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Amelia Earhart in the Big Bend? Amelia Earhart Glenn Willeford 27.DEC.06There was once a U.S. Army airfield situated on Johnson’s farm and ranch in what is now the Big Bend National Park. Today it’s all known as the Johnson’s Ranch site, and it hugs the Rio Grande about sixteen miles downriver from Castol?n.Ranch owner Elmo Johnson had talked of wanting to build an authorized landing field for military aircraft on the property, and the person he conversed with was San Antonio Light photographer-journalist W.D. Smithers. That was in 1929. Smithers, who knew many of the flyers at Randolph Field in Bexar County, contacted one of the commanding officers about Johnson’s proposal. Realizing the value of a landing zone in the immense stretches of the lower Big Bend, the Army Air Corps approved of the idea. Wasting no time that year, Johnson drove his road grader up above the old “river road” and scratched out the airstrip. From then until 1943-44, when the National Park Service took effective control of the region, the landing strip was open to use by both military and civilian aircraft. Other official agencies that utilized the facility included the Civil Air Patrol and U.S. Border Patrol. There were many important individuals who landed at the Johnson field during the decade prior to WWII, some of them quite notable. Many who signed the guest register, that was kept in the enormous porch/patio of the Johnson home, included Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright, who was destined to be a hero at Corregidor, Gen. Nathan F. Twining -- later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and J. R. Kane, flight leader of the daring low-level attack on the Ploesti, Romania, oil fields in 1943. Kane was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism. Other notables drove to Johnson’s by traversing the river road; those included American novelist John Dos Passos and his wife Katy. Dos Passos had been an early-day associate of Ernest Hemingway during the 1920s literary epoch in Paris and was the author of the U.S.A trilogy. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, of Mount Rushmore fame, had also attended as had historian Walter P. Webb and archeologist J. Charles Kelley. The above mentioned guest register is a prized relic, secured and maintained by the Archives of the Big Bend in the Bryan Wildenthal Library at Sul Ross State University.While the airfield on the Rio Grande story may be yesterday’s news to most Big Bend folk, something important happened there one summer day in 1936. And most people seem never to have heard of the event. Famed Amelia Earhart landed at Johnson’s “airport.” June Elkins of Midland, in a June 12, 1993, interview with the author, reported it this way: “Earhart had short, collar length hair. She wore khaki pants and a tan light windbreaker [or “mannish” shirt, as Elkins later explained]. Her companion was nice looking and had brown hair. They were both deeply sun-tanned.” Elkins was ten-years-old at the time; a relative by marriage to Johnson, she was spending part of the summer at the ranch when, says Elkins, a sleek, black single engine bi-plane flew in and rolled onto the apron. And out of the door stepped Amelia Earhart.Elkins loved the Big Bend, as did most of her family. Her sister, in fact, “married Mr. Green, who had the Dug-out Ranch.” They lived there until the Park bought them out. At any rate, Earhart and her associate, spent the night on the premises. Elkins, in a signed and witnessed statement, said someone took a Kodak photograph of the couple. “Kodak” because it had “wavy lines” around the edges. Ada, Elmo Johnson’s wife, later gave Elkins the picture and she had it mounted on her bedroom wall in Fort Stockton “for years.” Unfortunately, with the passage of time, the picture has been misplaced. Ms. Elkins, a youngster at the time, didn’t realize the importance of the image until years later.when, regrettably, some other friend or relativ Nonetheless, she said, Earhart and her friend “danced to Victrola music in the evening.” Elmo Johnson’s favorite song was Red Sails in the Sunset, a tune, no doubt, which was included in the retinue. An investigation of this event has helped substantiate June Elkins claim. In addition to her affidavit and tape recorded interview, both of which are available for research purposes at the Archives of the Big Bend, the author has sequenced some of the events in Earhart’s schedule during the summer of 1936. It is known that she attended the Texas Centennial at the State Fair in Dallas at which a low relief map of the Big Bend was prominently exhibited; that map showed the location of Johnson’s Ranch landing field – something to which an aviator would likely have paid heed. Also relevant is the following statement from a published source, Jean Baccus’ Letters from Amelia: (July1, 1936, to her mother): As you know I spoke before the WCTU at Tulsa. Paul flew my ship to meet me and pick up another plane at Houston. Then I persuaded a pilot friend of mine to come west with me for a visit knowing GP [George Putnam, her husband] had to stay in the east for a while. So -- we, a party of five, went to the Dallas Centennial for a day. Then to California. The weather has been lovely so we have ridden horses and flown airplanes and I don’t know where two weeks has gone. “To the Dallas Centennial for a day,” said Amelia. But she did not indicate that she and her friend(s) went directly “to California.” She may well have flown in, with at least one friend, to the Big Bend of Texas for a short stay. June Elkins insists that she did, indeed, visit the ranch, and Elkins attested to it in writing. Nonetheless, Earhart never signed the Johnson’s Ranch guest register. On the other hand, for many people signing guest registers simply isn’t a high priority item.Whatever the case may have been, in the hot summer of July 1937, one year later, Earhart disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan while attempting to reach Howland Island, a tiny dot in the vast expanses of the Pacific. What had been envisioned as one more step in an “around the world” flight became a regrettable disaster. Earhart’s extraordinary aviation adventures are now recorded in the annals of history. The Big Bend of Texas is now part of that historic record.
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