The Minister's Legacy: Town Historian Article of July

Date: July 1, 2019

The Minister’s Legacy

By Judy Giguere

Plymouth Town Historian


Reverend Thomas (Thorsten) Alpine Carlson knew from his youth that the ministry was the right vocation for him even though he came from a family of adventurers.  His parents emigrated from Norway and young Thomas was born July 9, 1865 in Alpine County California. His parents so loved the beautiful area that Thomas’s middle name was taken from the name of the county.


Carlson evenings were spent reliving the accomplishments of family members.  Thomas’s grandfather was a ’49, panning for gold in the California Gold Rush.  His Uncle Matt was a United States Marshall in Fairbanks, Alaska.  Joetta, his wife, was descended from Welsh kings.  Tales of Indian war parties, wagon trains, new states forming and of an ancestor of Joetta that was on General George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War were very familiar to young Thomas and shared with his own children as they grew up. Evans Fordyce Carlson, the first born of Thomas and Joetta’s four children wanted adventures of his own and to earn his place in family history.


When Thomas Alpine Carlson was a young man, his parents moved the family to a deeply religious Norwegian community in Wisconsin. The extended family taught Thomas strict religious tenants but it did not deter his faith, it increased it.  In 1890 Thomas entered the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Later he transferred to Auburn, New York where theology was less severe.  His first church was Sidney, New York but his parishioners were not satisfied with his gentler theology. He moved to a church in Middlebury, Vermont. While in Middlebury, the 1918 Influenza epidemic struck.  Not only were his parishioners deeply affected, but his own family.  Son Charles Dana Carlson, born January 25, 1899 and died in the epidemic.  Evans had run away and joined the Army, daughter Karen was married and young Tom, Jr. was still at home. Joetta was frequently sick and Reverend Thomas‘s faith was shaken.


Reverend Thomas served at a church in Shoreham, Vermont near Lake Champlain.  The world of the early part of the 20th century was changing fast.  It was confusing.  Rules of his generation seemed to have disappeared. He tried hard to work it out in solitude but with great difficulties within his own home he found it nearly impossible.  He contracted typhoid and was very sick for several months. His faith would soon be restored in new religious books of the day. Slowly, he regained his momentum and he served at churches in Dracut, Massachusetts, Peacham and lastly to the First Congregational Church of Plymouth, Connecticut from 1926 to 1944.


He chose to retire in 1944, his personal strength fading. He had lost his wife, a son during the 1918 influenza epidemic, daughter Karen was far away with a family of her own and Evans was by this time,  serving in the Marines. Reverend Thomas Alpine Carlson died April 14, 1953 in Plymouth and is buried beside his wife Joetta; son Thomas Olney Carlson and his wife, Reka in West Cemetery, Plymouth.


The Carlson’s first born son Evans was a man with a dream – which he fully intended to see to its fruition. He had joined the Army before he was old enough to enlist by lying about his age. His parents were notified and reluctantly gave permission for his enlistment.  He served in the Philippines and Hawaii, discharged as a first sergeant.  He enlisted again and served in the Mexican expedition. During World War I he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action. He became second lieutenant in 1917, made captain of field artillery, later serving in Germany with the Army of Occupation.  He was discharged in 1921.


In between enlistments in the Army and the Army Reserves, Evans married his landlord’s daughter, Dorothy Secombe. The Secombe family were devout Christians which fit with Evans own strong faith that he learned from his minister father. Evans and Dorothy’s son, Evans C. Carlson was born October 1, 1917 in Cochise Arizona, later also serving in the Marines.  The couple soon divorced and Evans, after his discharge from the Army was unsure of his direction. After working a variety of jobs, he went back to the military. 


Evans, the minister’s son, inherited his father’s drive to follow his heart. This time he enlisted in the Marines as a private in 1922.  He served in Quantico, Puerto Rico, the Pacific Fleet and Shanghai China.  In 1930 he served in Nicaragua. Evans Fordyce Carlson continued to rise through the ranks. After returning to the Unites States, Captain Carlson served as executive officer of the Marine Corps Detachment at President Roosevelt’s alternative White House in Warm Springs, Georgia.  He became friends with the President and his son, Jimmy.  After Warm Springs, he served in Shanghai then China.  He learned the Chinese Language, returning to Quantico and studied International Law and Politics.  He posted again in 1937 as military adviser to the Chinese forces.


China had, for centuries, been a feudal society until the population rebelled and the government collapsed. Many rebellions followed with civil war to determine a form of government or follow a Communist model.  Carlson had a unique opportunity to study China in its struggles and meet with its leaders: Deng Xiaoping, Zho Enlai and Mao Zedong. The Marines again promoted Evans, this time to the rank of major.


In early World War II, he was in command of the Second Marine Raider Battalion as a lieutenant colonel.  His years in China and Asia gave him new ideas about military tactics.  He proposed the creation of a unit that became known as “Carlson’s Raiders.” It was to be his greatest success yet. Evans Carlson, son of a small town minister, was about to completely change the entire thought process of Marine training!


Carlson, through his time spent overseas, learned that the units performed better when they were given conviction of their mission and to understand what they were fighting for. Each man was hand-picked and personally interviewed by Carlson or Jimmy Roosevelt.  The nine man squad was changed to ten – three sets of three and a leader with heavy firepower.  These were called “fire teams”. Training consisted of a fifty-mile hike every day, constant training, the rifle always at their side, including Lieutenant Colonel Carlson.   Each man learned to assemble his rifle and take it apart – blindfolded. Evans also trained the unit to work together without fear or favor, envy or contempt. To this training, he added a phrase he learned in China, “Gung Ho” which meant “working together.”


The test of these new fire teams would be an assault on Makin Island, a small but strategically important Japanese occupied island in the Pacific Gilbert Islands. August 9, 1942 the teams boarded the U.S.S. Nautilus and the U.S.S. Argonaut and left Pearl Harbor for Makin Island. The plan was to land on Makin at night and do as much damage to the Japanese forces as possible. 


Lieutenant Colonel Carlson’s Makin Island mission was a success. An enemy garrison of three hundred was destroyed, two small transports, two radio stations, two sea planes and a troop ship headed to Guadalcanal was sunk. If the troop transport had successfully made it to Guadalcanal, the fate of the battle for the Pacific might have been very different.


Lieutenant Colonel Carlson’s concept of the fire teams would become part of the Marine Corps methodology. Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson continued to distinguish himself during World War II. He was awarded numerous medals and commendations, achieving the rank of general, earning his place in Carlson family lore and American history. General Carlson died May 27, 1947 and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. General Carlson always spoke fondly of Plymouth, Connecticut and of all the places he served, he said his heart belonged to Plymouth.