Carlson served as Air Force member in EuropeWINDOM — Before he was drafted, Don Carlson was already planning to join the military.
WINDOM — Before he was drafted, Don Carlson was already planning to join the military.
It’s a good thing, too, because Carlson would spend more than 22 years in service to his country.
“I was going to enlist and my dad said, ‘You wait ‘til they come get you.’” he recalled. His father, Oscar, himself a World War I vet, turned out to be right: The 1941 Fulda High School graduate was drafted in February of 1943.
He enlisted at Fort Snelling and was given a several-day leave before basic training. .
“Well, I had all the fun I could,” he said of his short break. “When I got out of high school it was a bleak look. It was nothing. There was no chance of going to school. The Depression was just getting over with,” he said. “Our fate was planned for us, really.”
During high school, Carlson had participated in citizens’ military training where he gained some experience as an infantryman Even so he still ended up in the U.S. Air Force, then the U.S. Army Air Force.
He took his basic training in Miami Beach, Fla.
“I lived in a hotel right across from the beach,” he said with an amused smile. “Tough duty.”
Carlson was sent to Lansing, Mich. to learn how to repair guns and was transferred several more times before arriving in New York. On March 21, his unit embarking on his cross-Atlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary. The vessel, known for its speedy ocean crossing, carried 10,000 troops on that trip – groups of 12 men were assigned to state rooms marked for one person.
“There were six bunks on the wall, three on each side,” he wrote in a scrapbook compiled by daughter Becky. “Six were supposed to sleep there one night and the other six the next night. The off night you slept where you could. I made a bed roll out of my pup tent and blankets. I slept on the Promenade Deck every night. It was cold but … wasn’t below deck where all those people were sick.”
His unit landed in Glasgow, Scotland and traveled to southern England where Carlson was put to work loading 500-pound bombs on the wings and bellies of fighting aircraft.
“They’d keep changing the mission. They’d want one type of bomb, then they’d want another one. So you’d be up all night,” he said.
Less than two weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy known as D-Day, Carlson’s unit crossed to mainland Europe. The troops stopped briefly in Cambras, France before travelling to St. Trond, Belgium – there they would stay for a couple of months, not too far from where the German counterattack known as the Battle of the Bulge was raging on in December of 1944.
He became accustomed to German buzz bombs meant for England hitting their air base.
“What was strange is that we got used to hearing them and if the motor shut off they either came straight down or might glide for miles. One could be sound asleep and if the motor shut off you would be awake in a second and run out of the tent and get in the fox hole.”
The men had to prepare for the worst.
“We didn’t know if we were surrounded or not. We took half of our equipment down to France and had gas cans by all the planes in case the Germans got too close,” he remembered. “We were going to burn them so they couldn’t use them.”
In late December, Carlson unit - the 48th Fighter Group 492nd Squadron- was staffed by German aircraft – as luck and timing would have it, their anti-aircraft gunners shot down every last one of the enemy planes. “If they would have come about 30 minutes later, they would have caught our planes lined up to take off on a mission and most likely destroyed most of them,” he estimated.
The unit went to Germany and France, and were on pace to join efforts in the Pacific Theater.
“We got all new equipment, we went to Marseilles and we were going to go through the Suez Canal and then they dropped the bomb and in place of going through the Suez Canal we went to the Rock of Gibraltar,” he recalled.
The war was over.
After nearly three years of service, Carlson was discharged on Nov. 5, 1946, and attended Worthington Junior College for a year before re-enlisting in the United States Air Force. He was shipped to Ally-occupied Germany in the fall of 1948 as a member of the 36th Fighter Wing 36th Supply Squadron. The following spring, Corporal Carlson was promoted to the rank of sergeant and became the supply sergeant for his squadron.
“Our laundry was at Dachau, so once a week we took the laundry to be washed,” he wrote. “Dachau was the concentration camp … where the Germans killed so many people. The army made it into a laundry.”
He later served in the Greenland during the Korean War, “I was there to make sure they didn’t steal the North Pole,” he joked, and met wife Fran in 1953 in a St. Paul bar.
“A drunk was bothering a group of young ladies and one of them asked me if I would come and sit with them so the guy would leave them alone. So I did, that girl was Fran.”
He and Fran married in 1956 and had two daughters, Diana and Becky and a son, Don Jr.
Carlson was stationed in Saudi Arabia in 1958 and then in the Philippines during the Vietnam War – he actually met up with his brother Dick who was sent to Clark Field, Philippines, en route to fight in Vietnam.
By the mid-60s, he had grown tired of the constant moving and long separations from his family – “There should be a medal for Air Force wives,” he said.
Carlson was retired from the service on April 1, 1967. He worked for the state of Minnesota as an automotive supply clerk until his second retirement.
Though he accumulated a host of medals, six battle stars, and an Instructor Badge during his time in the service, his true legacy may have been less tangible.
Daughter Diana and one of his three granddaughters served in the Army, and daughter Becky had his name placed in the 2009-2010 Minnesota Legislative Manual as a veteran.
As she wrote under the inscription: “I am proud that my dad is just a small thread of what makes America strong.”