GRAFTON — Ernest “Hod” Hutson’s civilian aviation career began when a friend from the war landed a plane in his uncle’s hayfield.
“I got talked into staying in (the military) for a while and as a result, when I got out in ‘46, the airlines were waiting lines of 40,000 people getting out,” Hutson said. “And so I came back to our farm in Wisconsin and was there until Dan Wakefield from Devils Lake, who came from that area originally, came back, landed in my uncle’s hayfield when we were piling up hay and he had a flying service in Devils Lake and job for me.”
Hutson, a longtime Grafton resident who describes himself as a “farm youngster,” was a freshman in college when the United States entered World War II.
“When the war started, in my particular case, you know, what branch of the service shall we go into?” Hutson said.
He settled on the Army Air Corps, training in a competitive environment with a 45 percent washout rate. Though Hutson immediately enjoyed flying, he described the training atmosphere as “very intense.” When asked if he experienced any nervousness while learning to fly, he chuckled.
“I was nervous of what would happen if I washed out,” Hutson said.
Hutson was stationed on Corsica in 1944 and proceeded to fly 58 missions into the Balkans, Italy and France. He left the Air Corps as a captain and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Despite having what many would consider a heroic war record, Hutson remains humble.
“I have this Distinguished Flying Cross, but that’s, you know, just a medal and I’d rather play down that kind of thing,” Hutson said when asked about what memorabilia he had kept from his time in the service.
Though Hutson had spent the war flying dangerous missions in hostile terrain, he wasn’t sure that he would find a career in aviation stateside until Dan Wakefield surprised him with a job offer in North Dakota. Hutson moved from Devils Lake to Grafton in 1951 when he bought Grafton Aero Service. There, he became a fixture of general aviation, establishing a flight school, charter service and an early aerial crop spraying operation.
“I had a flight school, the works,” Hutson said. “But the aerial spraying is the one that we made our living with and the rest we just took care of.”
After UND established its aerospace school, Hutson said he and his colleagues had a harder time making a profit.
“General aviation airports became more just spray operations,” Hutson said. “I have a number of people I talk to that fly that made their living with flying, and that seems to not be getting done anymore because the university took over everything.”
Today, Hutson still occasionally flies with one of his sons, and earlier this month, he had the opportunity to fly once again in his favorite aircraft from the war, the B-25, at the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum.
“The one thing was it flew very well when it was shot up and so that was a big plus,” Hutson said of the B-25.
As Memorial Day approaches, Hutson reflected on the faraway resting place of the men he served with.
“A good deal of our people that were killed where I was were buried in the cemetery in Florence, Italy,” Hutson said.
He points to a poem written by his sister titled “Evergreen Cemetery” which meditates on those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“There’s healing in the silence, and there’s new strength from on high / As the sunset sends its banner, far across the darkening sky,” the last lines of the poem read.
A published version of “Evergreen Cemetery” remains nestled among Hutson’s array of photographs and honors from a lifetime of aviation.