On Feb. 19, 1949 — the day of his final, tragic flight — Major Donald C. Jones was skimming over the snow-covered plains of North Dakota in an F-51. It was the iconic single-engine fighter plane that’s come to symbolize the early years of American air power, and it cut an impressive silhouette. Temperatures statewide hovered close to zero or below, and the icy wind flowing over the wings was surely tugging at his controls.
Jones was the commanding officer of the state’s Air National Guard, and he was leading during a time of crisis. That winter’s snow — in some regions, the worst in 60 years — hemmed in ranchers and buried their herds from Nevada to the northern plains, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle. The U.S. Air Force, faced with an agricultural calamity, began scrambling planes, loading them with hay, and bombing American farms with the feed the herds needed to survive. The mission got its own catchy moniker: “Operation Haylift.”
North Dakota airmen were soon flying a kind of domestic bombing mission, with sorties out of Minot showering ranchland with the hay cattle needed to survive. Historian David W. Mills, in his Cold War book on the northern plains, recalled that pilots and crew members even spoke about it in tactical terms — seeking out a “target,” making a low-flying pass and ringing the bell that signaled a bombardier to feed the cattle below.
Jones, in his F-51, wasn’t on a bombing mission, but was charged with scouting out anyone in need of help. The snow had been devastating not just for ranchers, but for regular folks caught in deep blizzard conditions, too.
It’s easy to imagine him peering through a thick haze at the ground below, or fighting to maintain control in heavy wind. Whatever the final moments of his flight might have been, they’re lost to history. Jones died that day when his plane crashed.
It was a tragic, early moment in North Dakotan flight and, as American air power grew, would mark only the beginning of its story in the state. Across the next century, Jones’ flight would be followed by Cold War interceptors, bombers, nuclear missiles and drones.
But, on a frigid winter’s day in 1949, all that was yet to come. Operation Haylift was showing what airplanes could do just as the Berlin Airlift, the famous air mission to break a Soviet blockade, played out in Europe. Both events, Mills argued, underscored the potential of American air power — just as the Cold War began in earnest.
This is the third installment in a five-part series on North Dakota’s history, produced by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation. The series explores what’s made North Dakota into what it is today: A deep-red GOP stronghold with socialist institutions — one foot firmly planted firmly in oil, and the other agriculture. Today’s installment explores the Cold War, which transformed the state’s economy and made it a military linchpin.
Robert Branting supervises the historical nuclear missile launch site near Cooperstown, N.D. He points out that as the Cold War began, North Dakota was perfectly poised for interceptor and bomber squadrons that could be quickly flown into the tense, over-the-pole nuclear standoff with the USSR.
The opportunity for the state — and for individual communities — was huge. A new base would mean billions of dollars for local economies in coming decades, and the post-war era saw a fierce competition for the military’s favor. Grand Forks and Minot won out by purchasing huge swaths of land and offering them as donations, Mills recalls, much to the chagrin of their rivals in Fargo, Bismarck, Devils Lake and elsewhere (“I have received some mean letters from almost every city in North Dakota,” Sen. Milton Young, R-N.D., wrote to a constituent).
The bases at Grand Forks and Minot, founded during the 1950s, grew over the following decades to include those fighters and bombers that were so integral to national defense. The landscape of North Dakota grew dotted with nuclear missile sites, too.
And, as expected, military investments proved a bonanza in North Dakota — nowhere more obviously than at Minot and Grand Forks’ Air Force bases. In both counties, the population surged between 1950 and 1970: by 55% in Grand Forks County and by 68% in Ward County. Meanwhile, the rest of the state saw a 3% drop in its population.
Branting said that, were it not for those air bases, Grand Forks and Minot would have been remarkably different for the missed investment. Grand Forks, home to the University of North Dakota, might still have a larger statewide role — but that’s likely all.
“They would not be the communities they are today — especially Minot," he said.
The result was a reshaped state, with bigger urban centers along Highway 2. Instead of Bismarck and Fargo dominating the urban life of North Dakota, Minot and Grand Forks became two of the state’s foremost cities.
‘The only ones left or the first ones to go’
The missile silos, especially, were a part of the popular imagination as the U.S. endured its decades-long standoff with the U.S.S.R. The North Dakota State Historical Society, in interviews with Cold War-era North Dakotans, records Merl Paaverud — who would go on to become director of the society — explaining what life was like in a land speckled with nuclear weapons.
“It was on your mind. You didn’t worry about it, you didn’t expect one day to be on your tractor digging and looking back and seeing the smoke coming out of [the silo], either,” Paaverud said. “It never happened, but it could have happened.”
And in October 1962, it almost did. The Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. entered a tense standoff over the presence of nuclear missiles in Cuba. In North Dakota, as President John F. Kennedy took to television, viewers at home and around the state began to understand how dire the situation had become.
“Crowds gathered around every television set on campus, and administrators noted that no one spoke during the president’s address. Only after the speech did anyone discuss the story. Some tried to make light of the situation, referring to their draft status,” Mills recalls. “As some sixty people gathered around a television in a Fargo hotel lobby, business came to a standstill.”
Fear was just as intense on the bases. John Friend, an Air Force mechanic who worked on F-101 Voodoo interceptors, recalled in a 2016 Grand Forks Herald interview that he’d slept on the wing of an airplane during the crisis, ready to spring into action in a moment.
"It was jumpy," Friend said. "Scary, jumpy — we thought this was it. We thought (for) sure there was going to be a nuclear exchange. At that time, we didn't know if we were going to be the only ones left or the first ones to go."
The crisis, of course, passed, and North Dakota was able to breathe a sigh of relief.
And, of course, the Cold War itself ended, too. In Grand Forks, bombers departed, and so did nuclear weapons, replaced by unmanned aircraft and the aerospace companies that traffic in them (far fewer Cold War capabilities have been phased out in Minot).
But the importance to the state economy — no matter the mission — has remained constant.
“When I was in the Air Force, we bought our furniture in town, we bought our cars in town,” said former Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, who was once a missile launch officer. “That gave stability to the economy. Because farms have ups and downs. Tourism has ups and downs. But the military was a consistent source of people.”
This series is a joint effort by Forum News Service and the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation.