First-Hand:The Education of an Aeronautical Engineer in the Early 1950s - David L. Boslaugh


It is probably because of my unusual naval career that IEEE historian John Vardalas asked me to do a history for the Engineering and Technology Wiki web site. On reflection, the career was at least a little different than a normal naval career. Starting with only a year and a half of destroyer duty then followed by three years in aeronautical research working with experimental research airplanes in the Mojave Desert, then five years in the first Navy project to put digital computers in shipboard weapon systems, three years in a naval shipyard learning the practical aspects of the business, then four years involved in the engineering aspects of cryptography and cryptology. This was followed by naval communications research and development work and projects continuing to introduce standardized digital computers to naval weapon systems.

I had already written about the digital computer experience in my book “When Computers Went to Sea” and also in the Engineering and Technology History Wiki article titled “No Damned Computer is Going to Tell Me What to Do,” so I proposed writing about my early times, education, and the three years Marian and I spent at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High Speed Flight Station. Here we were privileged to work with the Nation’s collection of rocket powered experimental research airplanes ranging from sister ships of the Bell X-1 to the North American X-15. We were also privileged to work with some of the finest test pilots in the world and with Station engineers who taught me a lot.

This article will cover growing up and educaion, and will be linked to a following series of articles with the collective title The Experimental Research Airplanes and the Sound Barrier that will include the three very exciting years Marian and I spent at the High Speed Flight Station from 1956 to 1959.

Life in a Montana Coal Mining Town

Moving to Colstrip

One of the earliest things I can remember is watching my dad sharpen chisels in his wood working shop in the basement of our home in Colstrip, Montana. It was fun to put my hand into the stream of sparks flying from the chisels and feel their sharp little stings. When he finished with the chisels there was a small gray pile of metal filings on the floor, and Dad brushed the filings on to a sheet of paper. Then he held a horseshoe magnet under the paper, tapped the sheet, and said, “Look at this David.” Magically the filings began to move and formed sets of curved lines connecting the poles of the magnet. When you moved the magnet, the lines would move. He said, the lines showed the lines of force of the magnet; which really didn’t mean a lot to me. I played with the magnet and the paper for a long time and wondered, “What are these strange forces that can let you move things around without really touching them?” Later, when Brother Richard and I were maybe seven or eight years old, Dad taught us how to wind electromagnets, then how to build a rudimentary telegraph system, and then how to make small battery powered electric motors out of nails, wire and bits of wood.

When he was growing up, Dad had wanted to be an electrical engineer, but fate had other plans for him. He and his three sisters had been born and raised on a farm near Vilas, South Dakota, and dad had told us how our grandfather not only devised improvements to his farm equipment, but had actually designed some of his own farm machinery. He told us how one very rainy year Grandpa had actually replaced the wheels on some of his equipment with barrels to keep the wheels from sinking into the soft earth. He was able to keep on farming that wet summer when other farmers couldn’t. When dad and his sisters started nearing junior high school age, Grandma and Grandpa B. decided to move to Oscaloosa, Iowa, so that their children could get a better education than they could get in rural South Dakota. Grandpa’s plan was to open a school of business in Oscaloosa which would bring another of his talents into play; fantastically good penmanship.

My paternal grandparents Bion and Rena Belle Frey Boslaugh in 1908. Grandpa B. was a natural inventor and engineer who’s ancestor Sebastian Bouslaugh, a Swiss millwright, immigrated to the U.S. before the Revolutionary War. Sebastian’s offspring then pushed west with the frontier. Grandmother’s ancestor Heinrich Frey arrived in the New World from Germany in 1680, and his descendants likewise followed the frontier in a quest to find better farmland. Photo from the author’s collection

In the early 1920s, running a small business involved using a number of paper forms that called for highly legible penmanship, and Grandpa B’s classes were going to teach the use of the forms as well as penmanship. He also envisioned printing the various forms to sell to businesses. Grandma B. once showed me the printing plates for Grandpa’s penmanship book. He had done all the penmanship illustrations for the plates, and they were truly elegant. Somehow this particular talent skipped a generation when it came to me. In Colstrip Grade School the teachers handed out “bluebird cards” to inspire the young students to good penmanship, but in all my years in grade school, I never got one bluebird card. It got so bad our teacher would send me out of the room on an errand when she handed out the bluebird cards. It is good we have word processors now.

The Boslaugh family moved to Oscaloosa early in 1923, and it was Grandpa’s plan to open his school that fall. In the meantime, he would be preparing his class material, and he also got a job working on the local Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad doing track maintenance. Tragically, on 5 May 1923 he was killed in a railway accident when the crane boom on the car he was riding was misaligned and caught on a bridge timber. Dad’s hope of studying electrical engineering were dashed. Instead, Grandma B. found work in the dormitory kitchen of nearby John Fletcher College in Oscaloosa where she managed to get all four of her children through college. The college had two specialties, theology and education, and Dad was told he was either going to be a preacher or a teacher. Dad chose teaching, and decided to specialize in journalism and the teaching of manual arts.

Upon graduation, Dad’s first teaching job was as principal of a small high school in Flaxville, Montana, up in the far north eastern plains of the state. He also taught journalism and manual arts. In the summers he would find work building housing at nearby Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River. Here he sharpened his blueprint reading and carpentry skills, as well as pouring and finishing hundreds of tons of concrete. In 1936 Dad was offered the position of Superintendent of Schools in the coal mining town of Colstrip in southeast, Montana. He would also be principal of the high school, and again would teach journalism and manual arts. The dark cloud that pushed Dad into teaching instead of electrical engineering may have also had a silver lining. Even at the bottom of the great depression, teachers could usually find employment because the last thing a municipality would want to do would be to shut down their schools, whereas newly graduated electrical engineers were standing in bread lines.

The Coal Mine

Whenever Brother Richard and I needed more wire for our electrical constructions and experiments, Dad would say, “Let’s go out to the mine and get some more blasting wire.” There was always an ample supply of used fiber-insulated copper blasting wire lying on the surface of the exposed coal seam, and the miners were glad to see us roll it up and take it away. They always used new wire for the next blast for safety reasons. Then we would stop at the company office and dormitory heating plant to get a supply of blasting powder boxes. The heating plant burned the boxes and there would always be a supply of intact boxes with the colorful “Atlas Blasting Powder” logo emblazoned on the box. These boxes were very well made of half-inch wood about sixteen inches long and a square foot in cross section, and provided all the wood we needed for our projects, as well as making substantial storage containers. Everybody in Colstrip stored their belongings in powder boxes.

Colstrip was a company town owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP), and the mine supplied most of the coal used by the NP locomotives. We were told it was the largest strip mine in the world. Originally the NP owned and operated underground coal mines at red Lodge and Chestnut, Montana, to supply their locomotives. However, a little before 1920 the miners there unionized, causing increasing strife and management problems for the Railroad. In 1923 the NP resorted to developing a new surface coal stripping mine in Rosebud County, Montana, about 35 miles south of the town of Forsyth. The strip miners were much more mechanized than the manual laboring underground miners, and not interested in unionization. The Railroad named the company town established near the mine “Colstrip,” and only NP employees could live there. They called the coal “Rosebud” coal, and found it cost only one fourth as much to deliver a ton of coal to a locomotive as the cost for the underground coal. There was one drawback, however, the sub-bituminous Rosebud coal had about half the heating value of the harder underground coal. The economics were still in favor of Rosebud coal, but to get the needed engine power the NP had to resort to building a new breed of locomotives having fireboxes about twice the size of conventional locomotives. [3, pp.78-80]

Their first new locomotives, built at the American Locomotive Works Schenectady Plant, featured a new wheel arrangement for locomotives. Previously, the largest of steam locomotives used only two idler wheels under the firebox, however the new Northern Pacific Class A machines needed four wheels to support the large fireboxes, resulting in a new 4-8-4 wheel arrangement. The NP’s quest for larger fireboxes to efficiently consume the Rosebud coal, and increased power in general, was finally consummated in the Northern Pacific Class Z-5 “supersteam” engine having a 2-8-8-4 wheel arrangement. It had two sets of eight-each drivers, each set powered by its own cylinders. The firebox on these monsters was 22 feet long, nine feet wide, and seven feet high. The Northern Pacific advertised these machines as the wold’s largest and most powerful locomotives, as well as being the technological peak of the American steam locomotive. [3, p. 80, pp. 94-96]

The coal seam mined at Colstrip was called the Fort Union Formation. It was under about 100 feet of soil overburden and was 24 feet thick. Two types of huge power shovels were used in the mine, both built by the Marion Steam Shovel Company, however both were actually powered by electricity from huge trailing high voltage cables. The first type was called a dragline, and it was used to remove overburden soil by dragging a large bucket horizontally across the ground. The bucket would be emptied onto a growing spoilbank alongside the huge 200-foot wide groove the shovel was digging in the earth. The groove would be excavated down to the level of the coal seam and then the dragline would be moved on to uncover more of the groove until about a mile of coal seam had been revealed. Then, after blasting with dynamite to loosen the coal seam, a huge scoop shovel would be driven in to scoop up about a 100-foot wide strip of the seam and load it into railroad coal cars rolling on rails laid on the remaining 100-foot wide strip of coal seam. When the scoop shovel was not being used to load the cars, it could also be used in removing the earth overburden. [13]

A Marion scoop shovel removing overburden, circa 1951. The size of the shovel can be appreciated from the size of the rail cars alongside. Photo by the author

When the dragline had uncovered a mile or so of coal seam, it would be driven back to the starting end of the now half-removed seam to remove a new strip of overburden alongside the remaining side of the seam. The removed overburden soil would then be dumped into the empty strip where the coal had been removed to build a new spoilbank alongside the original spoilbank. The strip mine would then continue moving sidewise across the landscape leaving miles of spoilbanks in its wake. The spoilbanks were aptly called because any topsoil would have been dumped at the bottom of the bank, and no vegetation would grow on them for years. No attempt was made at smoothing them or any other form of reclamation. The only advantage I can recall of the spoilbanks was were they were fun to play in, and because the soil was well broken up, the rich supply of fossils they held was easy to retrieve. We would bring home all kinds of fossilized bones, turtle shells, sea shells, smooth rock rods that had probably once been the cartilage skeletons of ancient sharks, and myriad leaf and flower shapes preserved in the layers of rock.

My father looking at one of the dragline shovels, circa 1951. Photo by the author
During a 1976 visit to the Kennedy Space Center, we walked over to get a closer view of one of the Apollo Moon Rocket crawler transporters that carried the rocket from the vertical assembly building to the launch pad. As we got closer I was astounded to again see the Marion Power Shovel logo on the crawler tracks. It turned out this huge machine had been built by the same company that built the Colstrip mine power shovels some four decades before and the tracks looked almost identical to the dragline tracks. A dramatic demonstration of the sophistication of mechanical engineering even in the 1930s. NASA photo

The mine was still in operation in 1951 when Dad and I visited Colstrip, but production had been considerably cut back because there were only a few steam locomotives left on the Northern Pacific lines. Mining then ceased in 1958 when all Northern Pacific steam locomotives had been replaced by diesel units. The end seemed to be in sight for Colstrip, however, the town and the mines would eventually experience a new life. More about that later.


To the residents of Colstrip their village was not called a town, to them it was “camp.” If someone said they were going to town, they meant they were going to Forsyth a larger town on the Yellowstone River some 35 miles north of Colstrip. Forsyth had a much wider variety of shopping than the one company general store in Colstrip; you could get your car repaired at a garage, and there was even a movie theater. A truck with mail for the post office in the general store as well as supplies for the store came from Forsyth once a day; only it was not called the mail truck, it was the “stage.”

Even though we were living in the middle of the great depression we in Colstrip did not seem to be touched by it, other than seeing many unemployed men riding the railroad cars that passed through Forsyth. It seems that if the family breadwinner had a job at that time, you were OK. It was the families without work that fell out of the bottom and had no safety net. Even though the ranches and farms around Colstrip had no electricity (other than a wind charger) or indoor plumbing, we had both because of the power line running down to the mine for the big power shovels. Because of the ample supply of coal, all heating was done with coal, and every company house had a coal bin next to the furnace room that the company kept well supplied. Wood kindling to start fires came from the ever present powder boxes. The coal bin also was a source of wondrous entertainment, where Brother Richard and I would spend hours splitting lumps of the soft coal to see the fantastic imprints of prehistoric leaves and flowers.

An example of the spoilbanks left from the Colstrip mine. Photo by the author

Our communication with the outside world also seemed to be totally modern and up to date. Even though the individual company houses did not have telephones, the company office had a couple that could be used in emergencies. Also, if you needed to correspond with less delay than offered by the US postal system, you went down to the Western Union telegraph office at the railroad station. Colstrip had a spur line running down from Forsyth for the coal trains, and if you needed to get into Forsyth by rail, to catch a mainline train for example, you could buy a passenger seat in a coal train caboose. We could reliably tune in one radio station: KGHL in Billings, Montana, about 100 miles away. From KGHL, we got up-to-the-minute daily news, Jack Armstrong, The All American Boy - right after school every day, the spooky Inner Sanctum program, Red Slelton, Fibber Magee and Molly, the Jack Benny Show, the Lone Ranger, and on Saturday mornings the Orson Welles broadcasts. We knew right from the start that his “War of the Worlds” was just a radio program, but it was satisfyingly scary just the same. One really great thing about listening to radio shows, as compared to television, was you could work on model airplanes, or other things, without having to look up at a screen. News magazines such as Time, Life, Colliers, and the Saturday Evening Post were also an important connection with the outside world, not to mention the Sunday Denver Post newspaper. The Sunday paper actually came in the mail on Wednesdays and was one of the two high points of the week for me. Even though they were forbidden fruit, and an object of derision by our teachers, the paper had the comic strips including “Prince Valiant”, and my favorite “Tim Tyler’s Luck” about the adventures of a Coast Guard sailor. Sometimes that strip had model ship layouts that you could paste to cardboard, cut out, and assemble.

The land outside Colstrip also offered endless entertainment possibilities. First was the “swimming hole” a flooded strip mine about a half mile walk from camp. The company had equipped it with changing houses, a diving board, and a raft. During the summer they also provided a life guard, usually one of the high school students who had taken the Red Cross life saving course. They also gave swimming lessons, and just about every kid in and around landlocked Colstrip knew how to swim. The swimming hole, was actually about a half mile long and was stocked with rainbow trout for fishing. The local sand rock outcroppings were another attraction. These large soft sandstone monoliths had been sculpted by the wind and rain for thousands of years and offered caves, tunnels, and other formations that offered more possibilities to a young imagination than Disneyland ever would. Some of the sand rock formations had flint outcroppings that had been known to the indians for many years. Here they had chipped arrowheads from the flint for millennia. Dad would often take us out to “Eagle Rock” to turn the earth over in a search for arrowheads, and there is hanging in this room a display of a number that we found. There is one thing notable about them. None is complete; every one has some sort of flaw. That is the only reason we could find them, because in each case something had gone wrong in the chipping process and the maker it had thrown it away. Probably each one up on the wall has some kind of indian expletive or swear word connected with it.


Dad’s school system consisted of two two-story wood frame buildings in opposing corners of a school yard about two acres in extent. One was the grade school and the other the high school. The lower story of the grade school was the manual training wood shop and storage, and the upper story had three classrooms. Two of the classrooms held children in three grades and the third had two grades together. One teacher in each room would attend to one class level at a time while the other classes studied. Often a student in one of the studying classes would raise their hand to answer a question Miss Flannigan had addressed to a different class level, and she would have to remind the eager student he or she was in the wrong class, and to get back to studying.

Each classroom had a large black stove for heating, and naturally burned coal. One of our favorite activities was to throw a hand full of 22 caliber rifle shells in the stove and then listen to the popping and banging of the shells detonating. This really got Miss Flannigan’s attention the first couple of times because she didn’t realize what was going on. Later, though, she would not even raise her head, but would just quietly say, “I wish you boys would stop wasting your 22 shells in the stove.” Once one of our teachers caught me drawing a sketch of a Buck Rogers type rocket, which prompted her to give me a short lecture that she knew from good authority that men would never leave the bounds of earth because, “The vibration will shake them to pieces.” Another time this same teacher queried each student in turn as to what they had for breakfast that morning. Most answers were along the lines of eggs, bacon, and pancakes with butter; which was very satisfying to her because they were getting good nutrition, furthermore her father owned a dairy farm. My answer of, “a bowl of Cheerios,” appalled her, and the reason given that the Cheerios box came with a model of a Japanese Zero fighter was far from satisfying. She said she was going to talk to my father about my poor breakfast diet.

I have mentioned that one of the high points of my week was when the Denver Post comic strips came on Wednesday. The other was Friday when school classes were over because brother Richard and I were often invited to ride the school bus to one of our friend’s ranch homes to spend the weekend. One ranch student, Wallace McRea, was two years behind me in Colstrip grade school, and I remember him mainly as a very quiet contemplative young fellow. Later, in addition to running his 30,000 acre family ranch, he wrote a number of books of prose and poetry and became regarded as the Montana cowboy’s poet laureate. In one of his books he described our school bus.

We ranch raised children rode to school in what was euphemistically called a school bus. In reality, it was a black half-ton Chevy delivery van equipped with a pair of pastel pink and white cotton-blanket covered two-by twelve-inch plank benches that were bolted to each side of the interior of the back of the panel truck. The two rear doors did not close together tightly. In fact there was such a gap between them that you could watch the road fly by on rainy days. When it was dry, which was usually the case, you couldn’t see any thing because of the clouds of scoria dust that billowed in through that space in the doors. [8, p.44]

Wally went on to describe one of their favorite bus drivers, Helen:

Our parents did not approve of Helen, but despite being thrown around in the back of the delivery panel and gathering even a thicker layer of dust than usual, we liked her driving. She brought excitement into our lives. We found the threat of death or maiming somehow thrilling. And the fact that we had a daredevil driver that would pass the other busses satisfied our competitive spirit. [8, p.52]

Riding in the bumping, rolling, shaking bus that always seemed to be exceeding the speed limit, if there was one, was very exciting. But what was really exciting was life on the ranches around Colstrip. None of them had electricity other than a wind charger that fed a couple of car batteries and lit a couple of light bulbs in addition to powering a radio. Kerosene lanterns were the main source of lighting, which I thought was really great, and some of the more up-to-date places had a water hand pump right beside the kitchen sink. Others had a hand operated water pump out in the yard, and each had an outhouse with a Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalog hanging on the wall to provide paper. It was always very satisfying to get scared while listening to the “Inner Sanctum” radio program in the dark. Other than the radio, most of the ranches also had a wind-up RCA Victrola record player. During World War II it was impossible to find metal needles for the Victrola, but you could buy needles made of sharpened bamboo sticks. They were good for one play each.

The village of Lame Deer was the headquarters of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation about 25 miles south of Colstrip. The reservation had its own schools, but some indian families elected to send their children up to Dad’s schools instead. They would be driven up on Monday morning and would stay the week with Colstrip families, sometimes in trailers in their backyards. One of my greatest treats was to be invited to go home with classmates Turkey Shoulder Blade or Susan Running Deer on Friday to spend the weekend on the reservation. The Little Bighorn Battlefield, site of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s last stand, was about 35 miles west of Lame Deer, and to Brother Richard and I, it was a nice place to have a picnic and look for cartridges and arrowheads. That is until the movie “They Died With Their Boots On,” featuring Eroll Flynn in a very euphemistic portrayal of Custer, came out. Then we realized the battlefield had some historic significance rather than just being a picnic ground. The Northern Cheyennes had a much different view of Custer, and we even met a great grandfather who not only told us he had been in the battle, but had also fired the shot that killed “Squaw Killer” Custer. We firmly believed him, and there was no one around who could contradict.

World War II

I was sitting out on the front steps on a Sunday afternoon sanding a model plane part when Dad came out and said the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Inside Mom was frantic because she was sure we were all going to be slaves of the Japanese. I had no idea where Pearl Harbor was and Dad told me it was in the Island of Hawaii. There was a big wall map of the world in the school building across the street and I walked over to locate Pearl Harbor. It seemed to be a comfortable distance from Colstrip, and Japan was even further away. There did not seem to be any worry about bombs falling here, however in a few months there were armed civilian guards around the coal mine because of its strategic importance. We already had a large vegetable garden in our back yard plus an even larger corn and potato plot on the nearby Vern Wymer ranch. Furthermore Dad was an avid fisher and hunter and supplied a lot of our meat that way, plus he would occasionally buy a “side of beef” from a rancher and have it packaged to store in a rented freezer locker. There was food rationing, but I don’t think the people in Colstrip or the nearby ranches ever used all their ration coupons. Our mother also did a lot of canning and got an extra sugar allocation for that. There was definitely a metal and rubber shortage, and I remember when wooden soled shoes came out. There were constant metal and rubber scrap drives, and we had great fun accompanying our elders out to the countryside to help recycle every abandoned car and bit of rusting farm machinery for the war effort. Mom also saved all her cooking grease and fats to be turned into munitions. Then there were the War Savings Stamps. We were encouraged to spend all our dimes on savings stamps that would be pasted into a little book. When the book contained $18.75 worth of stamps it could be converted to a War Savings Bond that would be redeemed for $25.00 when mature in ten years.

Our mother Opal Fern Burkes at age 16. Her grandparents lived in Oscaloosa, Iowa, and owned and managed three farms on the outskirts, one of which they gave to our grandfather, Elmo Burkes. Belonging to the Book of the Month Club, Mom was an avid reader, and also a very imaginative story teller. You never knew when she left the bounds of reality and entered the world of fiction. She also gave piano and guitar lessons. Photo from the author’s collection

With the advent of war, Dad converted his wood shop classes from making small furniture items to making airplane recognition models. The government provided standard plans for the models and his students shaped them out of solid pine wood. Then they painted the models black and shipped them off to the Army and Navy. To me, they were works of art, and I imagine every high school shop class in the nation was making a like contribution to the war effort. In 1944 Dad was 35 years old, and in March of that year a letter from his draft board gave him 60-day notice that he would be called to report for a physical exam. Instead of being drafted, he elected to volunteer for naval officer candidate school. Upon graduation he was commissioned a lieutenant (junior grade) rather than the lower rank of ensign because of his master’s degree in journalism. With his service entry, our mother, Richard, and I had to move from the company town of Colstrip to nearby Forsyth, Montana. Our parent’s divorce decree was finalized soon after.

My father Donald R. Boslaugh upon graduation from Officer’s Candidate School in 1944. Photo from the author’s collection

Upon graduation from OCS, Dad listed the Naval Civil Engineering Corps (CEC) as his duty preference. The first naval construction battalions, under the command of CEC officers, had been established in early 1942 and Dad had always admired the “Fighting Seabees.” He wanted to be one of them, and requested an interview with a young CEC officer. The first question put to him was, “In what field is your engineering degree?” Dad replied he had degrees in education and journalism, upon which his interviewer replied that even in wartime he needed an engineering degree to get into the CEC. Dad’s rejoinder that he bet he had built more buildings and poured more concrete than his interviewer, did not hold much water. He ended up specializing in harbor operations and harbor command.

Dad and Uncle Lewellin on Okinawa in 1945. Uncle Lew was married to Dad’s sister Beatrice, and was in the Army Chaplain Corps. Photo from the author’s collection

By 1945, Dad was on the island of Okinawa in training for the invasion of Japan. His job would be to go in with the third wave of an amphibious invasion and begin restoring harbor facilities. Many years later, I learned in my Naval Science Amphibious Assault class that the third wave of an invasion normally got the worst resistance because the opponents had usually recovered from the initial bombardment by that time. There has always been controversy regarding whether the dropping of A-bombs on Japan were the definitive causes of the Japanese surrender, but in any event I credit the A-bomb with allowing him to live to the ripe old age of 95. With war’s end, Dad was posted to the harbor command in Pusan, Korea. The Koreans wanted the Japanese out of Korea immediately so his first task was to go inland with a few enlisted men and an interpreter to disestablish a school for Kamikaze pilots. Between he and his men he had a 45 caliber automatic pistol and they each has a sub machine gun. The couple of hundred young Kamikaze candidates could have easily overwhelmed them, but they turned out to be amazingly docile and obedient while they loaded them into commandeered gondola railroad cars. Maybe they were glad to be going home.

Last Stand at Rosebud Creek

In 1983 while I was browsing through the Smithsonian Institution book store, a title leapt out at me, “Last Stand at Rosebud Creek.” I had once lived near a Rosebud Creek so I pulled the book out. Good Lord! It was about the little town of Colstrip where I had once lived. It was about the conflict between Montana Power Company and the ranchers who owned land around Colstrip. The book contained many names of persons I remembered including Wally McRae, one of the opposition leaders. In 1958, the Northern pacific had ceased mining Rosebud coal and the Montana Power Company negotiated a lease purchase agreement with NP to take possession of the town of Colstrip, the mining equipment and a coal field having about 60 million tons of coal. Montana power did not mine any coal there in the ensuing ten years and many of the homes were rented by local farmers and ranchers who preferred a community life. [10, p.5-6, 37]

This is the countryside just outside of Colstrip in 1951 showing what the land looked like before mining. The start of a spoilbank can be seen at center far left. Even though the spoilbanks are now graded and replanted, many features such as our wondrous sand rock formations are gone forever. Photo by the author

In 1968 Montana Power (MP) started mining again on a small scale to provide coal for its power plant in Billings, Montana, as well as other power plants. However, in 1972 MP elected to build the first of four “mine mouth” power generating units to directly consume Rosebud coal, and local ranchers were well aware that as Homestead Act owners they did not own underground mineral rights to their property, so the coal interests could possibly do irreparable damage to their environment. By 1986 there were four such plants in Colstrip capable of producing 2,100 million watts. The story tells how McRae and his compatriots were at least able to require the coal interests to get environmental pollution permits and carry out land reclamation of the spoil banks. [10, p.73-74, 76-79, 92]

Western Energy Company, the present mine and plant owner, removes and stores the top two feet of top soil. Then, after mining, the spoil surface is regraded resembling its original contour, the topsoil is replaced, and native grasses, forbes, bushes, and trees are planted. Permanent revegetation is complete in about three years. In some cases, instead of this type of planting, local farmers lease the reclaimed land to plant grain fields and alfalfa. The company brochure goes on to state:

  • "The mine is required to keep reclamation contemporaneous with mining. WECo disturbs approximately 250-350 acres annually for mining purposes, and the company also reclaims and revegitates 250-350 acres annually. An average of 20,000 trees and shrubs are planted each year.
  • Over $2 million was spent initially on reclamation research in order to meet regulatory requirements.
  • WECo has reclaimed and revegitated about 7,400 acres to date (2007)". [13, p.3-4]

Little Falls Minnesota

We Move

In late 1943, my Uncle Lewellyn went into the Army Chaplain Corps and Grandmother Boslaugh and Aunt Beatrice moved from their parsonage in Sauk Center, Minnesota, to nearby Little Falls, a town of about 5,000 souls in heartland, Minnesota. Sauk Center is about 30 miles southwest of Little falls and was the birthplace of Sinclair Lewis who used the town as the model for his imaginary town Gopher Prarie in his novel “Main Street.” Grandma B. invited Brother Richard and I to spend the summer of 1945 with her and Aunt Bea in Little Falls. The trip was not a difficult one because both Forsyth and and Little Falls are on the Northern Pacific main line. The voyage involved getting on the train at the Forsyth station early in the morning and getting off at Little Falls that evening before sunset. It was not much different than a long street car ride. Grandma and Aunt Bea were waiting at the station, and it was about a 20 minute walk to their place. In a letter, Mom asked us how we liked Little Falls and we replied it was a great place. Her next letter, a week later, asked if we would like to move there, and we responded with a resounding yes. Two weeks later Mom arrived on the Northern Pacific and our belongings showed up in a van a week later. By that time she had found a place to rent. [6, p.6]

Little Falls had everything we could ever want, including the prettiest most friendly girls we had ever met. We also made many new friends also interested in model building, rocket building, photography, electronics experimentation, and other aspects of building all sorts of things. Furthermore, there were: a radio repair shop that sold all forms of electronic components, model airplane kits at the local J. C. Penney store, a war surplus store stocked with bargains in real military surplus equipment offering an unlimited supply of building parts, a well stocked hardware store where the clerks usually asked, “What are you building now Dave?,” and a photography studio that sold developing chemicals, photo paper, and sheet film.

The Little Falls, Minnesota, Northern Pacific railroad station at the end of a pleasant one-day train ride from Forsyth, Montana, 1945. Photo by the author

Little Falls High School

There seems to be a lot of controversy about the quality of education offered to American students today, but looking back on Little falls High School, I think the quality of our teachers and their teaching was great. They were capable, dedicated, and made us work. They seemed to operate through a combination of inspiration, a little intimidation, fear of failure, and a fair amount of entertainment. I will never forget Miss Anderson’s atmospheric pressure demonstration when she heated the air in an empty one-gallon can over a bunsen burner. Then she closed the cap and plunged the can into a sink of ice cold water. The resulting violent implosion was very satisfying. Miss Anderson and half the class were drenched, and she got a standing ovation. We respected our teachers and getting out of line with them just wasn’t done. We never even thought of it. Our graduating class numbered 175, and we had a high school teaching staff of 45. Of that number, eleven teachers specialized in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and science. Most courses such as physics and chemistry were mandatory, and we had one required math course every semester for four years. There were a few elective courses including: latin, wood shop, mechanical drawing, and typing.

All of our teachers had collateral duties, and I sometimes wondered if they ever had any home life. Every one of our student activities and organizations had a teacher assigned as advisor, and they attended all the meetings. You would also see them taking tickets at football and basketball games as well as chaperoning school dances. Mr. Eveslage, our chemistry and physics teacher, was advisor to our Junior Academy of Sciences chapter, and he came up with many ways for us to raise money. This included sponsoring a school dance once a month where we prepared the gym, arranged for the band, and took tickets. The only expense I recall was the band; composed mainly of teaching staff (built-in chaperones). Another money maker was the sale of candy bars every noon. I don’t think school administrations would allow that one today. Our treasury grew to the point that we needed to take a vote on how to spend the money. Mr. Eveslage suggested that if we voted for some sort of school improvement, he could get the administration to provide matching funds. We voted to have a fully equipped photo lab built just off the chemistry lab, and to buy a Speed Graphic press camera - the king of the camera world at the time.

Home Made Equipment

Three of us in the Junior Academy were photographers for the school paper and the year book. We had to share the Speed Graphic camera, so I bought a used German-made press camera with removable back that could accommodate either sheet film, roll film, or a ground glass viewing screen. The lenses were very good and the bellows and lens holder were on a track that allowed very precise focusing with a knob. The one thing missing from the old camera was a way of triggering flash bulbs, and we needed to use flash bulbs for a lot of our photo assignments. My first project with the camera was to devise a flash synchronizer that I incorporated with the shutter release. It worked, and I never got any complaints when I blinded football and basketball players with large high speed light bulb-sized flash bulbs. They knew they were going to get their picture in the paper.

The German press camera was also a natural as the front end of a photographic enlarger. All I had to do was build a light housing out of a large coffee can and an old flash reflector. Next was the light diffuser made from sheets of glass I ground with automobile valve grinding compound. Attached below the diffuser housing was the sliding negative holder big enough to hold sheet film either from the German camera or the Speed Graphic, or smaller film sizes. On the bottom of the negative holder I made flanges that allowed sliding the body of the camera onto the enlarger body. Thanks to the very excellent German lenses, the homemade enlarger could produce sharper prints than the professional enlarger in the school photo lab. Other home made photo equipment included a print dryer built around the heating element of a defunct toaster, and a timer switch built from an old alarm clock with sweep second hand.

I had previously built a record player based on an old electric 78 RPM turntable and plans for an amplifier in the RCA Receiving Tube Manual. With the advent of 33 and 45 RPM records, I wanted to be able to play those also. The record player already had a spring loaded engaging mechanism that pushed an idler wheel up against the motor driving spindle and the rim of the turntable when you wanted the turntable to turn. To stop the turntable you flipped the idler wheel out of the way, and a brake came into play. I could see that the speed of the turntable was determined by the diameter of the driving spindle, and with different diameter spindles I could drive the turntable at different speeds. Devising a mechanism to flip a new idler wheel up or down to contact the different diameters on the spindle was not too difficult, but the challenge was making the three diameter steps on the spindle exactly right. The secret to success was making a new driver spindle with three different diameter steps. The steps were made with thin strips of electrician’s tape wound around the spindle. Trial and error and listening to the pitch of the music finally identified the right number of winds. It worked all through high school, college, and even went to sea when I went on active navy duty.

The next project was a homemade slide projector when I got a used 35 mm camera. Key components were a cooling fan motor made from the very smooth generator of a war surplus Gibson Girl emergency radio transmitter, lenses from the war surplus store, and a focusable lens holder made from the screw mechanism of a deodorant tube.

Little Falls’ Close Brushes With Fame

When you drove into Little falls, the first thing you saw was the water tower blazoned with, “LITTLE FALLS, MINNESOTA, CHARLES LINDBERG’S HOME TOWN,” and it is true. Lindberg had gone through grade school and high school here. I had a girl friend who’s father had played with him on the school basketball team; although he said Lindberg was generally a loner. Some of the townsfolk recalled he seemed to have a touch of aloofness, however that might have been colored by the feeling of the town delegation that welcomed him back to New York. They say he ignored the delegation. (This also might have been the result of the press of many other distractions.) In his defense, he was described as gracious and friendly when he returned to Little Falls in 1970 to dedicate the new Lindberg Aviation Museum. [7, p.19]

The second possibility for fame never really materialized. In the late 70s one of our fellow church choir members asked me wasn’t I was from Minnesota? He said there was this guy on public radio named Garrison Keillor who talks funny like I do (Minnesotan ) and he tells stories about a Minnesota town named Lake Wobegon. I began listening to the broadcasts and reading his books, and occasionally he would mention Little Falls. A case in point is the fellow who didn’t want to buy replacements for his burst radiator hoses at the Lake Wobegon auto parts store, but went in to Little Falls to get them so that the locals would not know he had been so careless as to let his radiator freeze. Keillor mentioned many landmarks in his stories and many of them jibed with locations in or near Little Falls. Other clues indicated that his mythical town had to be within a radius of 30 miles from Little Falls, and there were no towns within that radius big enough to have all the churches and other features described in his stories. Little Falls even had its own lake formed by the power dam on the Mississippi River that ran through our town. I became convinced that Little Falls had to be the prototype for his Lake Wobegon. [4, p.56]

My theory was dashed when Keillor wrote an article for the December 2000 National Geographic Magazine titled “In Search of Lake Wobegon.” In it he revealed that his Lake Wobegon was actually a a collection of villages in an area about 25 miles southwest of Little Falls. Interestingly, Sinclair Lewis’ home town Sauk Center, the prototype for his town of Gopher Prarie is right on the periphery of the collection of those villages. [5, pp.87-109] [31, p.1, 6]

The Westinghouse Science Talent Search

In the middle of our senior high school year, Mr. Eveslage arranged for all the members of the Junior Academy of Science (JAS) to report to the chemistry/physics classroom for about four hours. He handed out an exam that took about two hours. When that was done he handed out essay forms and told us to describe our Jr. Academy of Science project as well as any other projects we had worked on. We were also supposed to list all our other extra curricular activities, of which I listed eleven in addition to the JAS. My main JAS project had been a radio controlled model boat of my own design, with radio transmitter and receiver, again using schematics from the RCA Receiving Tube Manual. Compared with today’s multi channel digital model airplane and drone controllers, the system was not very sophisticated. I also described building model airplanes of my own design; some of which flew, some of which didn’t.

Next, I described other projects I had designed and built, such as the photo enlarger, the flash synchronizer, other photo equipment, the three speed phonograph, the slide projector and a few others. We handed the papers back to Mr. Eveslage and left the room, not quite sure what it had been all about. He had us taking a lot of tests and writing papers as of late. A few months later, Mr. Eveslage walked into the middle of one of our science classes with a letter in his hand and a rather sober expression on his face. Our first collective thought was, “Who’s in trouble now?. Why would Mr. Eveslage break right in to someone else's’ class?” He asked, “Do you remember the Westinghouse Science Talent Search exam that most of you took?” I sort of vaguely remembered. He went on to say that two students in the State of Minnesota had been named as Science Talent Search honors students. Then he handed the letter to me and said, “Here David, this is yours, congratulations.” In the weeks that followed, letters arrived from colleges and universities all over the country with scholarship offers; some of them being full scholarships with living allowances. But then, something else happened.

The Holloway Plan

With the advent of the “cold war” the U.S. Navy was presented with a dilemma of sorts. There was a projected need for regular career naval officers of about twice the volume that could be provided from the U.S. Naval Academy, and the Navy had a choice of doubling the size of the academy or with coming up with some other source. When asked to work on a solution, Admiral James L. Holloway, Jr. proposed that the other half should come from a civilian college program that provided a full scholarship in the form of paid tuition, books, fees, and a monthly living allowance. Upon graduation it would culminate in a regular navy commission, and the graduates would compete for promotions on the same basis as Naval Academy graduates. Further their period of obligated service would be the same as academy graduates. One difference between qualifying for a Naval Academy appointment and the Holloway plan was that Holloway applicants did not have to get a Congressional appointment as did academy applicants.

Admiral Holloway proposed that two tracks be set up in the existing NROTC program at 52 colleges and universities, the first, and traditional one, being the “contract program” which did not cover tuition, books and other fees, but did provide a monthly living allowance for the third and fourth years of college. Upon graduation the contract midshipman would be given a Naval Reserve commission, and might or might not serve time on active duty, depending on the needs of the service. The other track would be the new full scholarship program. It is small wonder the Holloway Plan was described as one of the most attractive educational opportunities ever offered. (Today, it is also open to women) With only two months before colleges were scheduled to begin their autumn classes, the Holloway Plan bill was placed on the House Calendar. It passed by unanimous vote and was signed into law by President Truman on August 13, 1946.

The first regular NROTC students thus started college in the fall of 1946. In 1948 two Little Falls High School seniors won full NROTC scholarships and the program thus got great visibility in our school. In 1949 approximately half the males in the senior class took the exam, but there were no winners. In 1950, again about half the senior class took the NROTC exam, and this time five of us were invited to the next stage, the physical exam, and than an interview. Unfortunately, one of the brightest was weeded out by the physical for not being tall enough.

We were told ahead of time that to pass the physical, our heart and teeth had to be near perfect, and our eyes had to be 20-20 or better. I knew my eyes were not, and began wondering why I had even bothered to report for the exam. The physical exam started with check of blood pressure and pulse, and the administering chief petty officer noted my pule was really fast, and asked if I was nervous. I confessed to the chief that I was worried that my eyes were going to be my downfall. He replied, “Well let’s just get that out of the way right now.” As expected , I did not do well with the bottom line of the chart, just a lot of guessing, and I knew I was doomed. But the chief handed me a black disk on a handle. It had a pinhole in it, and the chief told me to read the bottom line through the pinhole. The letters were perfectly clear through the pinhole, and the chief merely wrote on the exam sheet, “correctible.” Then he said, “You will not have another physical for two years, and by that time the Navy will have poured a lot of money into your education that they won’t want to waste; don’t worry.” I will never know if the chief had been told to go easy because of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search results, but in any event, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for chief petty officers. There was one other qualification requirement for naval officer program candidates, namely, the applicant “could not be ugly.” I often wondered who made that determination, and whether it is still on the books today.

The rest of the exam went well, and I progressed to the next part of the process, which was an interview with a navy captain. To me a full captain was an incredibly senior, impressive, mature, and commanding person. He noted that I wanted to enter a five-year engineering curriculum, and that I would have to select which of the five I would pay for on my own. I told him I would select the fifth year. With the interview done, that was it. A couple of weeks later a letter came confirming appointment in the regular NROTC program, contingent upon being accepted by the University of Minnesota. That letter came a couple of months later.

The University of Minnesota

The Aeronautical Engineering Curriculum - 1950 - 1955

Minnesota law stipulated that any person who graduated from a Minnesota high school had to be admitted to the University of Minnesota, however engineering school applicants also had to pass a battery of engineering aptitude tests before admission to the Institute of Technology. Then there were the “weed-out” courses such as chemistry that all entering students had to take. These further helped sort students into categories that dictated whether you would be moved to the College of Science, Literature, and Arts or whether you would attend the College of General Studies. The professors and their assistants in the weed-out courses were ruthless. The first day in a huge lecture hall, the professor would grimly start his lecture by saying, “Look at the students on your right and left; by the end of the semester they will not be there.” I thought I did pretty well in my first chemistry exam, but when the grades came back, I was devastated to see a C grade. They wanted answers with an order of magnitude higher level of correctness and precision than would be required in high school.

Starting in the late 1940s, the University of Minnesota Regents were expressing their unhappiness with U of Minn. engineering graduates. They were pretty good engineers, but they lacked social graces, were not well rounded, and could not write to save their souls. It was decreed that the engineering curriculum would be expanded from four to five years to turn out more well rounded engineers. We called the extra year of instruction the “culture courses” and they would be interspersed among the regular engineering studies. Most of the culture courses were elective, however there were a number of mandatory “technical writing” courses for engineering students. Following is a summary of the culture courses this student took:

  • Five technical writing courses; three in first year, two in fifth year
  • Other elective culture courses:
    • History 22
    • Social Science 13 - Humanities
    • Classics 24 - Technical Latin and Greek (Has been useful all my life)
    • Astronomy 51
    • Geology 1
    • Psychology 1 and 2
    • Philosophy 1 and 3A
    • Physical Education 2B (Ballroom dancing)

Fortunately, the University allowed our naval science courses, given one per semester for four years, to be counted as “culture” courses even though about 80% of them were engineering oriented such as: navigation and nautical astronomy, piloting, meteorology, ordnance and gunnery, shipboard propulsion plants, naval architecture, and ship stability. We used the same textbooks as the Naval Academy, and they were excellent. I have been told that the Naval Academy and NROTC no longer teach celestial navigation, but rather the fleet depends on the Global Positioning System, inertial navigation systems, and electronic aids to navigation such as LORAN (Long Range Radio Navigation).

The reader may well ask why the course in ballroom dancing. It happened this way. In my second year, navy officials became concerned that NROTC midshipmen were not getting the same rigorous physical exercise regime as Naval Academy midshipmen, and they required that NROTC middies would take one physical education course per semester. The best I could do in an already crowded schedule of mandatory courses was to work in a ballroom dancing course offered by the Department of Physical Education, and it turned out most other engineering students could only do likewise. When we were called in to explain our selection, the NROTC administrators were convinced and dropped the Pysical. Ed. requirement.

The Aero Engineering curriculum courses are summarized as follows:

  • Chemistry - three courses
  • Physics - four courses
  • Drawing, descriptive geometry and drafting - five courses
  • General engineering design and problem solving - five courses
  • Materials, processes, and strength of materials - two courses
  • Static structural stress analysis - one course
  • Mechanisms, kinematics and dynamics - two courses
  • Aerodynamics and aircraft stability & control - nine courses
  • General mechanical engineering - two courses
  • Electrical engineering - two courses
  • Fluid mechanics - one course
  • Thermodynamics - one course
  • Aircraft design, including structures - 16 courses
  • Physics of the atmosphere - one course
  • Aircraft engines (reciprocating and gas turbine) - five courses

The Department of Aeronautical Engineering had some very interesting personages on the teaching staff. First there was Department Head, Professor John D. Ackerman. Born in Latvia, he had started his aviation career as a pilot in the Imperial Russian Air Force, and then immigrated to the U.S. where he gained his aero engineering degree at the University of Michigan in 1925. Then he went to work for the Ford Stout Airplane Company on the design of the Ford Trimotor. After that he rose to chief engineer of the Mohawk Aircraft Corp. where he designed the Mohawk Pinto and Redskin, two highly advanced airplanes of the 1920s. In 1929 he was asked to form the Department of Aero Engineering at Minnesota, and in 1939, with the help of his students, he designed one of the world’s first flying wings. Professor Ackerman and his students built the machine, and he test flew the flying wing himself. He would often entertain us with his story of his first and only test flight in the flying wing.

Dr. Jean Piccard, twin brother of balloonist August Piccard, was our physics of the atmosphere professor, and he was also a research balloonist. In 1934 he and his wife Jeanette had risen to a height of 57,000 feet in a balloon of their own design to study cosmic rays. Dr. Piccard ran the experiment while Jeanette piloted the balloon. In our classes, Dr. Piccard would tell us how he wanted to get sponsorship to make a balloon ascension to 100,000 feet to study the light from Mars through a spectroscope to try to find evidence of oxygen and water on the planet. The spherical aluminum gondola from his 1934 ascension was still in our hangar and we could climb down in it and imagine what it might be like riding in it at 100,000 feet. We would see Dr. Piccard often walking about the campus with his hands folded behind him and stooped slightly forward; deep in though. He was probably planning his next balloon ascension.

Our supersonic aerodynamics professor was Dr. Rudolph Herman. He had been chief aerodynamicist on Dr. Werner von Braun’s German V-2 rocket project, and in charge of the Peenemünde Research Station supersonic wind tunnels. When Dr. Herman learned that the Allies would soon be occupying Peenemünde, he buried a number of his wind tunnel rocket models in his back yard, and then brought them with him when he came to America. We could see the models proudly arrayed on his desk, and he told us he bought his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 auto because he loved the rocket hood ornament. [2, p.114]

The Rosemount Aeronautical Research Laboratory

During World War II the U.S. Government set up a sprawling explosives manufacturing plant called the Gopher Ordnance Works at Rosemount, Minn., some 24 miles south of the U of Minnesota campus. At war’s end the War Assets Administration desired to rid itself of the facility, and invited faculty of the University engineering school to assess it for possible use by the University. Professor Ackerman was particularly interested in the plant’s banks of air compressors and huge pressure tanks. In them he could see the basic components of supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels. Here, hypersonic is defined as air speeds of Mach 5 or greater, and Mach number,in turn, is defined as the ratio of local air speed to the speed of sound in air. His idea was that one of the large air tanks could be highly pressurized while another tank could be evacuated of air. By connecting a wind tunnel between the two tanks, hypersonic air speeds could be achieved in a test section. He called it a “blow-down” tunnel. In 1946, Akerman started negotiations with the War Assets Administration resulting in the transfer of Gopher Ordnance Works to the University for the price of $1.00. He then obtained federal grants to build a number of wind tunnels ranging from transonic to hypersonic. The University soon had contracts with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the Air Force, the Navy, and industry to perform advanced aeronautical research. [12, pp.16-36]

By 1953, my mother had moved to the Twin Cities, and I was living at home, which greatly reduced my college living expenses. But I realized I was going to have to find work to build up a fund to cover the tuition, books, and other costs of the fifth year; that the Navy would not be covering. At the beginning of my fourth year I mentioned my job hunting quest to one of our instructors who asked if I had considered work at the Rosemount Lab. He said it was Professor Ackerman’s policy that any aero engineering student who needed work could get a job at the lab. Three days later, after buying a 1941 Plymouth commuting sedan for $250.00, I reported for work at the lab. I was assigned to Dr. Frank D. Werner’s wind tunnel instrumentation group, and my first task was to do the engineering drawing of a hypersonic wind tunnel nozzle block from a contour table provided by one of the engineers. The block was about a foot wide and five feet long. It would be machined out of a blank of solid steel, and two of the blocks facing each other would form the symmetrical test section constriction in the wind tunnel where the air speed would be the fastest. Part of the job would be to go over to the machine shop occasionally and check on the progress of the blocks.

One of my most interesting assignment during my almost two-year stint at the lab was helping in the manufacture of digital pressure gauges under an Air Force contract. Dr. Werner had invented the digital pressure gauge in response to an Air Force request. It involved two very thin glass diaphragms in a sealed chamber. The diaphragms were so thin that they bent in and out with changes in air pressure fed by a tube from whatever pressure source was being measured. The inside surfaces of the diaphragms were coated with aluminum and they formed the two sides of a capacitor. The capacitor was part of a resonant electronic circuit whose frequency varied in proportion to the distance between the diaphragms. An electronic frequency counter completed the gauge system so that measured pressure could be read out as a discrete number.

I asked Dr. Werner how the Air Force used the gauges, and he told me how they were instrumenting one of their wind tunnels at the Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tulahoma, Tennessee, with a digital computer. The numerical readout of the gauges would be fed directly into the computer that then digested volumes of data without human intervention. I would not learn until many years later that their digital computer, designated an ERA 1102, had been built by a pioneering start-up company named Engineering Research Associates, and that company was located right here in the Twin Cities on Minnehaha Ave. just a couple miles east of the Minnesota Campus. Also later, I would learn that the Air Force computer was a commercial copy of the super secret Navy Atlas codebreaking computer, one of the first digital computers in the world. [11, p.491]

Two of the supersonic blow down wind tunnels at the Rosemount Aeronautical Research Lab. Scanned from University of Minnesota Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautical Engineering Research Report 105 - Aeronautical research facilities, 1954 p. 29

There were many drafting and design assignments for wind tunnel components and instrumentation, but my favorite occupation was producing the digital pressure gauges. One day I might work on the etching baths creating the thin glass diaphragms, and the next day sputtering the aluminum coating on them. Then would come their assembly with epoxy. The best part was running the pressure vs. frequency calibration curves. I could come in in very early in the morning and study between the calibration steps that took about ten minutes each.

One of the most interesting characters in the instrumentation group was Dr. Tung Shen Lieu. He had been an aeronautical engineering student in China during World War II; and he showed us photos of his school’s bamboo wind tunnel. After the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 had crash landed near his school and he had helped Doolittle and his crew get through the Japanese lines and out of China. After the war, Doolittle asked Lieu what he could do in return, and Lieu replied he would like to come to America to continue his education. Doolittle arranged it, and Dr. Lieu ended up running tests in the hypersonic wind tunnels at the Rosemount Lab. Dr. Lieu had an excellent set of drawing instruments that he would piecemeal lend out to the student draftsmen, who could not afford a set or had to use their tools in daily class work. Every Friday afternoon Dr. Lieu would take inventory of his tools by circulating among the drafting tables with open case. With a grin, he would call out, “Fill it up, fill it up.” When his inventory was complete he would let the students check the instruments out again.

My career goal during the five years at the University of Minnesota had been to be a naval aviator, and then be an engineering test pilot. My eyesight had actually gotten a little better since freshman year, and in the middle of my fifth year I went down to Naval Air Station, Minneapolis, to take the flight physical exam. This time they got me dead to rights; no way could I get into aviation. Toward the end of the fifth year orders arrived to report to the USS Henry W. Tucker (DDR-875), a radar picket destroyer based at Long Beach, California. There I would find one great compensation for not getting into naval aviation; I would find my future wife, Marian.

USS Henry W. Tucker (DDR 875)

Because the Tucker was a radar picket destroyer, it lacked the two pieces of equipment that I thought really made a destroyer, namely: torpedo tubes and a siren. If you watch WW II movies about destroyers, the siren high on the mast, is the device that makes the whoop, whoop, whoop sound of ever increasing pitch that tells the rest of a formation that the ship is going after a submarine. These had not been installed to make up for the heavy topside weight of an AN/SPS-8 height finding radar placed where the torpedo tubes would have gone. I only ever saw the height finding radar in operation once during my year and a half on the Tucker. Tucker’s two-dimensional surface and air search radars were no different than those installed on the other ships in company. However, because we were a radar picket destroyer the other ships expected much better radar performance from us, and our electronic technicians and radar operators did everything they could to perpetuate the idea that our search radars were superior to theirs. By constant attention to maintenance, and vigilant watching of their scopes, our operators were almost always the first to report a new air or surface contact.

In addition to standing junior officer of the deck or combat information center watches, my main job assignment on Tucker was as damage control officer. I also had other duties as main propulsion assistant, and electrical officer. In the latter assignment I had a lot of fun because I had a device on board that could tell if our ship’s service turbo generators were running fast or slow, and even give a good estimate as to how far off their normal 60 cycles/second they were running. My homemade record player was small enough to bring with me and mount on top of the safe locker in our stateroom. If a generator was off frequency, it was very apparent in the music beat and tone of the record player, and I would call down to main control to tell them that the generator was running too slow by four cycles. The electricians would ask how I knew, and I would tell them I could tell by the flickering of the fluorescent light tubes; a blatant lie. I never told them the secret of the record player.

Duty aboard Tucker was busy but pleasant, exciting, and educational, and port calls in Japan, Formosa, Hong Kong, Okinawa, and the Philippines made our tour in the Western Pacific most enjoyable. Upon return to Long Beach, Our Skipper, Commander Robert L. Thienes, arranged for me to attend the three-month damage control school on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, after which I was to go to destroyer engineering officers school. After that I was to move up to be Tucker’s chief engineer. But upon return from damage control school in June 1956, I got the surprise of my life in the form of a letter from the Bureau of Naval Personnel. When Yeoman First Class Campbell told me I had a letter from BUPERS, it caused a feeling of grave apprehension because ensigns didn’t get letters from the Bureau unless they were in some kind of trouble. I had to read the letter a few times before its contents really sunk in. It was unbelievable. It said in part:

The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics provides aerodynamic and hydrodynamic research and development of primary importance to the defense effort, and in specific support of naval aviation programs. A requirement has been developed for a limited number of naval officers to perform duty with NACA for a minimum period of two (2) years in order to assist the Committee in its scientific and technical efforts. A review of your record indicates you possess qualifications of the type desired by NACA. Accordingly, the purpose of this letter is to inform you of this unusual opportunity should you be interested in remaining on active duty beyond the expiration of your normal obligated service.

The letter went on to list the four NACA laboratories to which applicants might be assigned:

  • Langley Aeronautic Laboratory at Hampton, Virginia
  • Ames Aeronautic Laboratory at Moffett Field, California
  • Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory at Cleveland, Ohio, and
  • The High Speed Flight Station at Edwards, California [1]

That night, at a borrowed typewriter in the ship’s office, I typed up my application letter and the endorsement letter back to BUPERS that I would have to get CAPT Thienes to sign. It said simply, “Forwarded, recommending approval.” CAPT Thienes had every right and reason to draft a different endorsement saying in effect - recommending disapproval because Ens. Boslaugh has just finished damage control school, and in two weeks he will depart for engineering officer’s school. Upon his return he will take over Tucker’s engineering department. If he sent a negative endorsement I would not go to NACA. The following morning, I sat with CAPT Thienes at the wardroom table and showed him my proposed endorsement.

CAPT Thienes and I had stood many bridge watches together where I had told him of my hopes of being a naval aviator and an engineering test pilot. In turn, he was a grounded naval aviator because he had received a severe head wound while flying an F6F Grumman Hellcat during a WW II bombing attack on Saigon, French Indo China. The wound had left him with tunnel vision. In fact he had been totally blinded at first and had to be talked back to his carrier by a wingman. Then, his wingman and the landing signal officer talked him down to a near perfect landing. CAPT Thienes reviewed our plans for my fleeting up to chief engineer, and if he let me go, he was going to have to develop a new engineering officer in a hurry. This produced great pangs of guilt. Then he said, “You really want this, don't you Dave?” To which I responded with a firm, “Yes sir.” Then he said , “OK give me the damned letter before I change my mind.” Then he reached down and flipped the ship’s phone selector switch to the ship’s office and told them to, “Cancel Ensign Boslaugh’s orders to engineering officer’s school.”

Of the NACA duty stations listed in the letter, my hope was the High Speed Flight Station in the Mojave Desert. I thought there might be a good chance because the Station was clearly the closest, being only about a hundred miles north of Long Beach. If NACA was as stingy with permanent change of station funds as the Navy, it seemed a good bet. In early September 1956 all doubt was removed when a letter arrived from Phillip Walker, personnel officer of the High Speed Flight Station, arrived. It said, in part:

We have been informed that you have volunteered for duty with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and have been assigned to this station. In order that we may properly utilize your services, we would appreciate your completing the enclosed application and bring it with you when reporting for duty along with a copy or photostat of your college transcript or a listing of your college courses showing the hours of credit and a grade obtained for each course. Please convert quarter hours or course credits to semester hours, or indicate the method of making such a conversion.

We, as yet, do not have the date you expect to report for duty. As soon as you know your reporting date, please advise us in order that we may make any necessary arrangements. If you have any questions prior to reporting for duty, please advise us.

We are sincerely looking forward to your joining our staff and trust you will have a pleasant tour of duty.”

Next, I asked Marian Russell, my bride to be, what she thought of living in the Mojave Desert for a few years. She responded, “Why don’t we drive up and look around?” That seemed a good idea because I could also make an appointment with Phil Walker to give him the material he asked for, and we could set a reporting date. The drive north was with a few surprises. The land to the south of Edwards Air Force base, the host of the High Speed Flight Station, certainly did not look like a desert. Thanks to irrigation, it was green with crops and trees on the many farms and ranches we drove past. On our last leg on the entry road to the base we could see some burned ruins of a ranch off to the right. It would turn out to be what was left of Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club.

In the application form that Phil Walker had asked me to fill out, I described my work at the Rosemount Aeronautical Research Lab which included helping to operate supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels. The work also included helping to reduce wind tunnel data to determine the stability derivatives of wind tunnel models. These mathematical descriptors of the motions and stability characteristics of airplanes were becoming essential to the work of the HSFS engineers, and upon reporting to the Station on 18 October 1956 I was told I would be going into the Airplane Stability and Control Branch.

Click here to proceed to The Experimental Research Airplanes and the Sound Barrier.


[1] Bureau of Naval Personnel, Letter to ENS David L. Boslaugh, 5 June 1956

[2] Dornberger, Walter, V-2, Viking Press, New York, 1954, Library of Congress catalog card no. 54-7830, p. 5, p. 114

[3] Frey, Robert L. and Schrenk, Lorenz P., Northern Pacific Supersteam Era 1925-1945, Golden West Books, San Marino, California, 1985, ISBN 0-87095-092-4

[4] Keillor, Garison, Lake Wobegon Days, Viking Press, New York, 1985, ISBN 0-670-80514- 9

[5] Keillor, Garrison "In Search of Lake Wobegon”, National Geographic Magazine, Dec. 2000, pp. 87- 109

[6] Lewis, Sinclair, Main Street, Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920, ISBN 1420930923

[7] Lindberg, Charles A., WE, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, London, 1927, pp. 19-24

[8] McRae, Wallace, Stick Horses: and Other Stories of Ranch Life, Gibbs Smith, Layton, Utah, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4236-0951-1

[9] National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics High Speed Flight Station, Letter to ENS David L. Boslaugh, August 27, 1956

[10] Parfit, Michael, Last Stand at Rosebud Creek - Coal, Power, and People, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1980, ISBN 0-525-14357-2

[11] Tomash, Erwin, “The Start of an ERA: Engineering Research Associates, Inc., 1946-1955,” in A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, N. Metropolis, J. Howlett, and Gian-Carlo Rota, eds, Academic Press, Inc., New York, 1985 pp 485-495, ISBN 0-12-491650-3, p. 491

[12] University of Minnesota - Institute of Technology - Department of Aeronautical Engineering, Aeronautical Research Facilities, Research Report 105, Minneapolis 14, Minnesota, 1954

[13] Western Energy Company - A Westmoreland Mining LLC Company, Rosebud Mine Tour Fact Sheet, June 2007