The telephone jangled on March 2, 1949, in the big white house where Cornelius Gallagher and his wife, Rose, raised six children in Melrose, Minn. Then 73, the white-haired, blue-eyed émigré from Ireland had retired after nearly 50 years as a railroad engineer.
He quickly grew nervous when the caller asked if he was the father of Captain James Gallagher.
“I thought it was bad news and pretty near wilted,” Cornelius told the Minneapolis Morning Tribune later that day. “But it certainly wasn’t bad news.”
Military officials were calling to say his 28-year-old son had just completed a top-secret mission — making aviation history as captain of the first nonstop flight around the globe. Refueling four times in midair, Gallagher’s 14-man crew rotated shifts during the 94-hour flight — taking nearly four days between takeoff and touchdown at Carswell Air Force Base in Texas.
“The point was to show the [Russians] that we could get a plane in the air anytime, anywhere,” said Jean Paschke, who helps run the Melrose Area Historical Society 35 miles west of St. Cloud.
The early Cold War saber-rattling mission was so cloaked in secrecy that reporters weren’t told why they were summoned to the air base until just before Gallagher landed.
Another Boeing B-50 medium bomber had turned back just days before when an engine fire scuttled a similar test.
The hazel-eyed Jim Gallagher grinned as he stepped off the plane, christened Lucky Lady II — shaking hands with the brass and serving as the crew’s spokesman.
“It seems to me you can go just about anywhere in the world any time,” he said.
Then Gallagher did a Minnesota thing. He talked about the weather, saying excellent conditions included only four hours of clouds that required using flying instruments during the 23,452-mile trek. They refueled over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hawaii. The tanker planes flew above and in front of Gallagher’s plane, unreeling a long refueling hose that his crew snagged in midair. After filling up, they released the hose for the tanker crew to recover.
Reporters seemed more interested in the Cold War statement behind the flight than those details. One newsman asked Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay, commanding general of the strategic air command, if the refueling demonstration was aimed at showing “you can deliver an A-bomb anywhere in Russia.”
LeMay looked startled before answering: “Let’s say any place that would require an atomic bomb.”
It had been less than four years since U.S. planes dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. The arms race with the Russians was ratcheting up.
When the plane landed, the pilot’s mother, Rose, was off visiting his sister in Montevideo — leaving Cornelius to handle the media.
“I called Ma right away but she was too excited to talk,” Cornelius told the newspaper.
Gallagher’s historic flight has been all but forgotten — especially in the shadow of central Minnesota’s other famous flier. Charles Lindbergh lived in Little Falls, about 35 miles northeast of Gallagher’s Melrose home, before his famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Lindbergh’s Swedish-born grandfather, August Lindbergh, was a Melrose pioneer settler and early postmaster whose farm sprawled only a mile from Melrose.
Exactly 22 years after Lindbergh became a global celebrity, Gallagher Day was celebrated May 20, 1949 — complete with a commemorative button of the captain surrounded by a map of his circumnavigational route.
A caravan of cars embarked from the Wold-Chamberlain air field in Minneapolis, with bands accompanying them in St. Cloud. When they arrived in Melrose, a 40-unit parade joined them. Gallagher, his wife, Mary, and baby daughter rode in an open car. He shook hands with Gov. Luther Youngdahl as fighter jets roared overhead.
“The day was chilly, and many beauty queens on floats wore formals, bathing suits and frozen smiles,” Paschke said. “The only person lacking was Lindbergh, who had been invited but sent regrets.”
As a kid, Gallagher had no dreams of becoming a pilot. He wanted to be a railroad man like his father.
“Rides in the locomotive used to be a special treat for the Irish-looking boy who today is Melrose’s favorite son,” a Minneapolis Morning Tribune account said.
Cornelius described the happy chaos of raising Jim and his four brothers and sister.
“They used to ... trek into the house from the skating rink with their skates still on,” Cornelius added, crediting his wife’s easygoing nature and acknowledging he was often away working on the Great Northern railroad. “I’m not sure I would have been so patient.”
Jim, the fifth of the six children, was “very lively, but good. He never got in any trouble,” his father said. “I’m lucky; I kept all five of ’em out of jail.”
Jim learned to swim in the Sauk River near the family home. A 6-footer, he played basketball for Melrose High School for three seasons before graduating in 1939. He convinced his father to buy him a 16-gauge shotgun for pheasant hunting. He played clarinet, performed in high school plays and was thrice elected to his student government.
Melrose’s school principal remembered him as “a good, regular kid, not the best student, but certainly not the poorest.”
Jim Gallagher retired from the Air Force in 1972 as a vice wing commander and colonel. He died in 1985 in Washington, D.C., where he’d wed Mary after the war nearly 40 years earlier. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.