Governor Robert D. Ray Grounds Iowa National Guard

Governors of Iowa | Clip
Sep 26, 2022 | 6 min

In an excerpt from Governors of Iowa: Robert D. Ray, two 1968 plane crashes in Iowa would test the governor's skills as a leader a and defender of fairness.



But a long simmering dispute had been brewing for years and would test Governor Ray's mettle as a leader and as a stalwart defender of fairness. In 1968, before Ray assumed office as Governor, two unrelated plane crashes would forever change the lives of separate Iowa farm families. On March 5, 1968, an aircraft from the Wisconsin National Guard became disabled mid-flight. The pilot safely ejected. The plane careened into the Iowa countryside below destroying a rural farmhouse. A young Iowa broadcast reporter, Dean Borg, was quickly on the scene.

Dean Borg: This is all that remains of the Clarence McCarville farm home east of Cresco. And Air Force F102 crashed into it this morning. Air Force investigators say an 82-year-old woman who was inside at the time probably owes her life to a grove of trees just to the north of the farm home. When the supersonic F102 began to develop trouble while on a routine training flight, the pilot, 2nd Lieutenant John Wellmeyer of the Wisconsin Air National Guard bailed out. But his plane came down in a field just to the north of the McCarville farm home. The wreckage skidded through the north grove and a part of the fuselage ripped into the house. Mrs. McCarville was inside and her son Clarence, who was in an outside building at the time, ran to get her out of the burning home.


Dean Borg: Mr. McCarville, when did this all happen?

Clarence McCarville: Around ten o'clock, before noon.

Dean Borg: What was the first hint that you had that something was wrong? Where were you?

Clarence McCarville: I was coming up through the yard and I heard just like a little boom went off and everything turned into fire.

Dean Borg: Did you see the plane crash?

Clarence McCarville: I didn't see nothing, just fire.

Dean Borg: And you knew your mother was in the house.

Clarence McCarville: Yes.

Dean Borg: So what did you do?

Clarence McCarville: I headed for the house and by that time everything was under fire. I went inside the door and got her out and she didn't want to come out.

Dean Borg: Was she on the floor? Was she unconscious?

Clarence McCarville: She was still standing up.

Six months later in Central Iowa, another tragedy would fall from the sky. In early December 1968, an unrelated training mission for the Iowa National Guard was airborne north of Ames. Under the cover of darkness, three Iowa Air National Guard planes were on a training mission to intercept another aircraft. The pilot of one plane radioed an indistinguishable message just before plummeting to the Iowa soil. Near Story City, the plane made a long right turn and smashed into the ground near a corn crib on the Tjernagel farm, also known as Follinglo farm. Burning jet fuel splashed onto the house engulfing it in flames. The Iowa National Guard pilot and radar intercept officer were killed on impact. Miraculously, the farm family would escape before their home burned to rubble.

In the ensuing months, the Tjernagel family patriarch would pass away and the family would plead for compensation from authorities to pay for rebuilding their farm house. The Guard missions were national in scope, training exercises for a Cold War era. Iowa officials eventually demanded the federal government should pay for damages in Story City and Cresco.

And the Pentagon, in a maybe somewhat predictable fashion, just sort of disclaimed any interest to solve any problem. And the Governor worked through the adjutant general at Camp Dodge, worked with people at the Pentagon, may have called the White House and it was not being resolved months and months and months and a year or more goes by and there is no resolution including one farm family who lost everything.

David Yepsen: Ray believed the Nixon administration was slow walking efforts to make these Iowa families whole. Four years later, the federal government still had not paid those people. Nick Lamberto wrote a story for the Register about the plight of these people. They had lost their homes. One family was living in a chicken coop. And Ray just went bonkers and he talked to the, he even talked to President Nixon about it when Nixon was here to dedicate Red Rock Dam. And nothing happened. And Ray got hot.

Ray finally in a fit of pique said, I'm not going to take this anymore and as Commander in Chief of the Iowa Guard signed a document that grounded the Guard. They couldn't fly a plane, they couldn't fly a chopper, they couldn't move a truck, they couldn't drive a Jeep. He just, you're done.

Iowa Governor Robert Ray said he was fed up with all the delays, which he said was a bad case of government buck passing. He ordered all methods of transportation of the State's Air and Army National Guard units grounded. The order put nearly 1,700 vehicles out of business. But the daring move worked and less than 24 hours later the Air Force dropped their opposition to the claim.

Governor Robert D. Ray: It was drastic action and I intended it to be because if that's what it takes to get the federal government to realize they have a responsibility to people in this country then I was willing to do that. After all, they're there to protect our people, not destroy them.

David Yepsen: The effect of that was Ray's stock as a Governor shot through the roof. I think of the Ray era as before he grounded the Guard planes and afterwards because early in his term he had a rough going, trouble with the conservatives, almost got beat in 1970. But when this was done in the mid-70's, Ray never had to worry about getting re-elected. He was sent into a political stratosphere he never came down from.