By: Julius Lacano
On September 9, 1943, Seabees belonging to Construction Battalion Detachment (CBD) 1006 approached the Italian mainland near the town of Salerno to take part in the Allies’ first assault onto mainland Europe. Unlike the invasion of Sicily that previous July, the Allies did not achieve the surprise they were hoping for, and the Germans were waiting. The men of CBD 1006 took on the greatest share of Seabee assistance given during the landings and suffered greatly because of it, suffering 28% casualties.
Among the thousands of Seabees and Allied soldiers desperately fighting to gain a foothold was Lt. Carl Miford Olson, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota and an enlisted Navy veteran of WWI where he served as a radio operator. After the war, he attended the University of Minnesota and received a BS in Civil Engineering. In the years prior to WWII, he worked as a draftsman in Chicago, ran his own architectural firm in his hometown of St. Paul from 1933-1941, and worked for a large engineering firm that had a contract building weapons and munitions plants for the US military.
In 1942, the 42-year-old Olson once again volunteered to serve his country and received his naval commission as an officer in the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) in February, 1943. From the US, he deployed across the Atlantic with the rest of CBD 1006 as Officer-in-Charge of a causeway construction platoon. He and the men under his command took part in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa and Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. While attached to CBD 1006, he used his engineering experience to develop many of the fittings and connections, known as “jewelry” that were used to link pontoons together. In fact, the ramps that were used on rhino ferries to unload cargo and vehicles were called “Olson Ramps” after their designer.
The troops storming the beaches on September 9 were greeted by a loud message in English from the German defenses: “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” Undeterred, the landing craft and landing ships moved ever closer ready to release their cargo of men and war machines into the coming fray. The German gunners near the beaches attacked the men with concentrated machine gun and artillery fire, while German aircraft bombed and strafed the beached and attacked the ships of the invasion force. On September 10, Lt. Olson and his men were offloading men and equipment when a bomb struck their pontoon killing him and two of the men under his charge instantly. All total, the Seabees would lose seven men and one CEC officer to enemy fire during the invasion. Despite this, the Seabees completed their objective and unloaded 11,500 vehicles and assisted thousands of men to shore earning the Navy Unit Commendation for their efforts. Despite fierce resistance, the Salerno operation proved to be a success and allowed the Allies to reach the Italian city of Naples on October 1.
His death affected the unit greatly and a proclamation written by his fellow officers described him thus: “Lt. Carl Milford Olson, CEC, USNR, has by his attitude of service and friendship to all, and strict devotion and patriotism to his country won both the professional and personal friendship of all the officers and men…He was an officer and a gentleman. He died a hero’s death in defense of his country and its principles during the invasion of Italy.” Olson, though initially buried at Salerno, now lies in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul, Minnesota. In commemoration of Olson, the Navy named the headquarters of the now disestablished 1st Naval Construction Division at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia the Lt. Carl Milford Olson Building, in 2012. Among the panels on the building’s quarterdeck is a memorial to Olson which contains letters of condolence to Olson’s family from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William Knox, along with reproductions of his medals, including the Purple Heart he was awarded posthumously. This serves as a fitting tribute to Olson, who was described by his Commanding Officer, Lt. Cmdr W.A. Burke, as: “an outstanding example of an engineer and an officer.”
The mission of the United States Navy Seabee Museum (USNSM) is to ensure that the construction and engineering accomplishments of the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps to the Navy and the nation are not forgotten, remain relevant, and inspire as many people as possible. At USNSM you can see examples of pontoon jewelry that were designed by Lt. Carl Milford Olson on display. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/seabee.html