December 01, 2010 Edition

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Remembering the Walnut
Ridge Army Flying School

Harold Johnson stands in front of the Commandant's House on the Williams Baptist College campus. Work is underway to preserve the house. The gables and soffits are being replaced, then work will begin to replace the roof.
(Note: The following article by Brett Cooper originally appeared in The Williams Teller, a publication for alumni and friends of WBC. It is reprinted here with permission.)

Before it became the campus of Williams Baptist College, it was the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School. It was a sprawling military base, a city unto itself, that trained some 5,000 World War II pilots.

Only a few vestiges of the old base remain, but Harold Johnson and several others are making sure that history is preserved.

"Those folks gave a great deal of their time and even their lives to make our country safe. They deserve to have their history preserved," says Johnson, who has a fascinating personal history of his own.

For over a decade, Johnson has poured countless amounts of his time and resources into helping develop the Wings of Honor Museum. The museum, which holds an impressive collection of memorabilia from the flying school and WWII in general, is now housed in a large, new structure at Walnut Ridge Regional Airport.

The base itself came to life abruptly when America was plunged into war. Selected as the site for an Army flying school in April of 1942, the north Lawrence County farmland was transformed into an air base and welcomed its first cadets less than six months later.

During the war, the base was essentially its own, self-enclosed city with a population greater than Walnut Ridge or Pocahontas. It had its own hospital, water and sewer system, police and fire departments, a huge laundry and even movie theaters, according to Johnson.

Nearly 5,000 World War II flyers got their basic instruction at the WRAFS and went on to combat duty around the globe, including many who received medals for their valor. And some made the ultimate sacrifice before they could leave the flying school. There were 42 killed while training at the base.

Among the few buildings left today from the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School, two are on the WBC campus: the old chapel, which is still actively used, and the Commandant's House, better known to the college community as the Williams House.

The house was originally built as quarters for the commanding officer at the flying school, and it then became the home to college founder Dr. H.E. Williams and his family for over 50 years.

WBC recently had the Commandant's House placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was awarded a $44,000 grant this summer from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Funding from the grant, as well as donations received toward the project, will provide a new roof and several other improvements on the structure.

"I am so excited the college is working to preserve the Commandant's House," says Johnson, who strides across the home's front lawn and points to where the officers' club and other military buildings formerly sat just to its south.

In fact, old Army buildings meandered all across the area that is now the Williams campus. When the college relocated from Pocahontas to the former military base in 1946, it was those buildings that served as college facilities for many years to come.

That was about the time a young Harold Johnson first encountered the site. His father, Bill Johnson, a bi-vocational pastor, moved his family to Williams (then Southern) to attend college.

"When we moved here this place was still covered in airplanes, and the old base hospital was right in front of where we lived," Harold remembers. He refers to the thousands of WWII planes that lined the area and were eventually scrapped after the war.

Harold took advantage of the nearby airport, run by the college in those days, where he became a pilot, and then a flight instructor. He also took classes at the college, which is where he met Janie Boleyn. The two were married in 1954.

The couple lived in several different cities while Harold worked as a flight instructor, before he took Janie's advice to pursue a career as an airline pilot. He flew with Southern Airways from 1965 to 1982.

But it was an incident in 1972 which put Johnson's name in newspapers around the world. What started as a routine flight from Memphis to Miami turned into a 30-hour trauma when his plane was hijacked.

Shuttling their DC-9 from one airport to another, refueling intermittently, Johnson as copilot dealt with the volatile hijackers, all the while trying to keep the crew and 27 passengers from harm. While stopped in Orlando, the situation turned violent, and Johnson was shot in the right shoulder.

"He was planning to kill me, but I jumped to the floor just as he shot," he remembers. Although the gunshot shattered his arm, he managed to continue functioning and even return to the cockpit to copilot the airliner. No one else on the plane was harmed through the ordeal.

The situation was finally resolved in Havana, Cuba, where the hijackers surrendered, were arrested and served several years in prison.

The other crew and passengers were treated to a meeting with President Fidel Castro and an overnight hotel stay, but Johnson was whisked to the hospital by unconventional means. As he recalls, "They didn't put me in an ambulance. They took me to the hospital in a taxi cab!"

Johnson missed out on the meeting with the Cuban dictator, but he did get a consolation gift. "He sent me a Cuban cigar. I still have it to this day," Johnson says.

Harold has lived in College City since his retirement, although he lost his companion in 2000, when Janie passed away. There is a daughter in Indiana who followed in Dad's footsteps as an airline pilot, and there are three grandchildren.

And there is Harold's passion for preserving the history of a place that has now brought him full circle in life. Just like the days of his youth when he looked in wonder at the old bombers and fighter planes parked around the airfield, he remains enthralled by all that went on at the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School.

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