The oral history for Mr. Donald F. Johnston was conducted at his home at Colville Washington in December 1988. It represents a record of his activities and memories from his birth in 1913 to his retirement in 1972.
I was born on July 8 1913 in Lowell Massachusetts. My mother was born in Scotland and my father was born in Canada. They both became naturalized citizens of the United States in 1909. I grew up in a little town of North Tewksbury a town that celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1983. Our house was about 500 yards from field where Captain Trull organized a company of men to march to the Battle of Concord and Lexington. Theres a lot of history in that little area there but thats not subject of this discussion. I attended Lowell High School from 1926 to 1931. I attended Washington State College now known as Washington State University at Pullman Washington from 1931 to 1935. I enrolled as a forestry major but I changed the major sometime the first or second year and became a mining/geology major.
When I got out of school in 1935 jobs were pretty scarce but I managed to find one working in a mine up in Elk City Idaho. Elk City is about 50 miles due east of Grangeville. Its an interesting old town. At that time it had a population of about 200 people. Its an old gold mining town. Gold was discovered there in 1851 and in 1935 there were still some very interesting characters left in that town; one of the most interesting characters was a fellow by the name of Dr. Boyd or Doc Boyd as he was known in the country. Hes the only man in the state of Idaho who legally practiced medicine without a license. He was an old mining engineer with some background in medicine. Where he got it I dont know but he did have some background. The State gave him a certificate to practice a limited general medicine. Anything complicated he sent his patients to Grangeville to the hospital there. But he delivered babies set bones pulled teeth took care of colds corns and bunions medicine for horses cattle anything that came in he took care of it. He wasnt too proud to be doing a little veterinary work along with his general medicine because a buck in those days went a long way. His office on the main street was an old style falsefront building. The front room was his office the middle room was the state liquor store and the back room was his operating room. He said he planned it that way because anesthetics were in short supply and if he had someone with a broken bone to set he took them back to the operating room and they had to pass through the state liquor store so he grabbed a bottle of whiskey to help the patient out as he went. It was a pretty practical down-to-earth medicine practiced by him. I remember one time I was in his office and old miner came in with a sty on his eye. The doc lanced it and dressed it took care of it and as the old fellow was standing there at his desk paying his bill to go out old Doc says Thats going to stop hurting when the pain goes out of it. The old miner looked him right straightin the eye and said Doc any damn fool knows that.
Another interesting character in the town was an old fellow by the name of Dick Greckwell He was a mine boss and he had whats known as a golden smile. He had false uppers and false lowers and they were solid gold teeth. Every tooth in his head was gold and when he opened his mouth to speak or smile it was pure gold. I was just a young kid just out of school and I had a great time in that town. I found out that if I got a pint of whiskey on Saturday night and sat down on one of those benches outside of the saloon there I could get to talk to some of thoseold timers. Of course they thought they were tamping a load in a young fellow So Id listen to their stories and egg them on give them the bottle theyd pass it back to me and Id stick my tongue in the mouth of it and not take a drink and give it back to them and pretty soon they got to feeling pretty good. They told me lots of wild tales of that town. It was a real education for a young fella.
The mine I got to work in was called the Black Lady mine. Actually it was more of a prospect hole than a mine. It was a miserable wet hole with ground water dripping from the ceiling and you came out at the end of a shift cold and wet. After being there for a little while working a few shifts I was moved over to the midnight shift and the miner on that shift that night was an old time miner who had not worked at mining in many years. This was his first time back in a long time. and the miner who was doing the mucking along with me was brand new and had never worked underground before in his life so he was a little apprehensive and nervous.
All in all it was a catastrophe waiting to happen and it did. The miner couldnt handle his buzzie or air drill his steel kept sticking all the time so I spent most of my time helping him and breaking in the new mucker and trying do my own work. We finally got all the holes drilled and started to load them. Now theres a system to the sequence in loading and lighting each hole. You light the cut holes then you light the breast holes then you light the back holes and then you light the lifters. The sequence puts the load right where the mucker on the steel plates can handle it with ease. Well when it came time to light the holes I knew that the new mucker would be nervous as the dickens with all that powder going off with dynamite in there being loaded and handled so I sent him out for a piece of steel or something that we didnt need but I got him out of there so he wouldnt be so nervous. So then the miner and I proceeded to light all the holes and light them in the proper sequence. He and I were bent over lighting the lifters; those are the last holes you light when all of a sudden one of the back holes blew prematurely. Well it knocked me down in the muck pile and I got to my knees and I hollered over to the miner and I asked him if he was OK and he said Yeah Im alright. So I said Im getting the hell out of here. So I started to crawl out using the ore car rails as my guide on my hands and knees as the lights were blown out. As I crawled out I counted the shots going off behind me. You could hear them WHOOM and a big gust of air would go blowing by you. As I counted them I found that three didnt go. I knew that we didnt have all the lifters lit. Finally I got out to where I could see the portal set the daylight in the portal and I got to my feet and I started walking out of the hole. Just as I got to the portal here came this young mucker starting to come back in with the tool I sent him for. He took one look at me and he turned white as a sheet and that was the last shift he ever worked in that mine. He quit that day. I cant say that I blame him.
The miner and his wife were living in a tent just off the portal and we were overdue on the shift and she knew it. She knew enough about where he should be and the time so she was up at the portal waiting for her husband to come out. She took one look at me and I was pretty much of a mess. My scalp was torn and you know how the scalp bleeds it was running down the side of my face. My clothes were torn half off me and I was pretty much of a mess. She took one look at me and she started screaming Wheres my husband? Why doesnt someone get my husband? Why dont you do something? and it went on and on and on and finally I said Lady Ill go get your husband. So I went back into the shop and got me another light and started in to look for him. Just about that time he came staggering out. I said What the hell happened to you? You told me you were OK and I figured you were right behind me. He says Kid when that thing blew it knocked me down and it dumped some rocks on my feet. He had on rubber hip boots. He says I got up and I went to pull my foot loose and my foot came out of the boot. I stood there and I put that boot back on before I started out. Now thats what shock does to a man. There were 81 more sticks of dynamite in that place to go anytime and he stayed there to put his boot back on.
One of the pieces of rock that blew out of that bootleg hole hit me on the right hip and pinched the sciatic nerve. I was lucky I had a tobacco can in that right hip pocket and the rock hit that. If it hadnt been for that it would have torn half the flesh off my hip. But that sciatic nerve gave me a lot trouble for well over a month. I couldnt walk. The leg would hold me up but I had no control over where it was going to go when I shoved it to step out.It might go to the right and it might go straight ahead and it might go to the left. The only treatment I got for that sciatic nerve hip from old Doc Boyd was hot towels and horse liniment. Thats all he had. He sewed me up – he came out to the mine they called him and he came out to the mine and he sewed up my scalp while I was sitting there in the mess hall but he didnt have any anesthetic and I didnt even get the benefit of that bottle of whiskey either. Finally I healed enough that I could maneuver pretty good although I limped for two to three years after that before I got rid of the limp. But I got well enough to get around so I decided there were better ways of making a living than underground so I headed back east. I went back home and stayed awhile there. Finally I got a job in January 1936 with the Wilson Packing Company in Haverhill Massachusetts as a student salesman. Then in August of 1936 they transferred me to Burlington Vermont for -more training and more experience. I worked there for awhile and then I moved out in April of 1937 to Concord New Hampshire. I worked there for a very short while and then in May of 1937 my father died. I had had enough of the east and I wanted to get back west so I came back west and stayed in the fraternity house down in Pullman until July of 1937 I got a job as a rodman with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the Grand Coulee Dam job. The Grand Coulee Dam was being built at that time.
I got the job as rodman down in Ephrata Washington at $1320 a year. That was good money in those years back in 1937. We worked at what is called topographic mapping of the area that was going to be irrigated by the water from the Grand Coulee Dam. In July 1938 I was transferred up to Coulee Dam right on the dam itself as a chainman. As a chainman we set points for the forms. When the carpenters put the forms up for the cement to be poured they had to be controlled by point setting and that was what the survey crew I was on did set the points.
Younger people have probably never heard of it but at the time the dam was built there were all kinds of rumors about people being buried in the dam falling into the cement and dying in there and being buried in that dam. I can just about assure you that that never happened. Its practically impossible for a person to fall into that cement and be buried in it.
The dam was built in sections and blocks. Each section rose in a 50x50x5 foot deep block in other words 50 feet square and five feet deep. When that block was being poured with cement the hammerheads would come over with their buckets and drop them down and dump the cement into the block. There were 9 to 10 men working in that block at all times. The vibrator men the bell boy all those workers were spreading that cement around. It was poured in 11 yard buckets only 11 yards each time that bucket came down one at a time. It was impossible if one of that crew had fallen in there or someone else had fallen in there there was always somebody working in there. It was impossible; they were rumors that came out of that dam that should be buried once and for all.
The building of that dam was an amazing feat. Im very glad that I got to work on it because I saw things happen there that are almost impossible to believe. So much of it was unknown when they built it. That dam was so big. Many of the engineering practices that they formulated had never been tried and it was just an amazing thing to watch it go up. I was there when the last piece of bedrock was covered up on the dam. When the cleanup men came in to clean up the bedrock I got down in there and I found some cracks in the bedrock. I got my jack knife out and scraped out a whole bunch of that gravel that was down in those rocks and took it home and panned it out. I found gold in it and some of that gold is in my wifes wedding ring right now.
One item that always amazed me about that dam and something I dont think many people know about is how many tons of cold cream went into that dam. You see when the workmen went onto the dam they had to go on catwalks that went across the J block section. At the entrance to each one of those bridges or catwalks that went across there was a bucket of cold cream sitting there with an open lid on it. Every man that went on the dam scooped up a handful of that cold cream and smeared it all over his hands and any exposed skin because cold cream was an excellent preventative for cement burn. But thats a little item that never showed up in any of statistics on the building of the Grand Coulee dam.
As the Coulee dam went up it was a boom town area. There were people from all over the United States Canada. Every cross section of the United States was there. Every occupation gamblers engineers doctors you name it it was there. The real action the boom town activity of Coulee Dam was back in the coulees. There were several coulees that lead into the Columbia River gorge there in that area. Each one had its own little settlement. There was one called The Hidden City and it was where all the shady activity of the area took place. There were I dont know how many maybe twenty or thirty buildings there. They were either cat houses or gambling dens and thats where all the activity took place – lots of fights lots of brawls but nobody was ever killed that I ever heard of. Many people died the dam during the building of the dam but not in fights in The Hidden City. In The Hidden City I remember there was one gambling house where they had a pan guinea game and that pan guinea game ran uninterrupted for four straight years. It never stopped. They changed dealers every so many hours. There were three shifts working on the dam men coming on would play a little before going on the job coming off they would play before they went home.
Then in March 1939 I was transferred to Colville Washington on a survey crew. Our job was relocating all the railroads bridges highways towns cemeteries anything that had to be moved up out of the backwater of the Coulee Darn. As the Columbia backed up it flooded out all that area and everything had to be moved up. Our job was to survey what was there and relocate it on higher ground. We built some bridges one that goes across Kettle Falls on the Columbia the railroad bridge and the highway bridge we surveyed those and I worked on them. That was an interesting part of it.
Another young fellow and I were the only ones who could work up on the steel out of our survey crew. There were lots of steel workers around there and they were used to it but only two of us that height didnt bother. So every time they had to check anything at a high elevation we got the job of going up on the top. I was pretty young then pretty foolish pretty daredevil and I have actually walked across the Columbia River on the steel of that bridge top girders and I think they were about 16 wide. Not too long ago when driving by there I looked up and I thought what a damned fool I was how lucky I was to come out of it.
Of course this area up in here along the Columbia River was an old gold mining area too. It was worked pretty heavily in early days by the Chinese etc. I couldnt get the gold mining out of my system so I got out on the river on my days off and I panned gold all the way from Hunters Washington and north to the Canadian line. I found gold. As a matter of fact my wifes wedding ring has gold that I panned on the Columbia and her ring contains gold that I panned from Washington Montana Idaho Alaska and Arizona.
Now all of this hasnt been relevant to my career in the Border Patrol but it is a lead up to getting into the Border Patrol. I never had heard of the Border Patrol didnt even know it existed. But in our surveying work raising all these things out of the back water of the Coulee Dam and out of the Columbia River valley the gorge we had to relocate a railroad. The railroad came up at water grade all the way up to within about ten or twelve miles of the Canadian border and then it came up out of the river and up onto a bench. So we had to relocate everything below that bench all the way back to what is now called Kettle Falls but in those days it was Meyers Falls. So we started the railroad out from Meyers Falls and relocated it on a bench and through the hills and cut through rocks all the way up and tied it in up there close to the Canadian border.
It was the relocation of that particular piece of railroad that got me into the Border Patrol. One day we were working up right close to the Canadian border and there was a crew of about five or six men and we were walking up and down that railroad along the tracks on the ties and the bed walking back and forth doing our work. We finished our work and went on home. The next day we were doing some other work in another area and while we were working a car drove up a man stepped out of the car in a green uniform with a gun on his hip and a badge on his chest and he wanted to know if we had been working up in that area and we said that we were up there yesterday. He introduced himself and he was the Senior Patrol Inspector at Marcus and his name was Oner Evans. Hesaid I thought it might be you people. I have a sand trap up on the railroad. We asked what a sand trap was. He explained to us that he had sanded the ties of the railroad bed so that anyone coming down he could cut sign. He checked it every day. And that was my first introduction to the Border Patrol. He interested me so on one of my days off I went to talk to him and got to know him pretty well and he suggested that I take the Border Patrol exam. I asked him to tell me about the Border Patrol what is it what do they do. He explained the whole thing to me.
It so happened that at that time the Coulee Dam was set in two contracts. The low dam went up to a certain elevation and that was one contract. The high dam was the next contract. They were separate from each other. At the time that I met this Oner Evans the low dam contract was just about running out and nobody knew if President Roosevelt was going to get enough money to build the high dam. So some of us were looking for jobs. I had a little engineering training but I wasnt a civil engineer and I knew I wouldnt get very far as a civil engineer if I kept on so I was looking for another job. When he said they were hiring the Border Patrol was giving the exam I got interested. So I went down to Spokane and took the written exam passed it with a pretty good grade 86 I think it was. Then I got a notice to report down -to Walla Walla for the physical exam and the oral exam. I went down there and there were fourteen of us who took that exam and two of us made it. Two of us got jobs out of it. The other one who got a job was Chuck Feary who ended up as Deputy Chief I think down at Laredo or McAllen.
I came close to not passing that exam because I was pretty nervous while it was all going on. The physical was given by an old army doctor I think and he took my blood pressure and it was way up high. He kind of hemmed and hawed and finally he asked me how badly I wanted this job. I told the doctor I sure as hell wanted this job. He told me to go sit on that bench and he left the cuff and all the apparatus on my arm and I sat over there for awhile. He went on doing some paper work and all of a sudden he got up and walked over and pumped the thing up and read the pressure and he said it was okay and I passed. So thats how close I came to not making the physical.
Then on the oral exam I was doing fine I thought and then they asked me a question about a smuggler that was bringing some Chinese down out of Canada and there were two people: a man and his wife. The question revolved around this woman and the man the smuggler. He claimed that this woman was his wife. So they asked me what I would do and I said that I would separate them put one in one room and the other in another room and start questioning them. Then they asked me what questions I would ask. At that point I got a mental block. I couldnt think of any questions to ask to break that case. I hemmed and hawed and I finally told them I just had a mental block I cant think I know what I want to say but I cant think of the questions I want to ask. So they told me to go out. So little while later they called me back in and as I walked in I told them if it was all right I could answer the question. I told them I had lost my mental block. They asked me if I had been talking with anyone and I said no I just got over my nervousness and my mental block. They asked me a couple of questions and thats how close I came to not making the orals.
About a month after the examination I got a letter telling me to report to Chula Vista California for duty as a probationer. I got in my car and a two-wheeled trailer and I headed off for Chula Vista. I reported in to Headquarters on a Monday morning and the Assistant Chief Clem Hensler wanted me to take the oath of office right there that day. I begged off and told him I would rather not I would rather take it tomorrow. Clem Hensler got a little bit upset about that because here I was a probationer telling the Assistant Chief when I would take the oath of office and when I wouldnt take the oath of office. But I explained to him that when I left the Bureau of Reclamation I already had civil service status and I was told that if I left on a Friday and checked in on a Monday that I would have a break in my service and that I couldnt carry over all of the benefits of my civil service into the new job. So I explained to him that I would rather do it on Tuesday and that would give me Monday still with the Bureau of Reclamation. Clem saw the point and agreed with me. I took the oath of office on Tuesday February 13 1941 in Chula Vista California. The day that I took the oath of office I had to sign some papers and Clem Hensler had a bottle of ink and a dip pen that he used for writing. When I reached for a paper I hit that dip pen and I tipped the bottle of ink over right on the Assistant Chiefs desk. That was a real good start! Between the two incidents I got a real good start in the Border Patrol.
My starting salary with the Border Patrol was $2000 a year. Today in 1989 thats not a good salary but it was a jump from $1700 I quit the Bureau of Reclamation at $1700 and went to $2000 and a $300 a year jump in those days was a big jump.
The Chief Patrol Inspector was Lou Curtis. After I left the Sector and came up north Lou Curtis got into some kind of trouble I dont know what it was but he quit the service. It was an oddity that when I was transferred to Sacramento we had an office in Sacramento up in the Federal Building and there were three of us standing at the elevator one day waiting to go up and a young lady came up she saw us in uniform and she said that her dad used to be in our outfit. I asked who he was and she said he was Lou Curtis. I said he was the first Chief Patrol Inspector I ever had in the Border Patrol. It was kind of an odd coincidence.
The work at Chula Vista was mainly line watch traffic check farm and ranch check and horse patrol. They had two horses there and I was lucky enough to get on the horse patrol for a while and worked with Iler Jensen and Len Gilman Larry Elsworth and a P1 by the name of Mettie. I think Mettoe went into the Service during& World War II and didnt come back into the patrol but he ended up a General. There were several others but I cant remember their names now. But I do remember they had a horse there by the name of Sing Lee and he was a pleasure to ride he had a jog that made you think you were in a rocking chair. All the time that horse would be jogging he would be singing to himself. I think that is where he got the name of Sing Lee he had a funny little song that he would just sing to himself when he would jog. That horse is now buried under the parking lot back of the Arizona Bank at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixteenth in Yuma Arizona. That used to be the headquarters office of the Yuma patrol. They had the corral out back and poor old Sing Lee he is buried under all that pavement of the parking lot.
Then in June they sent me down to the training school in El Paso. I got through that all right and on the way back I had a little interruption in the route I was supposed to take home but I ended up going down through Tombstone and got to meet Jeff Milton down there the only time I ever saw the man. At the end of school I got back to Chula Vista and then I made my first apprehension.On the night shift I apprehended the first alien I ever caught and I was working with Ben Taylor. The Senior his name was Dspain paired up everybody on the night shift and it ended up that Ben and I both probationers ended up in the same vehicle. Well the Senior asked if we young punks could keep our noses clean and that sort of irritated me a little bit so we went out and twenty minutes later we were back with the first wet we had ever caught. The Senior was still at headquarters and I have to admit I got a lot of pleasure out of that apprehension Ive never forgotten it. Also one of the pleasures was that we fingerprinted him – in those days you did your own fingerprinting and you had learned fingerprint classification down at the school and you could classify the prints and in those days they had a Deportation book and every alien who had been deported up until that time they had a record on themin that book of the fingerprint classification. So we got double pleasure out of it. We fingerprinted the man classified the printsand found him in the Deportation Book so we had a good deportation case.
Of course like all young probationers we were always listening to the tales of the old timers and the stories of the things they had done around there and I remember one they were telling about. Down at the Port of Entry every so often a priest would come through a young priest on a bicycle. He would ride through and they never checked him very carefully and one day I dont know why one of the Inspectors decided he would check him. He always carried a bible in his bag– when he was pedaling up so they checked him and checked the bible and they found out the bible was hollowed out and he was packing drugs and he wasnt a priest at all. He was just dressing up as a priest.
Some of the P1s probationers~ stationed there in Chula Vista atthe time were Chuck Feary Len Gilman a fellow by the name of Sorenson Ben Taylor this fellow Mettie another man by the name of Grant Bitsy Grant they called him; and Spainour Docksteder Tex Curtis and McKay. And then there was John Oshea. He was our first Spanish instructor1 and I think if I remember rightly ended up as DD in Hawaii. Tex Curtis one of the Seniors there at Chula Vista had an interesting apprehension one time. One night he was checking traffic up on the Quimada Grade and this car with a young driver came down to the traffic check and in questioning him Tex noticed he was very very nervous. Tex figured something was wrong he kept questioning him and he couldnt get any story out of him couldnt make any headway with him but he knew something was wrong because the fellow was so nervous. So he finally let him go and he went on down the road and Tex in his frustration and anger decided he was going to shake down the next vehicle that came around the bend. Here pulled up a big truck a truck loaded with furniture so Tex climbed up on the top of that truck and started unloading the furniture pitching it left and right working his way down to the bottom and when he got to the bottom here was a big box. In the box were three smuggled Chinese. Now thats how some of the best smuggling cases are made just pure luck and orneriness.
An interesting story that the old timers told when I came in there relating to the Chinese – it seems that some time in the 30sMexico changed their laws governing property ownership in Mexico. They confiscated all the property of noncitizens in Mexico. This was real hard on those Chinese who had settled in Mexico and they were losing all of their property and they didnt know just what they were going to do but the word got around that if they were picked up in the United States they would be sent back to their homeland and be deported to China so they packed up their suitcases and started to invade the United States they were just coming across they would wander across the line and just sit down and wait to be picked up. They said they used to run a vehicle down the line every morning and just pick them up sitting there just across the fencejust waiting to be picked up. Then they tell the story of one fellow that somehow was missed he came in and I guess maybe he didnt sit down he just kept coming and nobody saw him1 and he got all the way into San Diego. When he got to San Diego he wandered around there and he found I think it was the post office and he sat up on the steps and the poor son of a gun sat there for about a day before anyone checked him out and found out he was an illegal Chinese and shipped him back to China.
Then there was the story of PI McKay I guess his name was. He was a nice gentleman very quiet and sort of shy and the fellows told the story that he was checking traffic. Now in those days you didnt have all the set up that you have now for traffic check. You just stood out in the middle of the road on the dividing line one man on each side and one man in the middle and you just checked the cars as they came down the line. Well in those days those early days some of those vehicles the doors opened differently than they do now the front doors instead of opening from the back toward the front they opened from the front toward the back and as a consequence the handles on the door were pointed forward and they were kind of a hook so there was a slight protuberance with a hook on it coming out from the door. Well McKay was standing in the middle of the road one afternoon checking traffic and two little old ladies come down the road from the opposite direction and as they got up to the point where McKay was checking traffic he could see the nervous woman was getting too close to him and he was checking a car so he couldnt get out of there so what he did was he sucked his stomach up against the car he was checking and the two little ladies in the car went by and this door handle hooked McKay in the britches and tore the seat out of his uniform. Well the two little ladies stopped got down the road a little ways and stopped and they came running back to see if they had hurt the officer. Well here in the middle of the road was McKay covering up the tear in his britches dancing around and the two little old ladies trying to get around to see what damage they had done to him and they said that was quite a sight to see that going on for quite a while before he finally convinced the ladies that he wasnt hurt.
When I came in 1941 there was no uniform allowance no rough duty uniform we did all our work in dress uniform traffic check ranch check horse patrol all of it was all done in full dress uniform but the Chiefs in the different Sectors were allowed a certain leeway in designing some types of uniform. For instance in the El Paso and much of Texas they used the wide brimmed