Remembering grandpa Charlie Mickelsen on Veterans Day
For some reason, celebrating Veteran’s Day seemed extra special to me this year. I have always appreciated our fine men and women of the military, they always deserve special recognition. But for some reason this year the attention on the holiday caused me to reflect on those in our family who have served in the armed forces more than ever before.
I have three brothers-in-law Tony Weston, Tyler Nielsen, and Justin Holmgren who have served in recent years. Both of my wife’s grandfathers served in World War II. James J. White served in the US Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Regretfully, I don’t have a lot of information about her other grandpa, Myron Richards, except that he was in Europe when the war ended.
But I mostly pondered on my own grandfather, Charles H. Mickelsen, who served in the Navy during World War II and in the Army during the Korean War. I suppose I thought of him because I spent most of the last year compiling a history of his life, along with grandma Dorthy Mickelsen, his sweet eternal companion. I’d like to share what I learned.
Grandpa was working as a ranch hand in Idaho when he received a letter from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requesting he report to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City for induction. This was life-changing news for an Idaho farm boy who had only ever traveled to places like Soda Springs, Montpelier, Grace and Pocatello for high school football and basketball games. He felt unprepared to make such a journey, so Charlie purchased a round-trip bus ticket to Rexburg to gain some traveling experience.
After the long ride to Utah, Charlie often laughed as he described the shock he felt at being asked to line up, strip off his clothes and receive a physical from a team of doctors. Somehow he got through it. When the examinations were over, he was randomly selected to be in the U.S. Navy and officially inducted on Nov. 28, 1944.
As the Germans launched their last major offensive of the war with the Battle of the Bulge, Charlie reported to basic training in San Diego, Calif. From there he was assigned to the Armed Guard School at Treasure Island, Calif., where he was trained to be a machinist mate and gunner.
Upon completion of his training, Charlie was assigned to the S.S. Maryville Victory, a Merchant Marine cargo ship. He also served aboard the USS Banshee and USS PC. “Motor machinist” was his job title. He was also a gunner’s mate and helped protect the ship against attacks.
The crew’s first mission was to carry more than 3,300 tons of ammunition and explosives to Calcutta, India, by way of Australia. Along the way they were attacked.
“When we entered the Bay of Bengal we were attacked by a submarine, but none of the torpedoes struck us,” Charlie wrote. “I have always felt that we were saved only by God’s guidance.”
Grandpa explained how they survived. As the torpedo raced toward them, a young seaman accidentally nudged the ship’s steering mechanism, changing the course of the ship just enough for the torpedo to barely miss them. The submarine disappeared into the night and the ship was safe. Hearing him tell the story gave me goose bumps.
In addition to the torpedoes, the crew survived many nights of stormy weather and massive waves that rocked the ship. It’s no wonder that one of his favorite hymns was No. 104, “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” (Click on the link to hear this beautiful song). His naval experiences provided unique personal insight to the powerful oceanic lyrics, imagery and symbolism. Here are the lyrics:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; Unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal. Chart and compass from thee: Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
As a mother stills her child, Thou canst hush the ocean wild; Boist’rous waves obey thy will when thou say’st to them, “Be still!” Wondrous sovreign of the sea, Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
When at last I near the shore, and the fearful breakers roar, Twixt me and the peaceful rest, then while leaning on thy breast, May I hear thee say to me, “Fear not: I will pilot thee.”
I love the oceanic themes in LDS hymns. I wrote an article about some of them in Dec. 2012. If you want more insight into the maritime hymns, click here to read the article.
The SS Maryville Victory and other ships also made stops in the Philippines, New Zealand, Saipan, Guam and Hawaii. Although he didn’t particularly like the living conditions aboard the ship or the life a sailor, Charlie relished the opportunity to travel the world and see different countries. He was also grateful for the friends he made.
The Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945, also known as V-E Day (Victory in Europe). A few months later in August, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. In September of the same year, the Japanese finally surrendered. Although World War II was over, Charlie was not discharged for another 10 months. For his service, he was awarded the Asiatic Pacific Area Campaign Medal, the American Area Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal, according to his military records.
Finally on July 2, 1946, the Idaho farm boy was released at Bremerton, Wash. He was glad to be back on American soil. He came away from his military experience with a deeper gratitude for his citizenship in a free country.
For the next several years, Grandpa pursued higher education at Ricks College and Utah State University. He married Grandma.
His country called on him again in 1952 to serve in the Korean War, this time in the Army. He was taught how to analyze and interpret aerial photo intelligence at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. Upon his arrival in Japan he was transported to Korea where he would spend a cold winter living in a tent.
While in Korea, Grandpa was a soldier and a missionary. About two years before coming to Korea, he received his patriarchal blessing and was promised he would “preach the gospel on land and sea.” The promise had already been partially fulfilled, but it continued to be fulfilled in Korea. He was one of approximately 18,000 Latter-day Saint servicemen at that time, according to “Saints At War: Korea and Vietnam.” He was called to serve as a group leader and charged with organizing and holding meetings for LDS servicemen wherever they could be found, as well as teaching the gospel and building up the kingdom. These church meetings were held in a variety of settings, including everywhere from rice paddies to vacant mess-hall tents, and from foxholes to corps chapels. Latter-day Saint servicemen also sought to be ambassadors of goodwill by serving those who were suffering.
“This was a wonderful experience,” he wrote. “I have pleasant memories of friendships and happenings there.”
The Bronze Star was awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the military of the United States after Dec. 6, 1941, distinguished himself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service. The citation for Charlie’s Bronze Medal read:
“Lt. Mickelsen distinguished himself by exceptionally outstanding service in the performance of highly specialized duties as photo interpreter. He displayed professional ability and great skill in the interpretation of aerial photographs, and in the production of accurate and timely reports. … This meritorious service rendered by Lt. Mickelsen throughout this period reflects great credit on himself and the military service.”
He returned home in the summer of 1953, grateful to be with his sweetheart again and have his old life back.
I realize this post is extremely long, but just two more things. In addition to taking pride in my grandpa’s faithful military service, I am grateful for his example in living a life loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his patriarchal blessing, he was counseled:
“Brother Mickelsen, you are a servant of the living God. Remember this and honor the priesthood. Never be ashamed to defend the priesthood that you hold for it is the greatest blessing that can come to you. … But God expects you … to live worthy, clean and pure. Protect your virtue as you would your life. It would be better for you to lose your life than to lose your virtue.”
I also admire Grandpa and countless other American servicemen who sacrificed for the cause of freedom, as described in the Book of Mormon.
“Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church. And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; … And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion” (Alma 43:45-47).
Grandpa died in 2002 and we sure miss him. But he left a great example and legacy of faithful service. I’m grateful to him and all those who serve our country at this time when we remember our veterans.