ANDERSON COUNTY — Inside a shadow box on Carl Ellison’s living room wall is an array of colorful ribbons and medals. In the middle of that box are two sets of small metal wings.
Those are wings that Ellison, 88, earned.
“I’ve always been interested in airplanes,” Ellison said. “From the time I was a kid, I’d always wanted to fly.”
World War II gave him the opportunity to do just that.
On Dec. 12, 1942, about two years after he’d finished high school in Williamston, he traveled to Spartanburg with two other buddies to sign up for the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force. They had to take a test. Ellison was the only one who passed. He was sworn in that day, and by Feb. 21, 1943, he was called to active duty.
For the next two years, he served the Air Corps, in the 91st Squadron. He was assigned to the 439th troop carrier, and learned how to fly every aircraft that the Air Corps had.
Two of those planes, the C-47s and the gliders, would become second-nature to him by the end of the war.
He traveled all over the South for pre-flight training. For most of his training, he and his wife, Hazel, were able to spend time together, and even live together on the bases. But by October 1944, he received orders to report to Maxton, N.C. This time, he couldn’t take Hazel, and could not tell her where he was going.
All he could say was that he had to report to North Carolina and she couldn’t come with him. They had a week together, before he had to board a bus and head north.
“When I kissed her and left her at the bus station, it was one of the most difficult days of my life,” Ellison wrote in a memoir about Hazel, after she died in 2008.
The two met in a ninth-grade study hall at Williamston High School, he said. He noticed her right away and can still remember where they were sitting in that room. By the end of the study hall, Ellison said he made it a point to meet her.
For 64 years, they were married. In that memoir, Ellison said it was the letters he received from Hazel that gave him strength in the midst of the fighting around him.
The memories of the time they shared together were the only thing he had to cling to as he flew more than 60 missions — many of them in the midst of anti-aircraft fire.
In one mission, Ellison said about half of the planes in the mission were lost as Germans shot them down.
“The Germans had closed up a corridor that we thought was open,” Ellison said. “We were trying to drop supplies in to the 101st Airborne. We took fire and in about five minutes, they put a big dent in our squadron.”
By that Christmas, he was sleeping in a four-man tent in a foot of snow, because the Germans had bombed out the barracks at their base in France, Ellison said.
In his memoir, he said this day was a bad day for him.
“I did not have to fly that day and I was sitting alone in our four-man tent with about 18 inches of snow on the ground,” he wrote. “I had nothing to do but think of the past.”
Before that day ended, something else would happen that would change his experience in the war. A plane crashed shortly after take-off, killing everybody on board, including 25 glider pilots.
For the first time during the war, Ellison was assigned to fly something else besides a C-47. He had to fly a glider as Gen. George Patton made his push across the Rhine River.
Ellison had to land behind enemy lines to try and get some artillery to the troops on the ground.
“Glider pilots were getting killed left and right,” Ellison said. “Now, they call that a suicide mission. You were scared all the time. You never did get used to flying and getting shot at.”
As he landed behind enemy lines, Ellison was just a few feet from a German 88-mm, an anti-tank gun.
“It just so happened that I landed 10 or 12 steps too far to the left,” Ellison said. “He couldn’t hit me from where I was at.”
For a week, he and several others were stranded behind enemy lines. The British troops were cut off and couldn’t get to them. They hadn’t packed enough rations for a week, so they had to live off the food they found at a nearby farm, Ellison said.
“I found a spot, dug a foxhole and stayed there that week,” Ellison said.
Ellison survived that week, but some of the details, he said are still too hard to talk about.
The following months would bring the end of the war. Ellison’s role would turn to flying into the concentration camps and prison camps run by the Germans. He flew prisoners out of Germany to where they could receive medical care, food and shelter.
“We brought some out who were just skin and bones,” Ellison said. “We saw some terrible sights over there.”
By the late summer of 1945, Ellison, who made it to second lieutenant, was allowed to return home to his beloved wife, Hazel. In just those few months, he’d earned those wings.
“I had a lifetime of experiences in that year and a half,” Ellison said. “I wouldn’t take anything for the experience but I wouldn’t go through it again for anything either.”