A few weeks after graduating from The Dalles High School in 1943, Ted Carlson headed off to training on Catalina Island with the merchant marine.
Soon he was helping transport war material along America’s eastern seaboard, where German U-boats were taking a heavy toll on shipping, and later he was shooting at Japanese bombers in the South Pacific.
Those memories came flooding back for him when he recently joined nearly 50 other Oregon World War II veterans on a visit to Washington D.C.’s war memorials through the Honor Flight Network.
His daughter Marnene Benson-Wood accompanied him on the whirlwind May 15-17 visit. The trips are free for the veterans, while their guests paid their flight and room but had meals provided.
The last time Carlson had been in Washington D.C., was during the war. On leave in New York, he decided to run down to the nation’s capital to visit his sister, who was in the Marine Corps. As luck would have it she was also on leave and out of town.
Carlson served on cargo ships during the war, where crews faced threats from the cargo itself, hellacious storms, and the enemy: Merchant marines suffered the highest rate of casualties of any branch of service during WWII.
His first duty was running some Army trucks to the Solomon Islands. He slept on deck in the trucks because it was too hot in the forecastle (pronounced foksul) sleeping quarters below decks. His first air raid, he recounted, was on Christmas Eve, 1943, in the Solomon Islands.
Back in the states, he transferred to a Liberty class cargo ship. He helped transport a load from Ecuador to New York, carrying copper for use in bullets and electronics, balsa wood for gliders and sheep hides. He was part of a huge 100-ship convoy that braved the U-boat infested waters of the American eastern seaboard.
“They were sinking a lot of ships, the Germans, at that time,” Carlson said.
Then he transferred to a Victory class cargo ship, which made for a safer ride, since the Liberty ships tended to break apart at the seams. There he went from his old job as a deckhand to the engine room. They picked up a huge supply of ammunition in Mukilteo, Wash., and headed for the South Pacific.
They landed at New Hebrides, a group of islands now called Vanuatu. “I went to a movie there and someone got hit with a coconut that fell out of a tree while we watched the movie.”
On another island, Japanese-held Babelthaup, they heard Tokyo Rose, Japan’s infamous broadcaster whose sole aim was to demoralize the Allies. “Tokyo Rose told us what was going to happen to us,” Carlson said.
He also went to Eniwetok, a string of islands that, after the war, saw nuclear bomb tests that obliterated one of the islands.
His ship sat at Eniewetok for three months while other ships came to pick up ammunition. They’d have to scramble out to sea when alarms sounded, and then come back after the all-clear.
“We thought we never would get rid of all that ammunition,” he said. They finally unloaded the rest on a beach in Leyte in the Philippines
They were there so long they ran out of regular food rations. More arrived just as they were leaving.
Once, on the Fourth of July, he and another buddy decided to row to shore to grab some beers. As they were underway, an alarm sounded on their ship. They wondered if their little boat caused the alarm. It didn’t.
They decided they’d better head back, but faced such a strong current that they almost couldn’t surpass an Army ship on the way to their own ship.
The army ship “was lined with soldiers making fun of us. We couldn’t get by that ship,” Carlson recounted. Each time they’d switch off rowing, they’d lose ground.
They finally got back to their ship by dark. The captain canceled their shore leave.
Because he had a double-hernia, Carlson probably couldn’t have ever been one of those soldiers on the ship poking fun at him. His hernia likely would’ve prevented him being drafted and did prevent him from joining the air force.
Also, a brother-in-law told him he wouldn’t be happy in the Army. “I wanted to know where my bed was and where I was going to eat,” Carlson explained.
Those niceties aside, there were times when Carlson thought he was going to die. “All I wanted was to get home,” he said.
Once, a general ordered Carlson’s convoy of ships to depart during a storm. One ship was lost in the storm, taking a buddy of his with it.
Another time, a navy officer, spotting a small light source in the distance, ordered his crew to fire. “You see this huge ball of fire go out there. I thought that was the dumbest thing anyone had ever done: Give up our position.”
In another storm, mines tied to the ocean floor became unmoored, becoming floating threats.
In yet another rough storm, mortar shells busted loose from their wooden troughs on Carlson’s ship, and clattered around wildly in the cargo bay. “We could hear them rolling around from the engine room,” he said. “It made you wonder where the detonators were.”
Once in port, both the army and merchant marine were unloading the mortars onto an army duck, a vehicle that could go on both land and water. “We put too many mortars on one side and sunk it and the driver was pretty sore about it,” Carlson recounted.
At that stop, they had a Japanese bomber fly low overhead. “Our gun crew froze on the guns. He didn’t fire at them.”
The plane dropped its payload seconds later. “If he’d dropped one on us we would’ve been gone.”
He fired at Japanese planes, but never knew if he hit one. “Most of those Japs came at night, you know.”
To defend against the Japanese bombers, “A lot of these places, they’d use a smokescreen,” Carlson said. “They’d lay smoke over the ships to hide them.”
Other nights, they’d ditch the smoke screen and shine search lights in the sky. Plenty of Japanese planes were caught out in the lights and shot down.
Even sea creatures could provoke a scare. If a dolphin streaked through the water close to the ship, “you wonder if it’s a torpedo,” he said.
Depth charges released by nearby battleships, meant to blow up enemy submarines, would rattle the bones of Carlson’s ship. “When they dropped those depth charges, it was like something hit the side of the ship.”
His own ships could not drop them because they could not withstand the forces they exerted. He saw a Japanese submarine hit once, releasing a huge fireball high into the air.
After a nine-month trip, he joined another Victory class ship, and took a load of ammunition to Okinawa in 1945. As he arrived, the American and British navies were already pounding the island in preparation for an eventual ground invasion by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. “Cruisers and battleships were firing at it day and night.”
Typically when islands were bombed like that, he said, “There wouldn’t be any trees left,” though Okinawa was different.
“One of the ships with us was sunk at Okinawa,” he said. That ammunition drop was his last trip of the war.
After the war was over, he made one more trip to the South Pacific to pick up a mobile hospital, and a few more things in New Zealand.
Then they swung by New Caledonia for some important cargo. “We took a load of beer and left all that good equipment there to rust.”
“They let us take all we wanted,” he recounted of the beer run. “We filled a C02 room with beer and used it coming back to the states.”
The crew had gathered souvenirs in their travels, but word went around that there’d be a shakedown once they docked in the States. A bunch of guys threw the contraband overboard, but Carlson stashed most of his in various places around the ship.
“Anything I hid they found, but the stuff I hid in my locker, they didn’t bother,” he recounted.
In June 1946, he married a farmer’s daughter, Cleo Snyder of Kent, and farmed in Sherman County for 60 years.
He now makes his home in The Dalles.