The founder of the Alaska Air National Guard, Gen. Lars L. Johnson, passed away early on the morning of Nov. 1, 2002, at Whidbey General Hospital.
Lars L. Johnson was born Jan. 5, 1918, in Kloten, N.D. As a young boy growing up during the Depression, he faced many daunting challenges. Throughout this time, a dream sustained him: the dream of learning to fly and of someday seeing Alaska.
He first went to Alaska in the late 1930s, stowing away on a steamship. He worked briefly for the Civilian Conservation Corps, then worked in the world-renowned mining operation of Independence Gold Mine in the Matanuska Susitna Valley.
Mr. Johnson attended the University of Washington before returning to Alaska. He had found his true home. He fished commercially on a sailing sloop in Bristol Bay and spent some more time at Independence Gold Mine.
Mr. Johnson had achieved the rank of lieutenant while still too young to serve in the military. His commission was held for him until August 1941, when he was called into active duty as a second lieutenant in the Army infantry. He was advance air base commander at Kodiak, then he was at Umnak during the Japanese attack on Dutch Harbor. He then served as air base commander at McGrath.
During the spring of 1943 he was accepted at Air Corps flying school. After graduation, he served in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands as a combat pilot and commander of an attack squadron. An Arctic wolf, “King of the Tundra,” adorned his plane and would later become a symbol of the Alaska Air National Guard. During World War II, he was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart among many other distinctions. In Bogota he trained South American pilots for six months.
He met the love of his life on a blind date in Florida. Months later he and Doris Wells were married and on their way back to Alaska. Soon thereafter he separated from the service.
He was known by family and friends as a great adventurer and supreme woodsman. He and his young family lived and traveled throughout Alaska. He worked for the territorial government and as a commercial fisherman.
In 1951, Gen. Johnson was appointed by President Truman as adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard. Two years later Gen. Johnson founded the Alaska Air National Guard and served as commander. He organized the 144th Fighter Bomber Squadron, whose F-80C aircraft bore the insignia of the Arctic wolf.
He landed the first jet in Juneau in 1954, causing quite a stir when he flew under Gastineau Bridge and buzzed the state Capitol as part of a civil defense exercise.
The Johnson family lived in Juneau, McGrath, Unalakleet, Bethel, Yakatat and Homer before residing in Anchorage. In 1961, Gov. Bill Egan appointed Gen. Johnson director of the Division of Aviation, which encompassed Alaska’s airports and remote landing strips as well as the international airport in Anchorage. Gen. Johnson later was named chief of aviation operations and then assistant director of public works.
Throughout his career Gen. Johnson never sought special recognition. However, his contributions to the state of Alaska were substantial. Gov. Cowper bestowed the rank of general on him during a special Air Guard ceremony in 1992. Gen. Johnson spent the last year and a half living on Whidbey Island with his daughter and her family.
In his private life, as well as in public service, Gen. Johnson was known for his integrity, tenacity and courage. In the aftermath of the cataclysmic 1964 earthquake, his efforts to search for survivors were tireless. The Guard he had helped to create and train played a critical role in the disaster relief.
Gen. Johnson was preceded in death by a daughter, Jennifer, in 1968, and by his best friend and loving wife, Doris Wells Johnson, who died Nov. 10, 2001.
His two surviving children, Lars Johnson III of Salem, Ore., and Jonna, along with her husband Martin Laster, of Whidbey Island, wish to observe his passing with deep sorrow and wish to honor his memory. Brothers Curtis and Gordon Homme, both of Anchorage, Alaska, grieve the passing of a man who was their personal hero.
His three grandchildren, David Trimble-Johnson, Kate and Ian Laster, each had a special connection to their grandfather, who embodied the definition of a free spirit and who exemplified grace under pressure.
A memorial service honoring Gen. Johnson will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 9 at Langley United Methodist Church.