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Bob Lind, Published November 10 2012

Lind: North Dakota man’s military story extends through two wars

Theodore “Joe” Mertes, 89, was buried last July at Mantador, N.D., with full military honors, topped by a flyover by a P-51 Mustang fighter.

It was an appropriate tribute. Joe had flown a version of the P-51 as a charter member of the North Dakota Air National Guard.

But that was only part of Joe’s military story. It’s one that extends through two wars.

A Happy Hooligan

Joe lived most of his life at Mantador. He was born on a farm there in 1922 and attended a parochial school there. He attended Hankinson (N.D.) High School, graduating in 1940.

When he was 19, Joe joined the Navy during World War II. He took pilot training and flew training aircraft at Northfield, Minn., and at Wold-Chamberlain Field, Minneapolis.

He then was transferred to Pensacola, Fla., to qualify in flying the Hellcat, the fighter that shot down 75 percent of the Japanese aircraft during the war.

Joe eventually was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, where he had a notable experience: He was the pilot who made the 25,000th landing on the Lexington. For that, his squadron was awarded a cake.

After the war, he attended North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University). While still in college, he resigned his Navy commission and became a charter member of the 178th Fighter Squadron of the North Dakota Air National Guard, also known as the Happy Hooligans, and flew the F-51, a beefed-up version of the P-51.

No question he also was flying high in 1948. That’s when he married Esther Puetz.

He continued his education at NDAC. But then the Korean War broke out, and the Guard was activated.

Joe was checked out in an F-86 Sabre jet and went to Korea for a year.

After his return to the U.S., he flew C-47s out of Peterson Field, Colorado Springs, Colo. He later served at the Grand Forks Air Force Base and at Keesler Air Force Base, Mo., then was named commander, and the only pilot, at the air station at Antigo, Wis.

After other assignments, he retired as a lieutenant colonel, and he and Esther retired to their Mantador farm in 1967.

Joe’s military legacy lived on through his children. A son flew a B-52 bomber, and a daughter served in the Air Force for many years.

All together, Joe and Esther had five children, 11 grandchildren, two great-granddaughters and a step-great-grandson.

They serve with honor

This story came to Neighbors through Terry Goerger, of Mantador, a friend of the Mertes family.

Joe, Terry writes, “was a great American and served this country with honor.”

Joe’s son Roger, of Detroit Lakes, Minn., says his father “was the only hero I’ve had in my life. I miss him.”

Joe’s story is one of several stories Neighbors has received about veterans. The others will be published later. All these stories are symbolic of the stories of all the veterans deserving special honor this Veterans Day.

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If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com