Twin Cities native Major General John R. Dolny was comfortable in leadership, having had it thrust upon him at an early age during World War II.
“He was very soft spoken, but carried a big stick,” said his son Keith Dolny. “People respected him.”
SON OF IMMIGRANTS
Dolny was born the sixth of nine siblings Feb. 3, 1921 to Czech immigrant parents who lived in the ethnic shanty community of Bohemian Flats, which is now parkland under the Washington Avenue bridge. His father, Andrew, worked for the railroad and his mother, Elizabeth, ran a small grocery store.
He graduated from South High School in 1938 and then went to Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis for mechanical drafting and machine design, graduating in 1940.
He had just taken a job in Wisconsin when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, forcing America into WWII.
He enlisted in the Army Air Corps which changed the direction of his life, one he stayed with until retirement.
SHOT DOWN OVER ITALY
Having received his wings and commission in 1943, he was shipped to North Africa with the 525th Squadron of the 86th Fighter Group and then to Italy.
Dolny flew the A-36 fighter bomber, and his mission was primarily low altitude ground attack and guarding the air space.
In March 1944, he was shot down near Rome and bailed out just over the friendly side of the battlefront, injuring his leg in the landing.
A SECOND TOUR AND A PROMOTION
When his combat tour ended, he chose to stay on. At 23, he was given command of the 527th Fighter Bomber Squadron that eventually flew the powerful P-47 Thunderbolt fighter/bombers. He named his plane Sandra Lee, for his niece.
He completed 135 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with clusters, the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre with silver star.
After a short stateside rest, Dolny returned to Germany in 1946 as Deputy Commander of the 64th Fighter Wing, responsible for closing down military bases and disposing of aircraft, which included his beloved Sandra Lee.
THE AIR NATIONAL GUARD
In 1946 he returned to civilian life, working briefly as a draftsman for Honeywell. In 1947, he signed up with the Air National Guard to become the 109th Fighter Interceptor Squadron commander that flew F-51 Mustangs and other support aircraft out of Holman Field, which is now the St. Paul Downtown Airport.
In 1950, at the age of 29, he was promoted to full Colonel and took command of the 133rd Fighter Interceptor Group which was called to active duty for the Korean War in 1951.
‘DO THE RIGHT THING’
During this time, he met his first wife Ida Mae through mutual friends. They were married in 1952. They were unable to have children, so they adopted a son, Keith, and daughter, Patricia. Together they attended St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in West St. Paul for many years.
“Over the years, it was always ‘do the right thing,’ ” Keith Dolny said of his father. “He always told me, ‘If you don’t like what you’re doing, go do something else. But do the right thing.’ ”
In the 1960s, Dolny was instrumental in creating a new type of mission — the airlift mission — to the Air National Guard which provided equipment and support to units and utilized larger heavy cargo aircraft, such as the C-97 Stratofreighter.
In 1961, at age 40, he was promoted to Brigadier General and ran missions in the Berlin Crisis and later in the Vietnam War.
In 1970, his unit was redesignated as a Tactical Airlift Wing and converted to the C130 Hercules planes.
“He was just a very natural leader,” said Lewis Wolf, who served under him. “He was very comfortable leading. He commanded a lot of respect right off the bat.”
Wolf said Dolny was also a great mentor and enjoyed taking time to help the men under his command reach their full potential.
Dolny continued as the Wing Commander until 1977 when he was promoted to Air National Guard Special Assistant to the Commander of the Air Defense Command and received his second star to Major General.
RETIREMENT AND GRANDKIDS
When he retired at age 60 in 1981, he had put in 39 years of service, had over 10,000 hours as a command pilot and had put in 211 combat hours.
He had flown the A-36 Apache, the P-40 Warhawk, the P-47 Thunderbolt, the F-51 Mustang, the F-94 Starfire, the F-89 Scorpion, the C-97 Stratofreighter and the C130 Hercules aircraft.
He was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1998.
“He did a lot for St. Paul as far as the military goes,” said his son.
After retirement, he built a summer home at Voyager Village in Danbury, Wis., where his five grandchildren loved to visit every summer, his son said. He became an avid golfer and traveler.
HIS FINAL YEARS AND HONORS
After his wife died in 1997, he moved to Arizona where he met and married Gisela in 1998.
On the day before their 22nd anniversary, Dolny fell and broke his femur, an injury that required surgery.
Gisela could not be with him in the hospital due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I talked to him on the phone two to three times a day,” she said. “Every time, he asked me to bring him some clothes so that he could come home. It broke my heart that I couldn’t.”
He seemed to be recovering, but then died suddenly, Gisela said.
Dolny will have a military funeral with honors at Fort Snelling National Cemetery when the restrictions are lifted.
A museum display that memorializes his career and contributions is located at the Minnesota Air National Guard museum, located at the base at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.
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