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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 10 2012

Eriksmoen: War pilot who later became judge also made movies

A man who at one time reportedly held more than 50 aviation records was born and raised in North Dakota. Herman Halland was a Navy pilot who served in both world wars, flew both blimps and airplanes, wrote a story adapted into a motion picture and after he retired from the military, returned to North Dakota, where he became a county judge.

Herman Ewald Halland was born Dec. 22, 1894, in Hillsboro, to John and Leonore (Biel) Halland. After high school, Herman enrolled at North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University, and before graduating, was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on June 12, 1914.

The first day at the academy, he acquired the nickname “Swede” because his “straw-colored hair lighted up the gloomy corridors” of the classrooms. However, his father was Norwegian and his mother was German.

In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I, and Halland and his classmates were put on a fast track, graduating on June 29, one year ahead of schedule. Halland was assigned to the USS Worden.

During the war, Halland was quickly promoted, rising to full lieutenant on July 1, 1918. When the war ended, he flew dirigibles for the Navy.

During the 1920s, the U.S. Navy started building aircraft carriers. Pilots who could land on a moving, small airstrip were needed, and Halland was one of the first to accept this new challenge.

The next challenge was to make certain that the aircraft could carry a large enough payload, and Halland was at the forefront of this effort.

On June 6, 1923, Halland set distance and duration records with a 500-kilogram payload, flying 466 miles in 7 hours, 35 minutes, 54 seconds. The next day he upped the load to 2,000 kilograms and set a duration record of 51 minutes and an altitude record of 4,885 feet.

Next up for Halland, and other naval pilots, was to concentrate on bombing accuracy. This was accomplished by dropping countless bombs on would-be targets. It occurred to Halland that this was not only costly, but sometimes bombs missed the targets, resulting in considerable collateral damage.

During warfare, one of the primary targets of airplanes flying off aircraft carriers would be other ships, but bombing practice was limited due to the potential damage to ships.

Halland had a solution and invented what he called the “practice bomb.” This was a pseudo-bomb that had the same characteristics as a real bomb. It broke up on impact but did not contain explosives. He received a patent for the practice bomb Aug. 1, 1933.

While serving as flight commander aboard the USS Saratoga in August 1935, Halland received a rare assignment. He was sent to Hollywood to assist in the making of a movie for Republic Pictures. The movie, “Navy Born,” was about a bunch of Navy pilots who were serving aboard an aircraft carrier.

While the movie was not a great success, Halland discovered a new interest – presenting Navy pilot stories to the public. In 1939, he retired from the Navy and moved to California, living in Santa Barbara and Hollywood.

In 1940, Halland joined with Cameron Rogers, a former Navy surgeon, to write the novel “Flight Surgeon,” which stressed that doctors should be allowed to fly with pilots so they could be transported to battle areas where they were needed.

One of the people who took Halland under his wing was writer and producer Nunnally Johnson. Johnson, the screenwriter and producer of the movie version of “The Grapes of Wrath,” represented Halland as his agent.

In 1943, Halland wrote a story, “They Also Wear Wings,” about a blimp pilot during World War II. Johnson liked the story and sent it to MGM. The movie studio assigned it to screenwriter Borden Chase and, in 1945, released it under the title, “This Man’s Navy.”

Meanwhile, Halland returned to the Navy to serve in the war effort. He was based in Pensacola, Calif., and Corpus Christi, Texas, before being placed in charge of West Coast defense in San Francisco. Halland retired in 1946 as a captain, fulfilling a boast he made to his classmates at Annapolis in 1917.

After the war, Halland moved his family to a cottage in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and then lived briefly in Fargo. In the early 1950s, he was hired in an advisory capacity for the Garrison Dam project.

From 1951-52, he lived in Watford City, first as the owner of a shoe store and then as an oil lease broker.

In 1953, Halland moved to Williston, where he worked at his nephew’s law office while completing his law degree through correspondence. In 1956, he passed the North Dakota bar exam and was appointed city police magistrate.

Halland was later elected Williams County judge, a position he held when he died on March 4, 1967.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.