- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - John Mollison has spent years showing and telling the stories of American war heroes, and especially stories of “old guys and their airplanes.”

It’s taken the Sioux Falls man who grew up in Pierre around the world.

Many in South Dakota saw his work Nov. 11 on Public TV, which aired his new film, “There. And Back.” It shows Mollison accompanying former POW and Navy pilot Charlie Plumb back to the Vietnamese prison where he spent six years.

It’s moving footage and complicated, with Plumb - and Mollison - not entirely comfortable with the still-Communist Vietnamese ex-soldiers’ perspectives.

The artist and historian has done that for several years.

He owns and runs a marketing and advertising firm, a business he’s been in for decades. But more and more of his time is spent making art and history out of the stories of aviators, especially American military aviators.

He’s drawn the planes of many military pilots and his art is seen in museums and private collections across America and in several other countries. He spends lots of time researching the planes in order to draw them accurately. But the men who flew them, who never appear in these drawings, are the real story for Mollison.

“These types of stories, they need to be known,” he told the Capital Journal (https://bit.ly/1X8x2sx ) recently during a videotaped interview done in the newspaper’s press room. “When the average person looks at these stories, hopefully they can take away some of the possibilities … Do I have that kind of courage?”

That’s why, with all his background, Mollison is still rather abashed that he knew next to nothing about Lt. Cmdr. John Charles Waldron, a hero of World War II who died in his torpedo bomber at the Battle of Midway.

Until his friend and patron, Dr. David West, told him about Waldron a couple years ago.

Waldron came from Mollison’s home community and his name is on the big bridge across the Missouri River linking Pierre - where Mollison’s parents live - and Fort Pierre, where Waldron went to grade school.

That bridge, those links, have made Mollison utterly evangelistic about spreading the news of Waldron.

“He was not a self-promoter,” Mollison said. “He believed in something greater than himself.”

Waldron’s story hits close to home for Mollison and he wants it better known across America.

Born in Fort Pierre in 1900, Waldron had an impressive ancestry from his mother and father who were pioneers in Dakota Territory who became prominent citizens of the state and Fort Pierre.

Waldron’s mother, Jane Van Metre Waldron, was known for bringing the first suit against the federal government as an American Indian and she won property rights for part-Indian people like herself and her children.

Waldron graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1924 and had already spent a career as a Naval aviator when he was given command of a 15-plane, 30-man Squadron 8 in 1941. After pushing them through months of grueling training, Waldron and his crew flew obsolete Devastator torpedo bombers against the Japanese fleet on June 4, 1942.

It was a crucial point in the war and it wasn’t clear at all that America and its allies would win.

Waldron famously disregarded his commander’s orders and peeled off with Squadron 8 and found the enemy fleet before anyone else. Bravely, he and his men attacked, but the slow, ponderous planes without fighter support were chopped up by Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft guns. One man survived and said he saw Waldron’s plane go into the Pacific with the commander standing up.

Unsuccessful in the obvious way, Waldron’s squadron has been credited with providing a key distraction to the Japanese that contributed to the U.S. victory at Midway, a pivotal point in the war. Waldron’s unit received a presidential citation and he and others were awarded the Navy Cross.

There are no Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers left, save a few reported on the ocean bottom here and there.

That adds some historical value to Mollison’s drawing of Waldron’s plane.

“This airplane to me is kind of the embodiment of the South Dakota spirit,” Mollison said, explaining why he spends hours, days, drawing such aircraft.

The real story, though, for Mollison is the people who flew the planes, especially the one who grew up in Mollison’s hometown.

“Waldron was an amazing leader. He was a man who truly led his men into death, but not foolishly. He was doing his job. He’s a tribute to the dedication and service to our country of these men.”

Mollison is fervent in his belief that stories of people such as Waldron can inspire people today.

Such stories show people “that I can see something bigger than me in what I’m doing,” he said.

“What I hear about Waldron is he was 41 years old, he had a family … he was a good father. But he understood he was here to do a job and he did it. And ended up what they call a legend.”


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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