Donald Karr of Rhinelander was a true war hero, but his heroism during World War II didn’t prevent an awkward homecoming when he returned to Wisconsin in 1944.
Gary Entz has this story for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.
After his graduation from Rhinelander High School, Donald Karr enlisted in the Army Air Corps in late 1940 and was stationed at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. In all he served twenty-eight months as an enlisted man and attained the rank of sergeant, but in September 1942 Karr was among those chosen to become an aviation cadet and receive training as a pilot. After successful completion of his training, Karr was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and stationed in Wendover, Utah, for training with heavy bombers.
1944 was a significant year for Karr. After completing his training in Utah, he was sent to Europe to fly B-17 Flying Fortress bombers deep into Nazi occupied territory. It was dangerous work as bombers were highly vulnerable to fighter planes. Karr took part in over 30 bombing raids over Germany in early 1944. In one instance his bomber was took heavy damage, but Karr successfully piloted the crippled aircraft back to base. For gallantry in action, Karr was awarded the Silver Star and promoted to 1st lieutenant. By the early summer of 1944 Karr was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage and skill during repeated bombing missions during the war.
After his tour of duty in Europe, Karr returned to Alabama and served as an instructor for new pilots in the Army Air Corps. In April 1945 Karr was flying a training mission in formation at 21,000 feet. The formation flew into a storm cloud, and soon Karr found his plane in trouble. His B-17 began to ice up but he could not veer off to escape for fear of hitting other planes in the formation. The plane began to break apart, so at 16,000 feet he ordered his 10 crewmates to bail out. Karr remained with the plane to stabilize it, but at 6,000 feet it completely buckled. Karr was forced to jump out the front hatch and saw the plane explode below him. He survived the jump, as did his 10 crewmates. For his efforts he earned the Gold Caterpillar for a parachute landing from a disabled aircraft.
Karr repeatedly demonstrated his courage as a pilot, but even war heroes can have faint-hearted moments. In the late summer of 1944, in between his service in Europe and time as an instructor in Alabama, Karr took leave to pay an unannounced visit to his family in Rhinelander. He arrived on the early morning train and, expecting to surprise his parents, snuck into his boyhood home, crept into their bedroom, and yelled “Surprise!” But it was Karr who got the shock. His parents, who were hoping to surprise him, had moved while he was in Europe. The stunned couple in the bed thought they were being burgled. An embarrassed Lt. Karr made his apologies and quickly exited.