July 31, 2013 - When I heard that a genuine combat-proven P-51 would be at AirVenture 2013, I was intrigued. When I learned its wartime pilot spelled his name the same uncommon way I do - JohnsEn instead of JohnsOn, my imagination ran overtime.
Could I be related to a fighter pilot of that fantastic generation? He was Hjalmar Johnsen; did I have a long-lost Uncle Hjalmar on the ambitious branch of the family tree? Or might we at least be related through some ancient viking ancestor like Ivar the Boneless, Cnut the Great, or Harald Bluetooth?
Ivar was said to be nimble in battle; Cnut was a great king of both Denmark and Norway, and Harald, well I wonder if he walked around talking to himself a lot.
Alas, Hjalmar Johnsen's family emigrated to the United States from Norway, my father's predecessors from Denmark.
Still, seeing our uncommon name JohnsEn on the side of the Cavanaugh Flight Museum's P-51 at AirVenture gives me a vicarious pride, even if we hail from different parts of the gene pool.
Hjalmar Johnsen was born in Brooklyn in 1919 to Olaf and Martine Johnsen. Originally assigned to National Guard horse cavalry, Hjalmar transferred to the AAF after Pearl Harbor. The Ninth Air Force's 370th Fighter Group received Hjalmar in 1943, where he first flew twin-engine P-38s.
Surviving a groundfire shootdown and bailout from his P-38 over Belgium in October 1944, Hjalmar convalesced while his group traded its P-38s for P-51s. That's where he met the Mustang that came to Oshkosh this year.
Jim Cavanaugh, founder of Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas, said Hjalmar's logs indicate he flew nine combat missions in this Mustang. Hjalmar Johnsen went on to a long postwar career with United Parcel Service. He died in 1999.
When Cavanaugh bought P-51 serial number 44-72339, it was generally known the fighter had served postwar Sweden and later the Dominican Republic before returning to the States in civilian hands. Cavanaugh's refurbishing of the Mustang included replacing some fuselage skin panels in which it appeared that math problems - possibly aircraft weight and balance calculations - had been gouged into the surface some time in one of its past lives.
But its combat history remained obscured. This Mustang carried other markings, along with its actual tail number, and that triggered Hjalmar's son, who verified his father's logbooks noted this same aircraft in the Ninth Air Force. Some snapshots survived, and during an extensive rebuild a few years ago, 44-72339 emerged once more as Hjalmar Johnsen's The Brat III.
Close inspection of The Brat III at AirVenture reveals some nice touches in its paint and markings, like the use of the last four digits of its serial number - 2339 - on the removable cowl panels. That aided mechanics back in the day when more than one P-51 could have cowlings off for maintenance, and not all pieces fit all airplanes as smoothly as the ones that came with the aircraft from the assembly line.
Cavanaugh decided to fly The Brat III with a jump seat, to give people the opportunity to fly in a Mustang "that actually saw combat in Europe," he explains.
Whether Hjalmar Johnsen and I are related through some distant Viking is still in doubt. But there's no doubt that his name appears on the same P-51 he flew in combat more than six decades ago, and Johnsens everywhere can stand tall around this Mustang.