August 24, 2016 Edition

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Don Clayton (left) of Denver, a World War II veteran who trained in Walnut Ridge in 1944, visits with Harold Johnson, president of the Wings of Honor Museum.

WWII veteran returns
to WR after 72 years

John Bland

After a span of 72 years, one of the World War II aviation cadets who trained at the Walnut Ridge Army Air Forces Basic Flying School, returned to the former base for the first time last Wednesday.

Donald A. "Don" Carlson, now 92 years old, lives in Denver. Extraordinary for his age, Carlson was on a solo cross-country automobile trip to visit two of his former B24 crew members. He visited one former crew member in Bessemer, Ala., and the other in Dubach, La., as well as stopping in Walnut Ridge to spend a couple of hours.

For over 10 years, Carlson has been in contact with Harold Johnson, president of the Wings of Honor Museum at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport. The museum pays tribute to the airmen of World War II, such as Carlson.

"We were just delighted to see him," said Johnson. "One of my rewards is getting to meet these guys."

"I just regret not opening the museum five years earlier, when more of these veterans were living," Johnson added.

A sign at the museum's entrance welcomed Carlson and outlined his training history in the Army Air Forces.

Carlson's hometown is Erie, Penn., and he enlisted in the military in December of 1942. His training began at North Carolina State in Raleigh for the college training program. He then went to Nashville, Tenn., for classification, which included mental and physical testing to determine what he was best suited for in the military. Then, his training continued in Montgomery, Ala., where he spent time marching, doing pre-flight training and learning Morse code.

He began primary flight training in Camden before coming to Walnut Ridge for basic flight training. Carlson recalled that he rarely left the Walnut Ridge Airbase because of his demanding schedule. He arrived in Walnut Ridge in mid-February of 1944 and graduated with Class 44-G in April of 1944.

From Walnut Ridge, he went to George Field, Ill., for advance flight training, and then to transition and crew training in Chanute Field, Ill., Courtland, Ala., and Tonopah, Nev.

Don would eventually become a B-24 pilot as part of a crew of 10 men. He was stationed in Attlebridge, England, where his crew did one practice mission, before the war in Europe drew to a close.

After the war, Carlson said he returned to Penn State to obtain a degree in civil engineering.

Carlson reflected that many people don't realize that as many pilots were killed in training as in active combat.

At the Walnut Ridge base alone, 42 young men were killed in training. By coincidence, the same number of baby boys were born at the 203-bed hospital constructed at the Walnut Ridge base.

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