Salute to veterans: From World War II through Korea and the Cold War
CHAMPAIGN — One war wasn't enough service for Gunnard Ohlsson.
After 33 bombing missions in the second world war, he flew in the Korean War, and then was a Cold War missile officer.
Ohlsson, who goes by Russ, is 93 and needs a little bit of backup from his family on the details of his long service in the Army Air Forces and then the Air Force.
Born in Sweden, he has the patriotism of a citizen who knows how good he has had it here.
He spoke Swedish and bad English in high school in Galesburg. "I barely made it out of there," he says, because his immigrant parents continued to speak to him in Swedish. He also lived in Minnesota and Bishop Hill, where there are large populations from his original home.
Ohlsson enlisted in Peoria early in 1942 and trained near Lubbock, Texas, to be a flight officer.
During World War II, he served both in Africa and Europe. He was above Normandy on D-Day.
He remembers Africa as hot, dusty and flat near the Mediterranean Coast. As a B-24 Liberator co-pilot, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage and his skills handling the "Flying Boxcar."
"It was a hell of an airplane, but difficult to fly," Ohlsson says.
Keeping the plane in the air was a problem exacerbated by the willingness of the U.S. to put its flight crews into danger.
Both the Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force had abandoned daylight bombing raids because of horrendous losses.
The Army Air Forces persisted, however, at great cost in men and aircraft. In the period between November 1942 and March 1943, the 44th Bomb Group lost 13 of its original 27 B-24s.
Ohlsson spent three months in Africa before being shipped off to England.
England was "quaint," he says. "I especially liked meeting girls." (He met and married wife Norma years later, when he was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base).
He flew 33 combat missions, each one a potential fiery death.
German fighter planes and anti-aircraft sometimes made the B-24 a large target.
Ohlsson fondly recalls being protected by the Red Tails, black fliers, the Tuskegee Airmen. (Some of them also trained at Chanute.)
There was only so much the smaller planes could do in skies lit afire.
"The flak was heavy; you felt the concussions" from explosions, he remembers.
"I never felt I was going to die," Ohlsson adds — but he later received extensive post-traumatic stress disorder therapy at Danville's VA Illiana Health Care System.
Whiskey was employed as a coping mechanism.
"They drank a lot," wife Norma says.
"The first thing they did in debriefings was give you a shot of whiskey," Ohlsson remembers. "Everybody drank. There was always whiskey available."
In one raid on Germany, 21 planes left England — and seven returned.
Despite his sorrow for his lost friends, Ohlsson had sympathy for German civilians. When he visited Hamburg decades later, "it brought back bad memories. I bombed this city."
He doesn't remember much about the two missions he flew on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
"I don't remember if I thought that was a big deal. You didn't have feelings. You never even thought about it. You just went," he says.
After the war, Ohlsson returned to work as a carpenter in the reserves. He started a family.
When the call went out for Korea, he decided to stay in and fight the North Koreans (and also the Chinese, and the Soviets, in a covert role.)
He flew a C47 "Gooney Bird" and was a crash safety officer.
"On that crash boat, we could put our feet in the Sea of Japan," he remembers.
He moved around the country from one base to another. During service at Chanute, he met Norma.
"Three of us girls got our husbands at Chanute," she says.
Toward the end of his career, he worked on the first (and only) U.S. land-based intercontinental missile, the Minuteman.
During the 1962 Cuban crisis, John K. Kennedy put Ohlsson's unit on alert.
"I was very proud of my Minuteman service," he says.
He left the Air Force as a major in 1969 and raised his family, which includes a dozen grandchildren.
He worked his way up as a union carpenter. He joined the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but didn't like to talk about his experiences too much — saying the ones who bragged the most probably didn't do all the things they said they did.
But one thing stuck with him from World War II — his PTSD. His son Larry has the same condition, but in his case from flying medevac helicopters in the Vietnam War.
"You stop allowing them to watch war movies," Norma says.
His father says of Larry: "He probably had as bad a time of it as I did."
Mercifully, Russ Ohlsson is forgetting a lot of those memories.