson. Other relatives attending were Dick’s brother, Roger (Bud), Roger’s son Bud and another of Dick and Binky’s nephews, John Njaa.
Several of Dick’s friends attended also, including John (Fitz) Fitzpatrick and his wife Patsy. Dick and Fitz, who was also a General Dynamics test pilot, were members of a group of six test pilots who, in 1955, founded the internationally known Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
After the funeral, Dick and Binky’s children, grandchildren and relatives visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to view aircraft and items of aviation history of which Dick was a part. One of the items is the Society of Experimental Test Pilots Ivan C. Kincheloe Award Trophy, on which Dick’s name is inscribed, having won that award in 1967 for his work with the F-111. An X-1 is one of many aircraft displayed in the museum. Dick flew that history making aircraft while he was in the Air Force.
Another display in the Air and Space Museum is a wall bearing the names of world speed record holders. Dick’s record breaking F-86 flight in 1948 is recorded on that wall.
Cooperstown has also honored Dick in the past through the Dick Johnson Day celebration in 1948 and by inscribing his name on the World War Veterans marker on the Griggs County Court House lawn. Efforts are currently underway to establish a Dick Johnson display at the Veteran’s Center of the Griggs County Museum.