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Johnson, Philip G. (1894-1944)

HistoryLink.org Essay 7311 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle-born Philip G. Johnson oversaw the The Boeing Company during two of its most crucial periods: The growth and expansion of its airmail and commercial transport business in the 1920s and 1930s, and its emergence as a major government contractor during World War II.  An engineer by training (but a businessman by experience), Johnson was a major figure not only at The Boeing Company, but also at the Kenworth Motor Truck Corporation, United Airlines, and Trans-Canada Airlines. For his business acumen, and his devotion to local civic organizations (particularly during the war), the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Philip Johnson First Citizen of 1943.

A Star on the Rise

Philip Gustav Johnson was born in Seattle on November 5, 1894, the son of Swedish immigrants Charles and Hannah Johnson. Charles, who originally settled in Michigan, worked in the laundry trade and eventually owned his own business before retiring in the 1920s.

Philip Johnson attended public schools as a boy, counting the Denny School, the Seward School, and Broadway High School (class of 1913) among his stops. He then enrolled at the University of Washington to study mechanical engineering. It was there, in Johnson's senior year (1917), that William Boeing (1881-1956) recruited him for a position at the fledgling Boeing Company.  Upon graduation, Johnson became a draftsman at the year-old company, and quickly rose through the ranks, becoming plant superintendent in 1920, and vice-president and general manager in 1922.

In 1927, when he was only 31 years old, Johnson was named president of The Boeing Company, a position he would eventually hold twice -- from 1927 to 1934, and then again from 1939 until his death in 1944. It seems that his only pause during these early years was on October 10, 1925, when he married New Yorker Catherine Foley. Shortly thereafter the couple had a daughter, Esther.

A Turning Point in the Airline Business

Philip Johnson became Boeing's president just as the company won its first large air mail contract -- the Chicago-San Francisco route. The company organized a subsidiary, Boeing Air Transport Corporation, to fulfill the contract, which carried with it an unforeseen and unexpected bonus: Passengers frequently wanted to hitch rides on this and other mail routes.

Mail service may have been Boeing Transport's bread and butter, but this subsidiary also launched The Boeing Company's entry into the commercial air travel business. Later, in 1931, Boeing Transport was consolidated with several smaller transport companies to become known under its more enduring name -- United Airlines. 

A Brief but Bright Flame

In the early 1930s, Philip Johnson and Boeing Transport/United worked tirelessly to expand the network of air traffic routes in the United States, encouraged by the Hoover Administration's lax regulation of the airline industry. Johnson was also working to establish air routes overseas as well. United's fleet of Boeing Clipper planes were eventually taking passengers and cargo over the Pacific and the Atlantic, and not too long after Charles Lindberg's historic flight in 1927.  Later, the introduction of Boeing's Stratoliner planes allowed United's fleet to travel at higher altitudes, resulting in longer runs than had been possible with the early Clippers.

But in 1934 the newly elected Democratic Congress began to crack down on perceived monopolies in the airline industry. To this end, the U.S. government cancelled all private airmail contacts, putting delivery in the hands of poorly equipped Army pilots and forcing The Boeing Company to dissolve United. (Later that year United Airlines was reincorporated as an independent company.) 

In the process, Philip Johnson, who had spent much of his time in New York and Chicago conducting United's business, was forced out of the company. Although William Boeing was not directly fingered in this "purge" of airline executives, he was so disgusted with the government's hardball tactics that he left his namesake company and divested himself of nearly all his stock holdings. After 1934, except for a brief return to the boardroom during World War II, William Boeing no longer played a significant part in the company he founded ("Federal Anti-Trust Actions ...").

Down, But Not Out

Philip Johnson was (temporarily) out of the airline business, but rebounded quickly with a position heading Seattle's Kenworth Motor Truck Corporation. (Johnson would lead Kenworth until his death, even though he was largely affiliated with The Boeing Company for much of that that time.) Then, in 1937, based on his experiences running United Airlines, Johnson helped consult on the founding of Trans-Canada Air Lines. Nowhere was Johnson's organizing genius more evident -- within 18 months Canada had a national airline that compared favorably to United or any of the other large carriers in the United States ("Johnson of Boeing Dies of Stroke").

Philip Johnson rejoined The Boeing Company shortly after concluding his consulting stint with Trans-Canada, and just as war loomed throughout Europe. With Boeing products in growing demand, Johnson helped develop the company's heavy bomber program, the cornerstone of which was the B-29, or "Flying Fortress." After Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, Johnson also oversaw the huge wartime expansion of the Seattle Boeing plant, which became a major supplier of planes to the Allied cause (in addition to becoming the Puget Sound region's largest wartime employer).

Giving Back to the Community

Despite his tremendous business responsibilities, Philip Johnson -- remembered by many as a kindly and social man -- also found time to give back to the larger community. Although he had long been a member of several civic and business groups (serving on the board of Trustees of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, for instance), during World War II he went even further, acting as chair of the Army-Emergency Relief show "This is the Army." In addition, Johnson promoted local business interests as a regional vice-president of the Committee of Economic Development. 

For his numerous accomplishments, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Philip Johnson First Citizen of 1943. In a statement announcing the honor, the Association noted Johnson's "outstanding civic services, his impressive role in the development of aviation and the high honor he had brought to Seattle through his activities as head of the firm which produces the world-renowned Flying Fortress" ("'First Citizen' for 1943"). The award ceremony was held on January 13, 1944, in the Spanish Ballroom of the Olympic Hotel.

A Tragic End

A few months later, on September 13, 1944, while visiting The Boeing Company's Wichita plant, Johnson collapsed and died after suffering a massive stroke. At the time he was en route to Seattle from a visit back East, where he was helping develop Boeing's post-war business plans, which included the possible commercial use of a modified B-29. 

The thousands of Johnson's employees knew him as a calm, quiet man, not the dynamic, driving business man, noted The Seattle Times after his passing. But he had the technical engineer's mind, "with a great grasp of detail"("Johnson of Boeing Dies of Stroke").

At the time of his death, the Johnson family (which by then included Philip Jr.) was living in the Woodway section of Edmonds, just north of Seattle. Johnson had always put family first, and it was not unusual for him -- even in the busiest of times -- to rise early in the morning to enjoy horseback riding with daughter Esther before dropping off the children at school and heading into the office.

An Enduring Legacy

Within days of his death, a proposal was put forth to name the region's new airport (eventually known as the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport or Sea-Tac Airport) after Johnson, but this failed. Opposition came from Tacoma representatives, who had an economic interest in keeping Tacoma as part of the Sea-Tac name ("Johnson Plaque"). 

In 1990, Philip G. Johnson was honored when The Boeing Company endowed an engineering chair at the University of Washington in his name. Money for the chair was part of a $5 million pledge made by the firm in 1986, which endowed a total of two chairs and four professorships.

Sources:
Clarence Bagley, History of King County Washington, Vol. III (Chicago-Seattle: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929), pp. 17-18; C. H. Hanford, Seattle & Environs: 1852-1924, Vol. II (Chicago-Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924), pp. 604-605; "Philip G. Johnson is Named 'First Citizen' for 1943," The Seattle Times, December 12, 1943, p. 2; "Johnson of Boeing Dies of Stroke," Ibid., September 14, 1944, pp. A-1, A-2; "Johnson Plaque at Field Asked," Ibid., September 21, 1944, p. 44; "Boeing Co. Endows UW Engineering Chair," Ibid., June 2, 1990, Seattle Times website accessed September 9, 2004 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=10749); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Federal anti-trust actions cause United Aircraft and Transport, a Boeing conglomerate, to dissolve on September 26, 1934," http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 9, 2005); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Port of Seattle Commission proposes to rename Seattle-Tacoma Airport for Philip G. Johnson on September 15, 1944, http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 9, 2005); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Kenworth Motor Truck Corporation incorporates in Seattle in January 1923" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/(accessed March 9, 2005); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Boeing and United Air Lines from Birth to Break Up, 1919-1934" (by Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 9, 2005).


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Philip G. Johnson (1891-1944), Boeing executive
Courtesy Boeing Archives


 
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