MUSKEGON – As a young man growing up in the shadow of World War II, Bill Paulson did not expect to be drafted into the military.
He graduated from Muskegon High School in 1945, just as the war in Europe and the Pacific was coming to an end.
But the military draft still existed, even after the shooting ended, and Paulson’s number was indeed called.
Two different times, in fact.
The first time came as a total surprise, because he was initially given a draft deferment, due to his vision, when he reported for a mandatory pre-draft physical exam in Detroit.
Yet somehow he was still drafted into the U.S. Army, despite his eyesight, in 1946. He went through basic training and was deployed to Italy, which was occupied by Allied forces following the defeat of the Mussolini government.
Paulson only served nine months of that deployment before he was discharged, went home, finished his studies at Muskegon Business College and earned a degree in finance from the University of Michigan.
But a few years later, in 1952, he was drafted again after the Korean War erupted. Under the law, he was eligible to be called up a second time because he hadn’t completed a full tour of duty.
He once again served in Europe, this time in Austria, where he spent a full two-year deployment.
A lot of people would have been pretty upset about having their lives interrupted twice for military service, but Paulson never raised a fuss.
He grew up in a time when service to country meant exactly that, and when the call came, you responded.
“I guess I had to take it and like it,” said Paulson, now 95, a retired Muskegon High School teacher who was selected to drop the ceremonial first puck at Friday’s Muskegon Lumberjacks game on Military Night, which coincides with Veteran’s Day this year. “I didn’t try to get out of it at all.”
Paulson never saw combat, but had more than his share of interesting experiences while serving overseas.
During his initial deployment in Italy, he started out as a guard at a prison for wayward American GI’s. One imprisoned soldier he was assigned to guard had murdered his platoon leader, so Paulson didn’t find that job very appealing at all.
Luckily the prison needed a clerk and Paulson lucked into that position, which involved regular 9-5 hours and weekends off. As a big history buff, he used his free time to travel around Italy and other points in Europe, visiting sights he had only read and dreamed about as a young man.
His second stint in the Army started out on a bizarre note, because he was assigned to train as a cook or baker following another round of basic training.
He explained to the officers that he had a degree in finance from U-M, luckily one listened, and he was assigned to the Army’s finance school, which led to his deployment in Vienna.
At the time Vienna was separated into different zones, with different Allied nations controlling each one. He said the Russians did not like soldiers from other nations wandering into their zone, which Paulson inadvertently did one day. He was greeted by a Soviet soldier pointing a gun and quickly withdrew.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and got out of there!” Paulson said.
Paulson was close to the end of his service when a letter arrived from his father, longtime Muskegon High School teacher Harvey Paulson.
His dad was passing along a message from a fellow teacher who knew he was stationed in Vienna. That teacher had befriended two Austrian girls who spent the previous year as exchange students at Muskegon High School and thought it would be nice if Paulson reached out to them.
The second of the two girls he met was named Erika, and they hit it off and kept in touch after he left the service and went home.
They were married in Vienna on June 25, 1955 and returned to the U.S. to put down roots in Muskegon. They had two children, Liz and David (pictured with their parents in the top photo), and now have five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Today the Paulsons still live comfortably in their home in Muskegon’s Glenside neighborhood.
“Three weeks before I went home!” Paulson said, explaining how the letter from his dad arrived just in time for him to meet his wife.
Paulson tried his hand at a few different occupations after the service, but eventually followed in his father’s footsteps and became a teacher at Muskegon High School.
He taught from social studies and world history from 1959 until his retirement in 1985.
Paulson’s children still shake their heads when they talk about the timing of the letter that their dad received from his father in Vienna, all those years ago.
His daughter Liz Johnson put it this way:
“I always felt like it was a little unique, and kind of unfair, that my father was drafted twice, but it was so very fortunate that it happened, or I wouldn’t be here!” she said.
“What if my dad hadn’t been disqualified when he first had to go to Detroit for the Army intake process? He would have served long enough in that first stint and wouldn’t have been redrafted during the Korean War.
“What if the Army decision-makers had decided that a ‘Michigan man’ with a degree in business finance was really a better choice for cook and baker school and he hadn’t been able to talk his way into finance school? Would he have ended up in Vienna? Hardly.”
Johnson also notes that her mother was originally assigned to be an exchange student in Ohio, but through circumstances ended up at Muskegon High School, which of course led to her introduction to Bill.
“There are many ‘God winks’ in my parents’ story,” she said.
Liz Johnson said her dad was always beloved by his students, and countless others in the community whose lives he touched over the years.
“I have friends I went to Muskegon High School with who tell me, even now, that my dad was their favorite teacher,” she said. “My dad has been a kind, humble and faithful man his whole life. His parents set that example for him – do good for others, and don’t call attention to yourself.
“I took my dad to his dental appointment yesterday, the dental assistant came in, saw my dad, and told me he was her favorite patient. I kidded her and said, ‘Oh I bet you say that to all your patients.’ She firmly told me, no, she doesn’t. Then the dentist came in, saw my dad and said, ‘Oh, one of my favorite patients.’ That’s the kind of person my dad is.”
Johnson noted that her father recently had a stroke that has limited his ability to communicate, but he’s otherwise very mentally alert and as active as any 95-year-old could hope to be.