How SDSU’s WWII fighter plane got to Brookings

© 2017-Brookings Register

The Best of Stubble Mulch

BROOKINGS – In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a sleek and fast World War II fighter plane was parked on the south side of SDSU’s power plant. 

It eventually was unceremoniously trundled off to the town dump that is now the former sledding hill near the hospital.

How that surplus P-51 Mustang fighter, a beautiful machine and arguably the best prop-driven fighter ever, ended up on the campus and then in the city’s junk pile was a mystery until I talked recently with Coralyn Amidon James, 89, of Brookings.

She remembered the work her father, professor Lee Amidon, who was head of the SDSU Mechanical Engineering Department, put forth to bring that airplane to the campus.

Mrs. James is a 1946 State grad. When I visited with her, she had a clear memory of the Sunday morning the plane arrived in Brookings. 

So does her brother, John, a 1958 graduate of State now retired from GE and living in Vermont.  

 “We were just sitting down for breakfast when my father got back from Sioux Falls where he had picked up the plane,” she recalled. She doesn’t remember the year, but it was probably 1948 or 1949.  

Mrs. James said her father envisioned using the surplus war machine as a teaching tool for his mechanical engineering classes as well as to stimulate campus discussion of and interest in airplanes.  

After WWII, Professor Amidon heard of the availability of a Mustang fighter plane at the Sioux Falls Air Base. He inquired, and it was gifted to State College. Getting it from Sioux Falls to Brookings was Amidon’s problem.

First, the wings were removed in Sioux Falls. There were no trucks available to transport the big, wingless airplane, so Amidon decided he’d tow it behind his car. He picked early Sunday hours for the trip when traffic would be light, except for possibly some early morning revelers returning to East Men’s Hall on campus.  

Imagine the sight, after a Saturday night too long in the cups at the Lone Tree Bar or the Dell Rapids Dance Pavilion, or other hot spots along Highway 77. Here’s this wingless P-51, its massive, four-bladed propeller and 1,490 hp engine bearing down on the tail of Amidon’s boxy little Studebaker.

Cruising at about 5 mph in the middle of the night, the strange caravan made the 60-mile trip without incident. 

It weighed more than 7,000 pounds, and without a sturdy drawbar it would have caught up with Amidon’s car on the down hill. But it didn’t, and SDSU gained an air force.

Incidentally, when the Korean War started in the early 1950s, Amidon was contacted by the military. They wanted their P-51 back for Far East service. Amidon told them they could have the plane, but it had no wings. 

The military recall was cancelled. 

Mrs. James, after that long-ago Sunday breakfast talking airplanes with her father, is often reminded of the P-51 her father towed from Sioux Falls.

From her apartment window she can see the plane’s inglorious burial grounds, which is no longer a city dump, but our carefully groomed former community sledding hill.

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