Wartime memories - times threeWhen Warren Dahl enlisted in the Army Air Corps, he never thought he would serve his country for 30 years – and in three wars.
By: Jo Colvin, Alexandria Echo Press
When Warren Dahl enlisted in the Army Air Corps, he never thought he would serve his country for 30 years – and in three wars.
At almost 90 years old, Dahl, an Alexandria resident, recalls with vivid detail the years of his service – rattling off dates, recalling conversations word for word. He describes each aircraft and weapon, remembering their names, numbers and functions. Each incident he observed during his war-time duty is burned into his memory.
“It was the 18th of November, 1939, that I signed up,” Dahl began. “Just the rumblings in Europe and the way the war was going, I knew it was coming.”
A 1939 graduate of Glenwood High School, Dahl enlisted in the Army Air Corps, because he “didn’t want to be in the Army and stuck on the ground.” He requested doing armament work – working with machine guns, cannons and bombs, which continued throughout his military career.
Dahl was assigned to the 77th Pursuit Squadron of the 20th Pursuit Group from 1940 to 1942, working in armament.
“We started with P36 aircraft; we took care of the guns on the aircraft,” he said, adding an explanation of each aircraft on which he worked.
In 1943, he married June, who died in 2008, “two months and one week short of 66 years” of marriage.
In 1944 Dahl was assigned to the 462nd Fighter Squadron, which was sent to Iwo Jimo in March of 1945.
“I remember seeing the flag,” he said, tearing up as he referred to the famous photo of a group of soldiers planting the American flag. “You never forget it. When they talk about burning the flag, I swear if I could get a hold of them I think I would kill them.”
After eight months on Iwo Jima, Dahl came back to Minnesota. When his brother, who was also in the service, was killed in a plane crash, Dahl decided not to re-enlist and spent a year working on his parents’ farm. But he realized that was not the life for him.
“The military is what I knew and that’s where I was going,” he recalled. “Twenty-eight November, 1947 I was back in the service again.”
When he was recalled to active duty, it was no longer referred to as the Army Air Corps, but the Air Force.
Six months to the day after he re-enlisted, “28 May, 1948,” Dahl and his 9th Fighter Squadron of the 49th Fighter Group were on their way to Japan, where they did maintenance work. That came to an abrupt halt in July 1950, when they were sent to Korea.
“The North Koreans had just moved across the line. We had to go get them,” he said.
After 13 months in Korea, he came back to the states. Over the next few years he had various assignments in California, Colorado, Florida, England and Virginia – all dealing with munitions and weapons. In 1959 he became an explosive ordnance disposal officer (EOD), his specialty dismantling and disposing of bombs.
He was also a munitions, weapons and armaments instructor, teaching young soldiers what he had learned in his years of service.
Then came Vietnam – twice.
The first time was in June 1967, when once again he left his family behind as he headed to war. He was there for a year, and in June 1968, was back in the U.S. at Davis Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. He thought his wartime days were over.
But with about a year left until he could retire from the military, Dahl found out he was going to be given new job duties, and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
“I said, ‘What’s this about being transferred? I’d rather go to Nam than transfer and spend my last year of service sitting with books learning about a new weapon system,’ ” he said.
His request was granted. In February 1971 he had his orders and was off again to Vietnam. It was this time he had his closest brush with death after all his years at war. And he remembers every detail – down to a smoke-filled room and a Sears catalog lying on a table.
“It was so close I shake my head even now,” he recalled, telling the story of his escape from death.
After a trying day, he was visiting with fellow officers, putting his foot up on a table as he talked. He left the room and 10 minutes later, he heard an explosion and went running back.
“Directly above where I had been standing, there was a hole 12 inches in diameter,” he said. “Someone had thrown a hand grenade on top of our building. The table was shattered. I looked at the catalog – pellets from that grenade were within a quarter-inch of the bottom side of the catalog. I thought how far they would have gone through my head.”
Dahl witnessed other horrors of wartime – he saw planes shot down and pilots killed, he saw the Marine cemeteries on Iwo Jima, he heard bombs exploding nearby; he saw crashes and a pilot’s head in the tailpipe of a fighter plane; he saw two Japanese wiped out by automatic weapons.
Despite that, he never worried about the risks involved with his job with weapons. He never thought about being injured or killed.
“It didn’t bother me in the least,” he insisted. “I never gave it a thought.”
As of January 1972, he didn’t have to think about those risks again. He left Vietnam and in April, officially retired from the military, having held the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4 for 20 years.
In his matter-of-fact way, Dahl doesn’t reflect back on his war-time experiences with fear or regret. He speaks only with pride and vivid memories of the job he had done.
“In the service, you have a job to do and you do it,” he stated. “There was nothing else I was interested in. I was just getting the job done.”
Since he served
After his retirement, Dahl moved to Morris, where he worked for a plumber, at a lumberyard, and as a security officer.
He and his wife, June, had three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They moved to their Lake Carlos home in December of 1977.
With his “experience with explosives,” he offered to help the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office with “any problems.” He worked for the department for 15 years – as a jailer and then a bailiff.
Dahl retired in 1993 at age 73. He still lives on his own in an apartment, doing his own cooking and cleaning. He is still driving and has few health problems.
And he still remembers every date and every detail about his war experiences as if it were yesterday.