Lt. Carl Milford Olson: Pontoon Causeway Pioneer

By Daryl C. Smith, Public Affairs Officer, 1NCD

Lt. Carl Milford Olson, the first American officer in World War II killed during a land invasion of continental Europe, was instrumental in the success of the Italian invasion, and the liberation of the Port of Naples by Allied forces. The new FIRST Naval Construction Division (1NCD) headquarters building is named in his honor.

Lt. Carl Milford Olson was born in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 7, 1899. During World War I, Lt. Olson enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a radio operator.

He attended the University of Minnesota from 1920 to 1924, and graduated with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. After working in Chicago as a draftsman, he and his family moved back home to St. Paul where he operated his own architectural firm from 1933 to 1941. Due to wartime priorities, he moved to Decatur, Ill., in 1941 to work for a large engineering company writing specifications and contracts for ordnance plants.

In December 1942, at the age of 42, he volunteered for service in the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), and was commissioned in February 1943. After processing through Norfolk and Williamsburg, Va., and Davisville, R.I., he crossed the Atlantic to participate in the liberation of Europe.

As a member of Construction Battalion Detachment 1006, he took part in the North African and Sicilian campaigns as officer in charge of a Seabee Pontoon Causeway Platoon. He helped develop and build many of the fittings and attachments which made the Seabee pontoon causeways and rhino ferries successful in landing operations. In fact, the ramp for unloading cargo at the front end of each of these huge barges was known as an “Olson Ramp.”

In September 1943, Lt. Olson participated in the landing at Salerno, Italy. The beach was divided into two parts – the northern section was invaded by the 46th British Division, assisted by Construction Battalion Detachment 1006, and the southern section was invaded by American forces, also using Seabee pontoon crews. During the first days of the landing, ships were unloaded under constant fire and bombing.

On Sept. 10, 1943, Lt. Olson was killed when his pontoon was struck by an enemy bomb. He was the first American officer of the war killed during a land invasion of continental Europe. Lt. Olson’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Cmdr. W.A. Burke, said at the time, “He died in action on his causeways, at the head of his men, an outstanding example of an engineer and an officer.”

A proclamation by his fellow officers of the 1006th read, “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.”

Twenty-eight other members of his detachment were killed during the operation. However, their mission was completed. Approximately 11,500 vehicles went ashore over Construction Battalion Detachment 1006’s pontoon causeways during the Italian invasion, and the Port of Naples was liberated. The detachment was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for its efforts at Salerno.

A tribute to Lt. Carl Milford Olson is a focal point on the quarterdeck of the new 1NCD headquarters building. Letters of condolence to Olson’s family from then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then-Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox are featured, along with Olson’s biography and reproductions of his medals.

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