Pearl Harbor is more than a memory to Cloquet man
When Pearl Harbor Day comes around on Dec. 7, for most it's only a date on a page in history. But for Cloquet's Arvid Carlson, it's as real as it ever was.
Carlson, now 99, was a young man at the time of the world conflict. He was born and grew up in the Blackhoof area of Carlton County, and he was just 21 when he went to the Navy Recruiting Center in the Federal Building in Duluth the fall of 1935 and signed up for the Navy. Carlson traveled by train to San Diego for a 12-week basic training session and was admitted into a 16-week electrical ordinance gunnery school located within the training station area in San Diego.
He was then sent to the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Chester, docked in Long Beach, Calif.
For the next few years, Carlson traveled all over the world aboard the Chester and life was good. Though murmurs of political unrest among the world's nations had already surfaced, few paid them much heed.
A date with destiny
In early 1941, the Chester headed for Pearl Harbor, where its crew conducted some naval exercises at sea through the following spring and summer. The men spent most weekends in Pearl Harbor and took the train into Honolulu in their free time. In October, the ship was assigned to escort three fully loaded freighters to Manila -- a 6,000-mile trip -- to assure its safe arrival.
The first few days of December, they accompanied a task force comprised of a cruiser, destroyer, aircraft carrier and oil tanker to west of Hawaii toward Wake Island, practicing taking on oil from a tanker at sea -- a new and necessary undertaking for the crew members.
"We were delayed a good day's time out at sea as they had a very difficult time with this new maneuver," said Carlson. "This one day of delay that took place was a real blessing in disguise, because if it hadn't happened, we would have been right in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombers struck."
Despite all the rumors to the contrary, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7. When the crew of the Chester heard the call for doctors and nurses to report to hospitals in the area of the Hawaiian Islands, they knew then that it was not a mock drill but, as Carlson put it, "the real McCoy."
President Roosevelt declared war and the following day, the Chester arrived in Pearl
"What a big scene of destruction met our eyes," Carlson recalled. "Smoke, oil on the water, and all kinds of other junk was floating in the bay. The battleship U.S.S. Nevada was grounded in the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The U.S.S. Oklahoma was lying belly up. The U.S.S. Arizona was completely destroyed and sunk. We took on plenty of fuel, food supplies, etc., and then we left in a hurry as we did not know when the Japanese would come in to make another attack.
"All of our group was headed out to sea," continued Carlson. "In other words, we were engaged in total war against Japan and Germany. A high Japanese military officer said right after the Pearl Harbor attack, 'We have just awakened the sleeping giant.' I guess that stirred the United States to go on total war footing, with all industries directed to operate at full swing, with all involved in war efforts."
From that time on, the Chester and its crew came back to Hawaii periodically. All the crew's letters to their families at home were censored by a board of officers, and it took Carlson's letters about a month to get back to his folks in Minnesota.
"My mother and father were so happy to hear I was safe," he commented.
The Chester had some 600 enlisted men on the ship, plus officers. When they realized that war could be on the horizon, their preparations included welding shut all portholes on the lower decks and living areas, and the ship's complements were increased as well.
The Chester had four or five scout planes on board that were mounted on catapults to be launched as they went out to fly short missions. The catapults were mounted on two silos, and when a plane was headed out, the pilot was directed to start with its engine at full speed and then a powerful auxiliary explosive shot it off into the air. To return to the ship, they had to land in the water near the ship as close as possible and then a crane would reach out and lift the plane onto the ship.
"Sometimes these recoveries were unsuccessful but never tragic," reported Carlson.
He recalled how, during the war in the Pacific, some of the men felt lonely and blue after being away from their home areas for so long. At those times, he said they did whatever they could to make them feel closer to home.
"In our electric shop," Carlson said, "we had a phonograph we played, and we enjoyed a lot of recordings of popular music."
Early in February 1942, the Chester made an attack on a Japanese stronghold on Marshal Island. During the attack, the ship took the full jolt of a bomb hit to its quarterdeck, which killed nine men.
In May, they headed to the Coral Seas area for more action against the Japanese in an area east of Australia and north of New Zealand.
"The U.S.S. Lexington, an aircraft carrier, was hit and badly damaged," said Carlson. "We took many of their crew onto our ship for a temporary period. The carrier was in such bad condition that our Navy had to sink it."
Shortly after that incident, the Chester headed back to San Diego, and the following June the Battle of Midway took place.
"We started out at full speed to enter it," said Carlson, "but we were only part way there when the battle ended. It was a big victory for the United States, as four large Jap carriers were sunk. It was the beginning of the turning point of our success in the battle against the Japanese."
In October 1942, the men of the Chester were operating with a big group of U.S. Navy ships in the Solomon Island area when a Japanese submarine managed to hit the Chester with a torpedo.
"There was flooding in the number one operating room," recalled Carlson, "but it was brought under control. Also, the number three fire room was flooded, but the number two engine room and number four fire room were both operating."
The Chester pulled into New Hebrides for a short time and then headed out for Sidney, Australia, for several weeks until the ship was repaired and declared seaworthy once again.
In early 1943, they headed for the East Coast of the United States, going once again by way of the Panama Canal. It took them a full month because the ship's speed had been diminished by the damage it had incurred. The crew remained at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard for seven or eight months while the ship was worked on and was once again fully
Then, they headed back through the Panama Canal and on to the West Coast for more action.
The battle escalates
In summer 1944, the crew of the Chester was sent to the Aleutian Islands, and in November and December, they became part of a big carrier group that struck and won back the Philippines from the Japanese.
"I never saw so many ships within one area as around the Ulithi Atoll," commented Carlson. "There was a net surrounding the whole area to prevent submarines from Japan from entering in to damage any ships of ours. But a small two-man sub got through somehow and hit one of our oil tankers and blew it up. There was a huge smoke cloud four miles high. We sank this sub, though."
Carlson recalled how the men on the Chester could hear the voice of Tokyo Rose on the ship's radio, giving out a lot of false propaganda, telling the Americans about what terrible losses their side was enduring in comparison to the Japanese, hoping to have a negative effect on the American troops.
In January and February, American troops struck at Iwo Jima, a few hundred miles from Japan.
"We collided with another Navy ship, so part of our ship was damaged and we were ordered to the shipyard in San Francisco for repairs," said Carlson.
At that time, Carlson had the chance to transfer off of the U.S.S. Chester after being a crew member on the ship for eight and a half years. He was given a 30-day leave to go home and visit his family and was then sent to Miami, Fla., to go to school to learn refrigeration and gyro compass training. He had only been in school a short time when he was offered the opportunity to sign on as chief electrician's mate on a destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Tweedy, used as a training ship for officers.
In the meantime, Germany surrendered in early May. Japan was still at full war action, however, with many fatalities incurred by both sides. In early August 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
"Around noontime," recalled Carlson, "I was taking a little rest when a radio message came over the ship's radio announcing that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, causing the most horrible destruction. The Japanese headquarters had been warned about this, but they apparently just rejected the idea."
Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
"It caused terrible destruction," said Carlson. "Then the Japanese emperor and others higher up decided that surrender had to be arranged before a third bombing could take place. This was to be a total surrender. The terms were to be determined aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo, Japan."
With the world war at last over, the United States military started to discharge servicemen from all branches of service. Carlson had been in the Navy for nine and a half years by that time, most of them aboard the heavy cruiser Chester. He left naval service at the end of August 1945, departing from Portland, Maine, and traveling by train to Duluth with an honorable discharge in his possession.
"I was a civilian for the first time since February 14, 1936," he reflected.