The first time Lt. Commander Ray Wicklander, who is now 96, saw a plane it was flying over the family farm southeast of Washburn and, from that moment, he knew he wanted to fly.

“I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” said Wicklander.

Wicklander was going to college at what is now North Dakota State University. A friend of his had enlisted in the Navy two or three years earlier, working as a landing signal officer on an aircraft carrier. Following suit, Wicklander joined in July 1941 at age 20.

Five months later, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Very quickly, he received a letter telling him to report for duty in Minneapolis within 10 days.

He hitchhiked to the Navy station, getting as close to the gate as possible and then wallowing through waist deep snow in January. He arrived with 10 other guys.

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Wicklander said the base commander told him. “But we’ll find something for you to do.”

Wicklander would be rerouted by train to New Orleans for three months and, from there, to Pensacola, Fla.

“That was taken happily,” he said of the transfer to warmer climates.

During training, Wicklander flew a yellow open-cockpit biplane, the Stearman N2S, nicknamed the Yellow Peril. Then he trained on the Brewster Buffalo, a small Navy fighter whose landing gear and flaps had to be cranked up and down by hand. To teach Wicklander and others to land on an aircraft carrier, the Navy converted an old coal-burning paddle-wheel passenger ship.

With two-weeks’ leave, Wicklander married his high school sweetheart, Peggy, in 1943. She took a bus to San Diego, where he was stationed, and they married at a friend's place.

“It was just two friends and a preacher,” he said.

Wicklander was transferred to Hawaii three months later, catching a ride on a cruise ship: “We were treated like tourists.”

His next transport was a carrier heading for Guadalcanal with about 3,000 other soldiers, then to Espiritu Santo and Noumea in New Caledonia. He and other pilots were sent to bomb islands still held by Japanese troops through much of 1943.

It was during this time his plane was hit while on a mission to bomb freighters and tankers. An enemy plane got on his tail and shot through the aerial antenna before a fellow pilot shot the other plane down.

Wicklander returned to Los Alamitos in October 1943 and started flying the new dive bomber, the single-engine Helldiver. With Air Group 19, he was sent aboard the U.S. Lexington for Hawaii, continuing training until July 1944.

The first combat missions were launched against Guam then Palau, Bonins, Kazans and Iwo Jima. By September, Wicklander was flying strikes against Peleliu and the Philippines.

Wicklander, who flew right wing in a three-plane formation, said they would fly the planes at 10,000- to 12,000-feet altitude then dive hard to hit their target.

“We were diving at terrific speeds,” he said.

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On Nov. 5, 1944, Wicklander and about 15 pilots were on one of the catwalks of the Lexington when Japanese kamikaze planes attacked. He had just moved from the starboard to aft side of the crowded catwalk when a plane struck, its bomb exploding. When the smoke cleared, the catwalk was gone, as were the men he had just been standing next to. In total 46 men died and 146 men were wounded.

The attack left Wicklander with flash burns on his body and two blown-out eardrums.

The Lexington is now parked in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a museum.

After the war, Wicklander would go into business with his father in Washburn at a Kaiser Frazer dealership and then opened a Case farm implement dealership. His shop would be the first in the area to sell a combine.

“Everybody had to come and see,” he said.

He would also operate a blacksmith shop, a bowling alley and later raised buffalo on the farm his Swedish grandparents had homesteaded in 1882.

Wicklander and his wife had four children, three daughters and a son. His son now lives on the old farm with his family, still raising buffalo.

Wicklander and his wife also loved to travel — first to Sweden to see where his grandparents came from, then to Norway.

“We just kept on traveling and traveling,” said Wicklander, who gathered coins from each place they visited, including England, France, Ireland, Poland and Germany.

Wicklander kept flying after the war, a little Piper Cub that he would fly to Canada to go fishing or hunt moose.

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Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com