EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in August 1997. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
Working as a youngster in the hayfields of his father’s dairy farm in Hubbard, Oregon, Marion E. Carl would hear a noise off in the distance and look skyward.
What he saw passing over the family farm were bi-winged airplanes hauling the mail between San Francisco and Portland. He made a commitment that one day he would fly.
Did he ever.
Carl retired from the United States Marines on June 1, 1973, as a Major General and had a list of accomplishments that few men ever achieve. During his 35 years in the Corps, Carl was:
The first World War II Marine ace for aerial combat at Midway Island on Aug. 26, 1942.
The first Marine designated as a helicopter pilot in July 1946.
On Nov. 1, 1946 he was the first Marine pilot to land a jet aboard an aircraft carrier. On that same date, he was the first pilot in the world to be catapulted in a jet from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
He was the first pilot to set the world’s air speed record, 650.7 miles per hour, on Aug. 25, 1947.
He was the first U.S. military pilot to wear a full pressure suit and fly to a world altitude record of 83,235 feet on Aug. 21, 1953.
He was the first living Marine to be enshrined in the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor on May 8, 1986 and the first Marine to be enshrined in the Navy Carrier Aviation Test pilots Hall of Honor on Oct. 10, 1987.
Carl saw combat on Midway Island, Guadalcanal, Korea and Vietnam and in 1955 he flew U-2 photo-reconnaissance missions over Red China.
The young farm boy who looked up at the skies to see the airmail planes slowly making their way across the Oregon sky would eventually fly in 260 different types and models of aircraft and test 30 different experimental aircraft before he retired in 1973.
He had also achieved 14,000 flying hours, two Navy Crosses, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Legions of Merit, 14 Air Medals and the Octave Chanute Award for notable contributions to aeronautical sciences.
For the past 18 years, Carl has lived quietly with his wife of 54 years, Edna, on 30 acres alongside the North Umpqua River in the Glide area.
In 1994, he wrote his memoirs in a book called “Pushing The Envelope,” a test pilot term for flying higher and faster than anyone else. He wrote the book with a co-author Barrett Tillman, a native of Oregon and also a pilot.
Tillman explains Marion Carl this way: “He is honest, direct, loyal; living testimony of the family-farm lifestyle and the Oregon earth from which he sprang.” Tillman said Carl is a man who “appears almost totally lacking in ego; unusual among flag officers, rare among test pilots and nearly impossible among fighter aces.”
Carl himself admits he owes most of that to his wife Edna, whom he married in January 1943 when she was a 19-year-old Powers model in New York City. Carl was on leave after Guadalcanal.
Carl learned to fly at Oregon State College (now University). When he graduated he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves as a member of the Corps of Engineers. He still wanted to fly, but was shut out of the Army flight program when the quota was filled.
“Then fate intervened in an immaculate dress uniform,” Carl said. It was a Marine reserve officer who convinced Carl to join the Marines.
He quickly was sent to the Naval Air Station at Sand Point in Washington for “elimination training” to pare down the number of student aviators for the Navy’s main flight school at Pensacola, Florida. He was chosen and earned his wings in 1939.
“I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life flying airplanes,” he said. “Some aspects of farm life appealed to me. I didn’t mind fieldwork, particularly pitching hay and handling bundles of corn — but I admit I never developed any affection for cows.”
His destiny was sealed. He never returned to the farm.