International Hydrofoil Society

In Memoriam

Eulogy for Robert Johnston by His Son, David

April 29, 1999

Click Here For the Tribute by Bill Ellsworth

Click Here for IHS Achievement Award Text

In the 1950s, Dad used to travel by train from Washington to Miami. One night he awoke with a start to bedbugs in his sleeping compartment. After the trip, he wrote a letter to the President of the railroad complaining about the infestation. In due course, Dad received a personal letter from the company’s CEO. The executive profusely apologized. He wrote that the satisfaction of the railroad's traveling patrons was his highest priority; that he was shocked to hear of even a single bug in the bed of one of the company's modern trains and would immediately order a thorough investigation of the problem.

Only then did Dad discover his original letter paper clipped underneath the apology letter. Dad noticed that on one of the margins was scrawled a note in pencil from the railroad President to his secretary. It read as follows: Send this S.O.B. the bedbug letter.

Many of you who knew Dad have probably heard this story or one of its versions, maybe more than once. Dad loved a good yarn, and I can remember him saying, "You know, there was something very interesting," and he would embark on one of his favorites. They often centered on his decades of travels around the globe and, like a lot of stories, they often said more about the storyteller than they did about the subject matter of the stories themselves. His stories reflected how much he savored the grand adventure of his life and his times. Dad was born in 1918 and was part of the World War II generation. Like millions of others of men his age, he was molded by the Depression and the War. Along with others of his generation, they carved an indelible mark on the world, building the most abundant peacetime economy in the history of the world and a technology that amazes us virtually every day. Dad was part of it all, and he shared some qualities of his contemporaries. He always seemed mature beyond his years, disciplined by his naval officer's training. His values could be drawn out of the sermons at the Rensselaer Indiana First Christ Church and the Boy Scout creed: responsibility, courtesy, work, duty, honor, faith.

He believed in education. I didn't know it until last week, but it did not surprise me that Dad has set up a fund to provide a scholarship at his old high school, Rensselaer Central High, to help kids who graduated like he did with plenty of brains and big dreams, but not much money to fulfill them. Dad worked his way his through Purdue at a boarding house, and the United States Navy sent him to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where he earned two masters degrees, one in marine engineering and another in naval architecture.

He told me that one of his courses required him to dress in a diving suit with a huge brass helmet. He had to construct a wooden box standing on the freezing and murky ooze at the bottom of the Charles River. It was simple enough he said. When you dropped a nail it fell to the bottom, but when you dropped a piece of wood it fell up.

After the War, Dad became a pioneering figure in the development of hydrofoil ships. With apologies to those of his colleagues who are here today, a hydrofoil is a ship fitted with submerged wings or foils that lift the vessel out of the water and enable it to skim over the water much faster than conventional watercraft. Some of his stories are posted on the International Hydrofoil website. One story on the internet site is about a secret hydrofoil he helped build dubbed the CIGAR. It was a highly classified project that envisioned using a hydrofoil in clandestine operations. The idea was to build a two-person hydrofoil that could be deployed from a submarine 15 miles offshore and flown to a beach at a speed of no less than 30 knots. The trick was to build the whole thing so that it could be pushed out of a 21-inch diameter torpedo tube and assembled by two swimmers in the dark in the open ocean. "The mahogany surface of the hull was varnished and it looked like a giant cigar. In flight," Dad wrote, "the craft looked more like a praying mantis.”

From the 1950s to the 1990s, Dad's career took him around the world times, to meet people and see places that he could scarcely have imagined as a boy whose first nautical experience came when he built his own canoe to explore the mysteries of the Iroquois River.

The stories are endless: the night with Howard Hughes on Miami Beach, with Arthur Godfrey at the Kennilworth Hotel, the dinner with Robert Mitchum in Beirut, the plane trip from Europe with Malcolm X and the Beach Boys, his meetings in Spain with Generalismo Franco.

In 1993 he was recognized for his lifetime achievements by the International Hydrofoil Society. The citation read in part: "Without question, Captain Johnston has been a significant force in the design, development and application of hydrofoils through out his long and distinguished career as a naval engineer."

As he told me once recently during one of our long conversations, he was well satisfied with what he had achieved and how he had lived. I should say so! I can't imagine a goal he had set that he not only met but also far exceeded.

But there was another side to Dad. He was our family's patriarch for as long as I can remember. He had known great personal pain, losing a brother and his father before he graduated from high school, but his experiences seemed to give him compassion and wisdom and respect for other people. It was to him that our entire family and often his professional colleagues turned for counsel and comfort in times of stress. He was always there to help, with a pep talk, a check or mild boot to our backside. "Don't," he must have said to me a thousand times, "let the stinkers get you down."

Something must be said here. Dad's marriage to Marcia was a 23-year-long love affair that never grew stale. They were friends since childhood, and they cared for each other deeply and devotedly. But I want to say this about the last year when Dad battled his failing health with his customary grace and optimism. In those long months, I was down here a lot and I saw Marcia's steadiness, constant support and unfailingly upbeat outlook. Her great spirit sustained Dad, protected his dignity and bolstered his will to fight on during the darkest days. For this Marcia, all of us in the the family say thank-you. We love you and we will stand by you always.

When William Faulkner accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a lifetime of writing, the great southern novelist gave a speech at Columbia University in which he said that there were events that remind us that in this life we do not just endure, but against seemingly overwhelming odds, we prevail. Well, Dad's whole life stood for the proposition that good can prevail. And I think that Dad is up there now on heaven's back porch in a big chair with a glass of his favorite cabernet and is probably saying, "You know, there was something that was very interesting.”

Thank you very much.

In Tribute To

Capt. Robert J. Johnston, USNR (Ret)

by Bill Ellsworth

The past several months have seen the loss of several members of that select, albeit small, group of Hydrofoil Pioneers. We are deeply saddened to report the loss of another of the members of this special group of hydrofoilers. On 16 April, Bob Johnston died of cancer at his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., just nine days before his 81st birthday. His dear wife, Marcia, his son, David Johnston of Washington, DC, two stepchildren, Cynthia Redick, also of Washington, DC, Alicia Stickel of Toronto, Canada, and seven grandchildren survive him. His first wife Dixie died in 1976. Another son of his first marriage, Robert J. Johnston, Jr., died in 1996.

Bob was born in Sheboygan, Michigan. He graduated with an engineering degree from Purdue University and received Masters Degrees in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He began a career in the US Navy in World War II and was assigned to Navy yards in Boston and New York. After the war, he was transferred to the Navy's Bureau of Ships in Washington, DC as an EDO Commander. In 1952, he moved to the Office of Naval Research as Hydrofoil Program Officer where he continued to be deeply involved in the Navy's Hydrofoil Research & Development Programs.

In 1953, the Navy's focus shifted to the application of hydrofoils to landing craft. This was motivated by funds becoming available to design and build a number of new LCVPs.

In 1954, Bob left the Navy and joined Miami Shipbuilding Corp. in Florida. They designed and built HALOBATES (LCVP(H)), which was completed in 1957. Also, during this period, the Army became interested in the potential of foils to increase the speed of their amphibious DUKW. Miami Ship, working with AVCO Lycoming, was given a contract in 1957 to demonstrate a flying DUKW.

In 1960, Boeing won the competition for the Hydrofoil Patrol Craft PCH-1. As a result, the Miami Ship Board of Directors decided the company should not remain in the hydrofoil business. In view of this decision, Bob Johnston, who had become President of Miami Ship, decided to resign and join Grumman as head of Marine Operations. During this period, Grumman laid the keel for the hydrofoil DENISON under contract with the Maritime Administration. In 1961, they were given a contract by the Navy to do the guidance design of the 320-ton hydrofoil ship, PLAINVIEW (AGEH-1), the world's largest.

HS DENISON was launched in June 1962 and a month later achieved a speed of 72 knots on a trial run. Later in 1968, Grumman completed a Navy contract for the design and construction of the hydrofoil gunboat FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) delivered to the Navy on 14 September. Some time later they received a contract from Israel to design and build SHIMRIT, a 100-ton hydrofoil gunboat similar to FLAGSTAFF.

In the early 70s, Bill Ellsworth, head of the Systems Development Department in the Naval Ship Research & Development Center, asked Bob Johnston to consider becoming the Technical Manager of the Hydrofoil Development Project Office (Code 115) at Carderock, MD. Bob agreed to make the change and reported aboard on 9 April 1973. In this capacity, he continued to be a major force in hydrofoil R&D for the next nine years. He managed the Navy's hydrofoil technology development program. This included operations of the Hydrofoil Special Trials Unit (HSTU) at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and conducting trials of the experimental hydrofoil ships HIGH POINT and PLAINVIEW. This laid the foundation for the design and procurement of six Patrol Hydrofoil Missile ships (PHMs) which the Navy acquired from Boeing.

Bob retired from federal service on 1 July 1982 and formed a small R&D firm called Advanced Marine Systems Associates (AMSA). He and his associates carried out an important work for the Urban Mass Transportation Agency of the Department of Transportation. In August 1984 they completed a 6-volume Study of High Speed Waterborne Transportation Systems which provided a basis for assessing the use of high-speed craft such as hydrofoils for use in ferry service over various routes.

This brief review of Bob's many contributions to the development of hydrofoil ships and other waterborne craft is ample support for his having been recognized as a true hydrofoil pioneer. He demonstrated the highest level of professional and moral integrity. He also was an exceptionally skilled manager with a gentle but firm touch who commanded the respect and affection of all who worked for and with him. He will be sorely missed by his many friends and associates and will always be remembered as a never-failing supporter of the IHS.

We extend to Bob's wife Marcia and the members of their family our deepest sympathy and pray that they will be comforted in their loss.

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