Oakdale WWII vet honors generations of fallen comrades

Carlson, an Oakdale resident, is a member of Roseville VFW Post 1635 on the East Side of St. Paul. (submitted photo)

Gordy Carlson, a World War II veteran and Oakdale resident, was one of a group to receive a Fort Snelling National Cemetery Memorial Rifle Squad Lifetime Achievement award. Carlson has volunteered 9,000 hours over 30 years with the rifle squad. Carlson has also volunteered 60 years at the VA Hospital, 22 years as representative, and and has helped with recreation programs from Bingo to bowling. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

Gordy Carlson, May 1946 on USS Botetourt, on his way home. (submitted photo)

For Gordon "Gordy" Carlson, volunteering is a way of life.

Every Wednesday for the past 30 years, you'll find Carlson at Fort Snelling National Cemetery as a member of the Memorial Rifle Squad.

The squad members solemnly bid farewell to the tide of veterans from World War II and the Korean War who are dying every week, as well as military personnel from more recent conflicts, such as Vietnam, the Gulf wars and Afghanistan.

At each graveside service, Carlson and other veterans fire three rifle volleys, meticulously fold the American flag that was draped over the casket or urn and perform "Taps."

Carlson never tires of the ritual, explaining it's personally rewarding, largely because he does it for someone else - his "fallen comrades."

The gun salutes take place Monday through Friday, no matter the weather -- sleet, snow, searing heat or howling winds. "We've never missed a day," Carlson says with obvious pride.

Each Wednesday his rifle group averages 10 to 15 burial services, which can be scheduled every 15 minutes. "Some days we have 12 and then some days there are four or five."

Given the rigorous schedule, rifle squad members must have a certain amount of stamina, and Carlson is no youngster. The 90-year-old is himself a member of what's often called America's "Greatest Generation," having served in the Navy in the Pacific theater during World War II.

The national cemetery recently honored Carlson, who lives in Oakdale, with a Lifetime Achievement Award at it 35th anniversary celebration at Prom Center in Oakdale. He is one of only six World War II veterans who still participates on the Memorial Rifle Squad.

A final tribute

Fort Snelling has the only all-volunteer military rifle squad to serve continuously since it was organized in 1979, and Carlson has volunteered over 9,000 hours at graveside rifle services.

Carlson says different groups of volunteers (about 20 to 25 individuals) make up a squad for each day of the week, and they ride together on a bus to each burial site for the solemn ceremony.

Seven riflemen are needed to fire three rounds of blank ammunition for the 21-gun salute. Standing guard on each end of the riflemen are two men with chrome-coated rifles, one of whom is Carlson. "I'm left-handed so they don't want me shooting," he says with a smile. 

Two buglers, five flag bearers, two flag folders and the squad leader complete the squad.

Dressed in identical shirts worn with ties, and topped off with hats adorned with various personal pins and ribbons, the squad is always spiffy. "We like to look good," Carlson explains.

Carlson and other Wednesday participants think highly of their group. Volunteer George Fischer says, "We have a nice squad on Wednesday and get along well together."

When there are occasional breaks between burials, the volunteers fill the time playing cribbage. "Gordy is one of the better players," fellow squad member James Hogan says, "and he has a great sense of humor."

On steamy summer days, the squad leader might direct them to take off their ties. Jackets are worn in cool weather, and parkas in winter, but they all match.

The squads provide their own uniforms, rifles and transportation to the cemetery. Fischer joined the rifle squad in 2002 and was grateful when Carlson loaned him a cap to complete his uniform. "Gordy was very helpful and kind to me in the early days," he recalls.

The rifle squads are supported by private funds from various organizations including VFW and Legion posts. Carlson says they "live by donations."

He began his cemetery volunteer work when two VFW friends, who were rifle squad members, told him they were looking for more help and asked him to join. That was in 1984, and Carlson has been faithfully participating since then. In 2008, he was the commander of the rifle squad.

Minnesota was the first state to have an all-volunteer Memorial Rifle Squad, to provide military honors at a Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery. The squad started 35 years ago by having a 21-gun salute at the burials one day a week, and built up to five days. "Now we have fired at about 66,000 funerals since it started," Carlson says.

Spared by scarlet fever?

Carlson grew up on the East Side of St. Paul. After graduating from Johnson High School in 1942, he worked for about six months. "Then I got a letter," he says, remembering the day his draft notice arrived in the mail. He enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1943 with hopes of working on radar.

It was in basic training at Farragut, Idaho, that Carlson fired a rifle for the first time. He went to radar school in San Diego and then got his orders to ship out to the South Pacific, and his first stop was Treasure Island, California, and then on to San Pedro, where the transport ship stopped to pick up Marines.

It was there that he caught scarlet fever, so he spent five weeks in the Long Beach hospital recuperating. By the time he was well enough to travel, his Navy unit was long gone.

"I never got to my outfit, but they stuck me on the island of Guadalcanal" after it had been captured. Only later did he hear that nearly half the men in his original unit died in naval combat. 

A base camp had been established at Guadalcanal, which is the most well known of the Solomon Islands, and only a few Japanese troops were still holding out in the jungles. "It was secure when we set up supply," Carlson says.

"Although the Japs came down from the hills sometimes and stole clothes, mostly laundry out drying."

The area where he worked he likened to a hardware store. "Ships would come in and get drill bits, nails and screws," he says.

Carlson remembers swimming in the Pacific on Sundays when he was not working. "We took turns," he says. He has photos of the island, the local people, the church he attended as well as the movie theater. But the quarters weren't cushy -- "we slept in tents," he recalls.

Carlson was fortunate to see a few USO shows while on Guadalcanal, and among the headliners were Bob Hope and Bob Crosby's popular swing band.

Fischer, a World War II buff, says he enjoys hearing any stories Carlson shares about his war years. "Since I was never in combat, I look up to those who were in World War II."

Life back home

When the war ended, Carlson returned to the states on the USS Botetourt, an attack transport, which went through the Panama Canal and arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, where it was decommissioned.

Carlson returned to civilian life in 1946, married and raised a family. For 39 years he delivered milk to residential homes for Sanitary Farm Dairies.

He has been a VFW member for 65 years including serving as the commander. 

Another volunteer activity is reflected in the Department of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service Certificate he received from the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Health Care System. Carlson was honored for 60 years and 9,000 hours of volunteer service to veterans as he helped coordinate VA recreational activities, such as wheelchair bowling, bingo and horse racing. 

After 64 years of marriage, his wife Delores passed away in February 2012, and his son Curtis, a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, passed away in 2013 from Parkinson's disease and complications from Agent Orange.

Fischer remembers how stressful these losses were for Carlson, noting, "The rifle squad was good therapy for him."

Carlson says his younger son Scott and two grandchildren are a joy to him and soon he will become a great-grandfather. He delights in recalling that when he was honored at the Prom Center banquet this summer, he took his granddaughter "as a date."

The 90-year-old says he's outlived most of his contemporaries. "All of my friends are all gone, all of my buddies -- golfing and bowling friends."

But he is still always on the go, except now some of his pursuits are more solitary, such as fishing.

And he has lots of friends through his volunteer work with the Memorial Rifle Squad.

He says the precision performance the squad performs at each funeral is always the same.

It's good some things never change.

Vonny Rohloff can be reached at advertising@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7861.

See Gallery Link below for more photos

The Rifle Squad

Lois Stodieck,
VFW Post 1296 Ladies Auxiliary

We stand here on this hallowed ground
With granite markers all around.
Your friends and family gather near
They do no see us through their tears.
And when the final words are said
We raise our guns above our heads.
The morning sun is climbing higher
Our captain tells us when to fire.
Although we fire seven guns
Our timing makes it seem like one.
We stand together straight and tall
We listen to the bugle call.
We watch them fold your country's flag
Your casket is your body bag.
We turn and slowly walk away
But we will shoot again some day.
We also know our time will come
And we will join you one by one.
We'll march beside you as before
But in a place where there's no war.
So rest in peace our comrade friend
Because we know it's not the end.

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