Lead man recalls his role in Operation Overlord

D-Day Veteran Mel Carlson, pictured here seated along with his wife of 68 years Bertha directly behind him, was honored for his service Wednesday at their home at Golden Ridge Senior Living in Lead by members of the American Legion Post 31. Pioneer photos by Alex Portal

LEAD — According to a survey taken by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in 2018, 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive, 1,397 of them were living in South Dakota, and one of them is Lead resident Mel Carlson.

Carlson was 21 years old on June 6, 1944. He was also manning a .50-caliber machine gun on a PT boat as it ferried ground troops to and from the USS Rich to the shores of Utah beach during the invasion of Normandy.

“Our job was to get the troops ashore under all circumstances,” Carlson said. “I was ready to shoot at anyone outside our PT.”

A PT boat, short for patrol torpedo boat, was a fast attack vessel used by the Navy. John F. Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the Pacific campaign.

Originally from a farm in Minot, N.D., Carlson volunteered for service in place of his older brother Elliot.

“Mel said, ‘No you stay home and help dad with the farm (and) I’ll go.’” Carlson’s wife Bertha told the Pioneer Tuesday.

Carlson said he was 20 years old when he signed up for service, but had to wait until he was 21 to enlist into the Navy.

“I turned 21 in Liverpool (England),” he said. “I chose the Navy because the sanitary conditions were much better.”

Carlson served on a PT boat affectionately named “The Nasty Bastard” from January 1944 until the end of the war. He served under John D. Bulkeley, who had earned a Metal of Honor for his distinguished service in the Philippine waters early in WWII and would go on to become a vice admiral.

“My commanding officer for a quite few years was Admiral Bulkeley. The hero of the Philippines,” he said. “He’s the one who carried MacArthur out of the Philippines. … He was with me on D-Day. He was a real tough cookie, you didn’t give him any bullshit. ”

Carlson said he remembers the fear that seemed to hang over everyone involved leading up to and during the invasion.

“The thing was to get a foothold on land, and that we had to do, and sometimes it gets pretty scary,” he recalled. “There were a lot of people who couldn’t talk about it. They were scared to death, cause it puts the fear of God into you when you know you’re running into machine gun fire.”

In addition to transporting troops to the beaches to engage the Nazis who were holding the French coast, Carlson also remembers pulling troops out of the water off of Utah Beach, which saw heavy fighting.

“We had to rescue them, and that wasn’t much fun because they were cold and wet and ready to fight anybody,” he said.

Not all the troops that Carlson rescued were alive, however. Carlson said to this day, the hardest thing he’s ever had to do is pull dead soldiers from the English Channel into his boat.

“We were hoping that the mother’s at home would be able to see their sons,” Carlson said. “But, of course, a lot of the sons were pretty shot up and they were not really an awesome sight to see.”

Despite the horrors and the tragedy of days like D-Day, Carlson said he and everyone he served with understood the necessity of what was being done that day.

“We all realized that this was a pretty important mission,” he said. “You have to take things as they come. World War II was a very important part of my life. It wasn’t easy, and yet I wouldn’t trade it for anything else I did in my life.”

Carlson recalled how chaotic the scene was as he even remembered jumping into the frigid waters to get to the men.

“We were under direct attack from E-boats many times, and we often worried about whether we had enough metal in us to trigger their acoustic mines,” he recalled.

Fortunately, Carlson explained, PT boats were made of more aluminum than iron, which didn’t resonate with the acoustic triggers on the torpedo’s that were fired at them.

“The damn things would go right under us without exploding and it was very nerve wracking believe you me,” he said.

When the invasion of Normandy concluded Carlson and the crew of the Nasty Bastard continued to patrol and protect the coasts of the Philippines.

“We got into quite a bit of action in the Philippines,” Carlson said. 

After the war, Carlson returned to his farm-boy roots, but not to North Dakota.

“Well I wanted to continue my education, and when the enrollment came for the University of Minnesota I was first in line,” he said.

Carlson studied dairy husbandry, which is the study of producing milk and milk products from dairy animals. 

“It wasn’t an easy course because you got into biochemistry. … It got very scientific, you had to be ‘A number one’ or you were out,” he said. “By golly, if I’d have known what I know now I would have studied physical science.”

Once Carlson graduated, he took a job at Equity Dairy Creamery in Aberdeen where he met Bertha on a blind date.

“It really wasn’t all that blind,” Bertha explained with a laugh. “I had him checked out and he had me checked out.”

The two were married in 1951 and Carlson worked for a number of years at the creamery before striking out on his own with a fire protection business. He and Bertha had four children and would take frequent family ski trips to the Black Hills. When the time came for them to retire, they knew Lead would be the place to do it. 

Carlson is a member of American Legion Post 31 in Lead. Other members joined him and Bertha at their home at Golden Ridge Senior Living Wednesday to honor him and his service to his country during a battle that shaped the history of our world. 

“It’s your country that you’re fighting for” he wisely stated. “You’d better make sure of what you’re doing.”

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