On July 11, 1942, Charlie and Mable Mitson, both 17, said “I do” in a tiny church in Coeur d’Alene. “I married an older woman,” Charlie jested. “She was born in July of 1924 and I was born in September.”
The two had met at church, but their first impressions of each other weren’t promising. Charlie said, “I thought, boy what a skinny kid that is. I’d hate to be seen with her.”
Mable wasn’t impressed with him either. “He was just another boy,” she said. “It took awhile before I realized he might have some prospects.”
As part of a small congregation, they were often thrown together, and in this case familiarity did not breed contempt, it bred lasting affection. “There wasn’t an actual proposal, just a mutual agreement,” Charlie said.
After graduation he landed a $40 per week job at the newly opened Farragut Naval Station. Charlie said, “I decided I could afford to get married.”
In June 1943, he received a draft notice. He recalled the words with a smile: “Your friends and neighbors have selected you to represent them on the field of battle… .”
Charlie said goodbye to Mable and their infant son, Larry, and left to serve his country. He’d always wanted to be a pilot. “I had a cousin who was a lady pilot. She was my inspiration and ideal.”
However, his recruiter convinced him the fastest way to flight school was to enlist as a paratrooper. “That turned out to be another recruiting story,” he said with a wry grin. “I spent the entire war as a paratrooper in Europe.”
He battled all the way through France and fought near Anzio Beach and in the Battle of the Bulge. “It was pretty chaotic,” Charlie said. “A lot of people shooting in all directions, with German and American tanks – a lot of people lost their lives.”
Mable said, “I remember him telling me, ‘You just had to go over the dead and dying and keep moving.’ ”
Charlie counts himself lucky. His only injury came from a piece of shrapnel that struck his leg. He shrugged. “They put a bandage on it and I just kept going.”
Finally, in December 1945, he returned home. “I met him at the train station in Spokane,” recalled Mable. “It had been about a year and a half since I’d seen him – I wondered if I’d recognize him.” She beamed at the memory. “But I did. Oh, I did!”
Likewise, her husband remembers his first glimpse of her after their long separation. “I saw her standing on the staircase.” Though the station must have bustled with travelers, Charlie said, “As I remember, she was the only one there.”
Though the war was over, Charlie still dreamed of flying. He used the G.I. Bill to take flight instruction and earned his commercial pilot’s license.
A second son joined the family, and in 1948, Charlie discovered that the Air Force was looking for cadets and had briefly opened the program to married men. With his wife’s blessing he signed up.
“He loved flying,” Mable said. “And I was happy with whatever he liked to do. It opened up a world of excitement and travel.”
Charlie graduated as a second lieutenant in 1950 and the family embarked on a series of moves – 22 in 29 years. “Traveling with the little boys was exciting and terrifying,” said Mable, laughing. “But you go where they tell you to go.”
And for Charlie that meant Korea. “I flew F-86 Sabres in Korea. That was the finest aircraft the Air Force ever had.”
During his 100 missions over the course of the war, Charlie shot down and was credited for 2 1/2 MiG’s (Russian-made fighter jets). Fortunately, he returned home unscathed. “The only way you can get along in that kind of business is to feel that you’re invincible,” he said.
Like most pilots he had his talismans – a piece of scripture torn from his mother’s Bible and a silver dollar. “I carried them with me through Korea and Vietnam.”
In 1952, Mable gave birth to their third son and still managed to keep up with the constant relocations. She said, “I followed him everywhere.”
Eventually, two daughters completed the busy family. While stationed in the Mediterranean, Charlie paid a visit to southern France. He said, “I even found an old foxhole I’d dug 10 years earlier!”
All too soon, America was at war again. Charlie flew 100 missions over Vietnam. He shook his head. “I was a 42-year-old grandpa flying fighters into the most heavily defended area in the world.”
And the nature of battle had changed. “We had to deal with a lot of anti-aircraft fire,” he said.
Surface-to-air missiles took a devastating toll. “We lost aircraft almost every day,” said Charlie. “I went over as a flight leader, but we kept losing people. We eventually lost our squadron commander.”
Charlie took his place and was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
When his missions were completed, once again he rejoined his family. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel at age 54, and he and Mable settled in Spokane. After working for six years as a Realtor, he officially retired from working life: kind of.
“I can’t keep up with him,” Mable said.
Since 1988, Charlie has volunteered with the Spokane Police Department. “My partner is 85 and I’m 86,” he said, grinning. He’s also a member of the Lions and the Gideons.
For those who want to know the secret to a long and happy marriage, the Mitsons offered these words of wisdom. “Make sure you have a good solid friendship before you get married,” Charlie said. “We’ve had a very loving 68 years together.”
Mable smiled at her husband and said, “You’ve got to trust each other and not doubt. I’ve always had a positive attitude. Wherever he was I always knew he was coming home.”