This is the second in our series of Salute to Our Veterans!
The handicap ramp and American flag flying high were unmistakable indications I was at the right place, veteran Owen Carr’s home. Owen had lost his leg during his military service. The memories many returning soldiers carry are difficult enough, Owen returned with those memories and a physical reminder that would be with him always.
Owen enlisted on September 7, 1942, just days after his 18th birthday on September 1. He served in the United States Army Air Force in Guadalcanal in the Southwest Pacific. For those unfamiliar, Guadalcanal is part of the Solomon Island chain and it served as the staging ground for the Allied efforts against Japanese advancement during World War ll.
Owen attended gunnery school in Las Vegas, Nevada. He completed his third phase of B-24 combat crew training at Clovis Army Airbase in New Mexico ranked as Staff Sergeant. Combat crew trainees were given a seven-day delay en route to Topeka, Kansas, where they were to pick up a new B-24 for deployment. They were told to go home and report to Topeka in seven days. Crew members realized it was impossible to make it to their homes and then to Kansas within the allotted time considering train, plane and bus schedules. Each decided they would return late, except for Flight Engineer Bill Kellums.
Nothing was ever said to the rest of the crew for the late arrival. But when payday came, they went to the paytable and were asked ‘name, rank, serial number.’ Each was handed their pay. It was then they realized they’d been demoted. Their tardiness had not gone unnoticed. Eventually, Owen earned his sergeants rank back.
On August 26, 1943 Owen lost his leg in battle. Owen describes this as ‘the day I died.’ He went on a mission from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to his target at Kahili Airdrome on the southern tip of Bougainville Island. They were told they were going to have a fighter escort during the mission, but the escort never materialized. The mission did have three Curtiss P-40 fighter planes, (which were obsolete in 1943) and four Navy Corsairs. There were approximately thirty B-24 Liberators from two groups. Owen was in the lead plane nicknamed the Cisco Kid, along with Squadron Commander Colonel Reddoch, and the rest of the crew.
When they reached their target, they salvoed their forty 100 lb. demolition bombs all painted yellow. Then the Bombay doors were closed. Flying at about 30,000 feet in the air, Owen watched the bombs falling. He had to take his oxygen mask off to knock out the ice that had formed more than once. He was in the right waist window with his Browning caliber 50 machine gun sticking out. He was back-to-back with the left waist gunner, Harold Nerstad.
He heard someone on the intercom, “Get Ready, here they come!” Then he saw the Japanese Zero’s. They were being attacked by 75 Japanese fighter planes and Owen was in the lead plane! Owen started shooting. He doesn’t even know if he hit the Zero before suddenly feeling like something was ripping his leg to pieces. Bursts of 20 mm cannon shells from a Zero hit the plane and literally tore his leg apart. The shells were designed to explode on impact. He heard Harold Nerstad, “Send someone back here, they got Carr and me!” Owen could feel the razor sharp shrapnel in his leg.
Don MacAllister, who was the bombardier, had to man the right waist gun before he could administer first aid. He started shooting. Then he turned and manned the left waist gun and shot out of the left window. Owen could feel the hot empty shells from the machine gun hitting him in the face. He lay on the deck near Don’s feet. He pounded a clenched fist on his boot, “Give me some morphine.” Don was shooting from both windows while the plane was dropping altitude taking evasive action. All the while, blood from Owen’s leg is running over the deck from side to side, moving with the plane. He’s still pounding on Don’s boot. “Give me morphine!” Don finally gets a chance and goes to their first aid kit. He grabs a ¼ grain morphine surette, saws off the top and gives it to Owen. Don pins the empty surette on Owen’s electric-heated flying suit. Owen continues, “More morphine.” Don opens another, gives it to him and again he pins the empty surette to Owen’s suit.
The plane is returning to base now but Owen is still in excruciating pain. “More morphine,” he cried. Don opens another ¼ grain surette and pins the empty case to Owen’s suit.
Although they were the first plane out, the Cisco Kid was the last to land back at Henderson. Hydraulic systems on the plane had been shot out by the Zeros. They had to get the lowered ball turret on the bottom of the plane back up into place or they could not land. Commander Reddoch and George Vickers, the ball turret gunner, were putting their all into cranking it up by hand. It was difficult with gravity working against them. Then they had to manually get the wheels down, but in this case, gravity helped.
Once landed, they took Owen out the waist window to an awaiting ambulance. Medics tell Don MacAllister he saved his life by pinning those empty surettes to his suit. One more ¼ grain would’ve killed him. He spends the next 48 hours in the 20th Station Hospital operating room, a long quonset hut with tile floor. There’s one fan on the floor fighting the 98 degree heat. Major Patrick J. Nagle turned on the light over Owen’s gurney. “We better get to work on this man,” he says. Other members of Owen’s crew plead with the doctors “Save his leg! Save his leg!” However, dry gangrene had set in. Owen mistakenly believed taking his leg would ease the pain. “It’s him or the leg,” said Major Nagle. They started cutting. He sat straight up screaming at the top of his lungs. That was the last he remembers, he passed out.
X-rays revealed Harold Nerstad’s spine had been severed by the nose fuse of a 20 mm Canon shell. They put him on a ship to New Zealand for further medical care. He died before arriving.
Owen’s recovery was difficult. He recalls the day of September 17, 1943, people came rushing in. They cleaned everyone up and changed all the sheets. The Official Red Cross representative, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with a large entourage, including admirals, generals, cameramen and photographers, came through. She was there only once.
During his stay, Owen befriended a man next to him, Owens Harrison. Owens complained to Major Nagle one day, “That man over there is mocking me! He keeps mocking me! He moans and groans whenever I do.” The doctor said “He’s not mocking you son. He’s in as bad a shape as you are.”
Eventually, Owen recovered. A few days after his surgery a man came in and handed him a small cardboard box. That was one day after his 19th birthday. He was told he had to sign for it, but Owen could barely do that. In the small box was a Purple Heart given for his service. There was no velvet lined case or any of the usual pomp and circumstance one would expect.
The rest of Owen’s story is of a man who wouldn’t let a handicap keep him down! He met his wife, Pat in Munich, Germany where they both worked for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. They lived and worked all around the globe: the Canary Islands, Hawaii, Japan and Thailand. He asked his good friend Owens Harrison if he knew of a good place near Naples, Florida and he referred him to Marco Island. They visited and decided to make it home. Pat works at Tommie Barfield Elementary and Owen is an active member of VFW Post 6370. Owens latest feat—skydiving! This past March, at 85 years of age, Owen parachuted out of a plane. One can only wonder what his next feat will be.