Every year when Veterans Day comes around I always think about my wife’s grandfather. Like many members of the Greatest Generation the man had a story for every situation. After getting to know him and hearing those stories (some more than once), I dubbed him “Forest Gump without the money”.
Grandpa had more careers and life experience than most. He was a welder and a photographer. A mechanical engineer, he worked at Ford Motor Company and IBM. He was also a custom home builder for several years.
He was even an inventor.
He often told a story about leaving IBM to be part of a team that invented an optical scanning machine. Most adults will remember the Scantron tests from school requiring a #2 pencil. Grandpa helped invent the machine that graded those tests. The small startup was eventually bought by 3M. He also told a story about helping build some prototype fitness machines for some local body builders. They went on to form a successful business. From the way he described them, they were just like the Cybex machines you’ll see in many gyms. Both of those companies are based in or near where he lived in Rochester, MN at the time. Unfortunately, he was an engineer and not a savvy businessman. He also wasn’t as lucky as Forest Gump, so huge monetary success wasn’t in the cards from these efforts.
However, the most Interesting story he ever told was from his time in the Navy.
Grandpa joined the Navy from Minnesota during WWII. Eventually, he was transferred to Norfolk Virginia where his skills as a photographer and a welder were put to use inspecting welds on ships being built in the shipyards. He used a specialized camera to take Images of the welds and make sure they were safe.
When it came time to begin preparations to for D-Day he got his orders for a ship that would ultimately take part in the Normandy invasion. While standing in line to board with his duffel bag packed, he was pulled aside and told his orders had changed. Instead of heading to Europe, he would be working on a special project.
As Grandpa liked to tell the story he was eventually taken to a hanger with a Consolidated B-24 heavy bomber. There were some engineers from the company present as well as some military mechanics. Oddly, there was also an interior designer from New York City.
The team redesigned the plane, converting it into a passenger aircraft. The bomb lift was converted into a small elevator. The interior decorator made it into a well appointed vehicle suitable for VIP travel. Grandpa’s job was to use his photography and welding skills to inspect the welds and make sure all the structural changes planned by the engineers were done properly.
What they had built was to be the first Air Force One – the first plane intentionally designed to carry the President of the United States. The bomb lift/elevator conversion was needed because FDR was paralyzed from Polio, but according to Grandpa the public didn’t know that at the time. That was a big part of the need for secrecy around the project.
There were a few of these B-24 conversions. The converted planes were dubbed C-87 models. The one Grandpa helped build was called the Guess Where II – a play on words because Presidential travel was kept secret.
Unfortunately, the Guess Where II never carried Roosevelt. After the plane was built and just before its inaugural trip, the Secret Service decided the B-24 safety record wasn’t good enough. The President took a different plane to meet Churchill and Stalin at the Teheran summit to begin planning the end of WWII.
Another brush with history in a life full of such events.
A Navy man until the end, Lieutenant Magnuson spent his last days at the new Veterans nursing home in Black Mountain being one of the first patients admitted when it opened in 2012. He passed away in 2014.
Happy Veterans Day, Grandpa! You and your stories are always missed.
This post first appeared in the Herald Weekly at HuntersvilleHerald.com