By Linda Emley
After reading more articles in our “John Testrake” file, I realized that Richmond followed John’s example and showed the world what our little Midwest town was all about.
The New York Times ran an article about Richmond and newspapers all across the country picked up the story and shared it with their local readers.
Here’s what The Times had to say under the headline “Hometown of TWA flight 847 pilot bands together in prayer”.
“(Richmond, Mo.) For several days a sign beside a store has urged: ‘Pray for John.’ And Sunday many did just that in the hometown of John Testrake, the pilot of hijacked TWA flight 847. At noon the 105-year-old bell on a pedestal beside the First Baptist Church tolled 40 times while a member counted off the names of the Americans held in Lebanon. A half hour later, about 300 friends and neighbors held hands as they prayed at an interdenominational service on the courthouse square for Testrake, a man they have known as an amiable, accommodating and deeply religious neighbor. The bell will continue to ring at noon each day until the end of the hostage crisis.”
On Sunday June 23, 1985, the Richmond Ministerial Alliance hosted this prayer service on the Courthouse lawn as the whole world watched. After attending regular Sunday church services, everyone gathered around the base of Alexander Doniphan’s statue as they prayed for Capt. Testrake, his crew and the passengers on Flight 847.
The Richmond Daily News ran a front-page story, “Worshippers Gather To Pray For Hostages. United in prayer. The quietude of the scene was interrupted only by the preponderance of reporters, photographers and television crews from Kansas City TV stations. All were reminded that Mr. Testrake is a major personality trapped by world disorder and, consequentially, by international attention.”
After the hijacking crisis was over, John and his airplane both came back and continued flying for TWA on domestic flights. I found an interesting article in an airline magazine that gave some details about the Boeing 727 that was officially aircraft #N64339.
A TWA crew flew into Beirut, checked out the plane and flew to Athens, where it was cleaned and serviced before it returned to the TWA overhaul base in Kansas City. After repairs, which included patching bullet holes in an overhead compartment, the 727 rejoined the TWA fleet.
In 1986, The Kansas City Star ran a story about John and his life after the hijacking. He said he was getting 40 to 50 requests a month for speaking appearances and had an upcoming appearance on the Today Show for the one-year anniversary. The article ended with the following, “Mr. Testrake said he enjoys his 10-acre vineyard ‘as a thing to keep my head screwed on straight.’ ‘Start out as a farm boy,’ he said with a laugh, ’end as a farm boy.’
My father, J.B. Martin was at Curtis Airfield one day when John arrived in his private plane. He said you could always tell when John was flying because he banked his plane in for a landing the same way his flew the big planes. When John landed, they got to talking and he asked him if he was scared during the hijacking. John replied that they worked out an agreement with the hijackers that they would not bother them when they were praying, so he said they prayed a lot.
John had two more years with TWA before he retired at the age of 60, which was mandatory for commercial airline pilots. In 1987, John’s book “Triumph Over Terror on Flight 847” was released.
At one book signing in Richmond over 500 people came to get a copy. John also volunteered his services to Mission Aviation Fellowship and flew missionary services all over the world and served as state director for the Christian Coalition organization.
On Sept 30, 2000, TWA retired its fleet of Boeing 727s and the last “revenue” flight for a 727 was John’s plane, #N64339. TWA hosted a party in St. Louis and then the plane flew to New Orleans and back to St. Louis. I found two different versions of what happened after TWA retired it. One said after a period of retirement it was sold and returned to service for another airline, but another said it was scrapped. I hope it’s still out there somewhere flying the sky as it had been since 1964.
Our hometown hero had one more battle to face. On February 6, 1996, he lost his battle with cancer. He was laid to rest with military graveside services at Richmond’s Memory Gardens. Captain John L. Testrake was honored by an airplane “fly by” that would make any pilot proud.
Thank you John for showing us what a true American hero looks like.
Have a story idea for Linda? You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit her at Ray County Museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday or catch her around town.