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Aviation Pioneer and War Hero - Carl Christian von Paulsen
by William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, U.S. Coast Guard
May 12, 2016

To identify one of the many talented officers who have served in the U.S. Coast Guard, one need look no further than Carl Christian von Paulsen. A member of the “Greatest Generation,” von Paulsen experienced the largest technological leap ever known to a generation of Americans. He witnessed the transition from horse and buggy to the automobile, and aviation develop from the Wright “Flyer” to modern fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. During this rapid transition, von Paulsen relied on his resourcefulness and creativity to help shape early aviation to the needs of the 20th-century Coast Guard.

Descended from German nobility, von Paulsen developed into a very resourceful and self-sufficient young man with a spirit of adventure and a love of nature. A rugged individualist, he worked briefly in the logging camps of Northern California after graduating from Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, California.

It was from California that he sought appointment to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Academy and entered with the Class of 1913, which included Coast Guard aviation visionary Elmer Stone and a number of flag officers that led the Service into the 20th century. In June 1913, von Paulsen graduated from the Academy and received his commission as a third lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service. For the next five years, he served on board seven cutters, including a World War I tour as executive officer on board the cutter Morrill.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen (left), his dog “Brutus” and co-pilot Ensign Lawrence Melka, pose in front of their borrowed navy Vought UO-1 amphibian biplane at Gloucester, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of the von Paulsen family)
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Carl Christian von Paulsen (left), his dog “Brutus” and co-pilot Ensign Lawrence Melka, pose in front of their borrowed navy Vought UO-1 amphibian biplane at Gloucester, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of the von Paulsen family)

By the end of 1919, he began a series of flight schools that would result in his becoming one of the most highly trained aviators in the Service. At the navy's aviation school in Pensacola, Florida, von Paulsen received training in heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air aircraft, and torpedo planes. He graduated in 1920 with the designation of Naval Aviator (Seaplane) and received the Coast Guard designation of Aviator No. 6. Early in 1922, he returned to Florida, only this time he attended the U.S. Army Primary Flying School in Arcadia. He graduated in June and transferred to the Army's Advanced Bombardment Flying School in San Antonio, Texas, where he graduated with honors in December. Within the Service, his extensive background in aviation earned him the nickname “The Flying Dutchman.”

In between aviation schools, he served a brief tour at the Coast Guard's first air station, located at Morehead City, North Carolina. To prove the value of aviation to the Service, the Coast Guard had taken over this surplus naval air station and patrolled the shallow waters of the treacherous “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for ships in distress and menaces to navigation. However, by 1921, Congress cut funding for the Morehead base, effectively ending the Service's aviation mission.

Carl Christian von Paulsen's next assignment would alter his career and the course of Coast Guard aviation. In 1924, after completing all of his flight training and a tour on the new cutter Tampa, he assumed command of Coast Guard Section Base 7, located at Gloucester, Massachusetts. In his three-and-a-half-year tour of duty, von Paulsen instituted aggressive cutter patrols to enforce Prohibition and interdict smugglers. More importantly, he re-established Coast Guard aviation using a borrowed Navy Vought UO-1 seaplane and borrowed waterfront property to improvise a small air station.

With the UO-1, von Paulsen proved the value of Coast Guard aircraft for spotting rum runners as well as carrying out search and rescue missions. He also provided regular instruction for aviators; tested radio communications between aircraft, ships and ground stations; developed important aerial spotting techniques; and experimented with new aviation rescue technology. At Gloucester, von Paulsen demonstrated the importance of aircraft for the Coast Guard's law enforcement and search and rescue missions and, thereafter, aviation remained a permanent branch of the Service. Establishment of Coast Guard aviation on a permanent basis proved a monumental step in the history of the Service and military aviation in general.

As was customary at the time, aviator von Paulsen returned to sea duty. Once again, he fought the Rum Runners, only this time as commander of Coast Guard destroyer McCall, then as Destroyer Force Division 4 commander. He returned to aviation duty in 1930, first as commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Cape May, New Jersey, then as commander of the Coast Guard Air Station Miami.

On New Year's Day 1933, von Paulsen started out on what would become one of the Service's most famous aviation search and rescue missions and the first such mission to receive the Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Arcturus, one of several early Coast Guard amphibian aircraft given names rather than numeric designations. It was on board Arcturus that von Paulsen earned the first Gold Lifesaving Medal awarded for an aviation search and rescue mission. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Association)
Arcturus, one of several early Coast Guard amphibian aircraft given names rather than numeric designations. It was on board Arcturus that von Paulsen earned the first Gold Lifesaving Medal awarded for an aviation search and rescue mission. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Aviation Association)

At mid-day, von Paulsen and his crew took off from Miami in a Coast Guard seaplane to rescue a teenage boy blown offshore by a severe storm near Cape Canaveral. The aircraft met stiff headwinds, rain and low visibility during the rescue mission, but von Paulsen located the missing teenager adrift in a skiff 30 miles southeast of the Cape and managed to land the aircraft in seas of between 12 and 15 feet. The crew rescued the boy, but the aircraft had sustained wing damage during the landing and could not maintain flight thereafter.

Carl Christian von Paulsen taxied the aircraft toward shore while the seaplane lost its wings to the stormy seas. The amphibian's boat-shaped fuselage rode the waves comfortably and the crew and the survivor landed safely on the beach. Through his dogged determination and skillful handling of the seaplane, von Paulsen completed the mission and proved definitively the importance of aviation for search and rescue operations.

In addition to his vast aviation background, von Paulsen was an experienced Arctic sailor. During the first part of World War II, he served as deputy commander of the Greenland Patrol under Edward “Iceberg” Smith, another distinguished member of the Academy class of 1913.

With von Paulsen in command, Cutter Northland seized the German-controlled trawler Buskoe, the first enemy vessel captured in World War II, and a nearby Nazi weather station complete with codes and classified papers. von Paulsen later led a joint Army-Coast Guard task force to capture a second German weather station on Sabine Island, on Greenland's east coast. After one of the task force's two icebreaking cutters was damaged by ice, von Paulsen forged ahead with the Northland, finding the station and its supply ship recently destroyed by the Germans. von Paulsen's troops did capture one Nazi straggler, but a long-range aircraft had already evacuated the rest.

Carl Christian von Paulsen and all who knew him must have seen the irony of a German-American, who spoke fluent German and descended from German nobility, serving as deputy commander of the Greenland Patrol, which was responsible for clearing the kinsmen of his German ancestors from the frozen expanses of this Danish territory. For clearing Greenland's coast of German weather stations, von Paulsen received the Navy's Legion of Merit Medal and Denmark's Cross of the Order of Dannebrog.

After the Greenland Patrol, von Paulsen began the final chapter of his Coast Guard career, which found him sailing to destinations far from his Montana birthplace. In 1943, he served briefly on board the famous Coast Guard-manned attack transport USS Samuel Chase. From the Chase, he assumed command of the new Coast Guard-manned troop transport USS General George M. Randall.

Carl Christian von Paulsen saw the immense ship through commissioning, outfitting and shakedown cruise. In 1944 and early 1945, his ship ferried Allied troops between ports in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The highlight of this assignment was the humanitarian mission of carrying 5,000 Polish war orphans to a new home in New Zealand.

In June 1945, before the end of the Pacific War, von Paulsen retired due to health issues. He was fifty-four years old and had served thirty-five of those years in the Coast Guard. When he retired, he moved to South Florida and hung up his wings, having “used all my flight hours.” For the next 30 years, he devoted himself to his family and his lifelong interest in nature. He assisted the National Park Service in mapping the boundaries for the Florida Everglades and invested much of his spare time in the collection and cultivation of the rare and colorful Liguus tree snail, a variety of which (Liguus vonpaulseni) is named for him. It was due in part to his efforts that the Liguus snail was spared from extinction.

The story of von Paulsen's career is a lesson in adapting to change and getting the job done with the assets at hand. From his native Montana, he traveled to the four corners of the world. He also fought two world wars and a war against the Rum Runners, and he helped save countless lives.

Carl Christian von Paulsen also helped establish the role of aviation for military, law enforcement and humanitarian applications and helped nurture early Coast Guard aviation into an established branch of the Service. The life of von Paulsen is a testament to the character of individuals who serve in the Coast Guard. He was a member of the long blue line and he brought many unique qualities to the Service.

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