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Saluting a WWII Vet from Detroit Lakes

A PERFECT SALUTE is displayed by Carl Knutson, who fought in the Army.1 / 2
CARL KNUTSON displays honors and memorabilia he earned during his years of fighting in World War II.2 / 2

95-year-old Carl Knutson sits looking at a picture frame full of metals, dog tags, insignia patches and photos.

"I look taller there, don't I?" he smiles, pointing to a photo of his 25-year-old self in an Army uniform saluting.

The World War II veteran is particularly proud of the Purple Heart.

"I know it was a long time ago," he said still looking at the picture, "but it sure doesn't seem like it, though."

It was, in fact, 70 years ago.

While working at a truck stop in Detroit Lakes in June of 1941, Knutson got the letter that he was being drafted into the army.

"They (his parents) were a little bit stunned, I think," said Knutson, who had an eighth grade education and had been living on his own since he was 14 years old.

Knowing what he had to do, Knutson packed up his bags and was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. to begin combat training.

Six month later, the Japanese struck, and Knutson knew he was then training for the real thing.

"That's when they hit Pearl Harbor," said Knutson, "and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm in for the duration'."

Knutson stayed on for another year and a half at Fort Leonard Wood, eventually becoming a drill sergeant there.

"I think I done pretty good training the men there," he said simply.

He wouldn't escape the battlefield long, though, as he was sent to Hawaii for jungle training.

Remnants of the Pearl Harbor attack greeted him as he came in -- a sure reminder of what he was getting into.

"The ships were still sticking out of the water," said Knutson thoughtfully, "It was ... just terrible."

His stay in Hawaii was brief, as orders came in to head to New Guinea.

A member of the 63rd Infantry Division, Knutson and his comrades were to relieve the 20th Infantry, which had been there in combat for quite some time.

"We weren't there long and our platoon guide got shot in the hip, so I took my belt off and used it for a tourniquet," said Knutson, "but the Japanese were picking off the litter bearers as they came in to get the wounded, so we had a heck of a time getting anybody to come."

Knutson says he grabbed his wounded platoon guide and ran out with him to get him medical help, somehow avoiding enemy fire.

"He asked me, 'How bad am I hit, Carl?', and I said, 'Awe, you're not bad.' He was though. I never saw him again," said Knutson, "I don't even know if he made it or not."

Knutson was then put in charge of taking over as platoon guide, but that duty was very short-lived.

"It was only a few hours later that I was laying behind a log with some other guys and had my hand up on the log looking up, when a machine gun sprayed and got my hand in a couple of places," said Knutson, who says he didn't even realize he'd been wounded.

"The guy next to me said, 'Hey Carl, your gun is full of blood.' I didn't notice until I looked at my hand and saw," said Knutson, "I suppose I was just a little shocked at the gunfire and everything."

He also didn't realize he had a piece of shrapnel in his leg.

"We slept in our clothes that we wore for days, and then one day I thought, 'Well, gol dang, my pants are stuck to my leg'," said Knutson laughing.

A month of recovery on a nearby island, and Knutson was right back in the thick of things.

"As soon as I got back with my platoon they sent us to the Philippians," said Knutson, "and boy, was there a lot of fighting there."

Then a staff sergeant, Knutson fought the Japanese for another year, losing one good friend after another.

"Everybody turned pretty quiet during that time," said Knutson, "nobody said much."

The World War II veteran says he never had a problem pulling that trigger in the heat of battle.

"Either you were going to get it or they were going to get it," he said, "but of course I never knew if it was my bullet that killed anybody or not because there were so many people shooting."

Then one day Knutson says he saw the U.S. plane that had just dropped the now infamous atom bomb.

"There was a fence around the plane, so nobody could get to it," said Knutson, who says the pilot of that plane then walked in to see the general.

"We heard the general just started crying," said Knutson, "and that was the end of the war."

Knutson says he remembers all their guns and ammunition being taken away immediately once they heard the news.

"They thought we'd go wild with celebration and start shooting in the air, and then somebody might have gotten hurt, I suppose," said Knutson.

The war vet says he heard on the ship taking them home that he was up for a promotion, but never got it because the war was over -- meaning so was his service.

"Oh, that was a good feeling," said Knutson, who had just lived through two and a half years of constant battle.

There was no pomp and circumstance when he got back to Detroit Lakes, "but people were happy to see you, you know," said Knutson, who went right back to work for the same truck stop he had been at when he left.

And although many war veterans come home different than when they left, Knutson just shrugs his shoulders and says, "No, not much difference -- I maybe thought I was a little bit smarter."

He was smart enough to marry a young lady from Audubon named Edina a year after returning, and the couple had three daughters.

Knutson went on to buy the old Stop-N-Go in Detroit Lakes with his brother, Morris.

They owned that for 10 years before buying a garage to do mechanical work for another six years.

They then went to work at the Ford dealership in town for 10 years, delivering and picking up cars.

In 1984, he finally retired.

Now 95, Knutson thinks back to his time fighting the Japanese and thinks about what close allies they are to the U.S. now.

"Isn't that something?" he said, "It kind of sticks to you, but they're not the same people they used to be -- same with the Germans."

Knutson says it's also sad to think about the U.S. troops who are now fighting a different war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I kind of feel sorry for them because I don't think they're getting enough help," said Knutson, "We had all kinds of help, and we won the war -- these guys don't have enough manpower to do the job."

Knutson still lives at the same home he's had since 1949. He still drives, and he still makes it out to the cemetery every Veterans Day.

"I go and look at all the flags," said Knutson, "It don't seem like that long ago. Time sure marches on."