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North Shore legend Wayne Johnson dies at 97

Wayne Johnson, shown in 2007, sits with a model of a P-51 Mustang in the colors of the Black Lightning squadron of the Flying Tigers and a model P-40 Warhawk in the colors of the Flying Tigers. Johnson flew both planes with the Flying Tigers during World War II. (News Tribune file) 1 / 2
Flying Tiger pilot Wayne Johnson is shown in the cockpit of his plane. (News Tribune file)2 / 2

Legendary pilot and attorney Wayne G. Johnson, 97, died Tuesday at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth.

Johnson was an icon on the North Shore, instrumental in the incorporation of Beaver Bay and Silver Bay in the 1950s. He served as the attorney for both cities for more than 50 years, becoming the longest-serving city attorney in U.S. history.

Johnson is perhaps more recognized for his work in aviation on the North Shore, working to establish the recently closed municipal airport in Silver Bay that bears his name. He was also a World War II pilot, fighting against Japanese forces in China as part of the Flying Tigers of the U.S. Army Air Force.

Johnson was born July 8, 1921, and grew up on a farm near Ortonville, Minn. One of 13 children, he was the first of his siblings to attend high school, according to Delores Johnson, his wife of 61 years. He boarded with his sister while attending school, milking cows and performing other chores before school in the morning. While enrolled in school, he learned to fly.

"There was a guy who had a runway by his farm," Delores said. "He gave Wayne flying lessons when he was 16."

Wayne Johnson joined the Army Air Corps a day after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and was sent to China after training as a fighter pilot.

Following his return from military service, he went on to college and law school. He moved to Beaver Bay in 1952 and set up a law office in the same building as a lumber company.

"When the guy was out of the office, Wayne would sell lumber for him, and when Wayne was out, he would take messages," Delores said.

He continued to practice law and fly his Cessna planes until he was 87, when a heart condition and then a blood disorder led to the amputation of his legs below the knee.

Over the years, Wayne collected a number of honors for his work as a pilot: the honor as Mr. Aviation Minnesota in 1968, induction into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame and a certificate of appreciation from the Chinese Air Force for his service as a fighter pilot with the Flying Tigers.

He also wrote several books, including the memoir "Whitey: From Farm Kid to Flying Tiger to Attorney," "The Trial of Christ" and "Sailor's War," based on the diary of his brother-in-law, Reo Knudson, who was wounded at Pearl Harbor.

Johnson was an unceasing advocate for the airport he helped build. Less than two months before his death, Johnson spoke forcefully in favor of repairing and maintaining the Silver Bay airport at a June 13 meeting of the City Council and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and Minnesota Department of Transportation. The FAA shut down the airport in June because of safety concerns over the deteriorating conditions of the runway.

Delores said her husband always enjoyed reminiscing about his World War II experience. Just two weeks ago, he mesmerized an 11-year-old boy, who was visiting with relatives, with some of his stories and showed him some of his many books on World War II airplanes.

"Wayne was just talking and talking," she said. "This little boy just kept asking him questions and his eyes were just big as sausages listening to the answers."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Silver Bay City Council and high school sports in Lake County. 

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