Famous Veterans: Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson, Host of the Tonight Show

The king of late-night TV for over three decades, Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, on October 23, 1925. He was working as a theater usher when World War II began. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 8, 1943, as an apprentice seaman enrolled in the V-5 program, which trained Navy and Marine pilots.

He hoped to train as a pilot, but was sent instead to Columbia University for midshipman training. He performed magic for classmates on the side.

Commissioned an ensign late in the war, Carson was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania, a battleship on station in the Pacific. He was en route to the combat zone aboard a troopship when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a close.

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The Pennsylvania was torpedoed on August 12, 1945 and Carson reported for duty on the 14th — the last day of the war. Although he arrived too late for combat, he got a firsthand education in the consequences of war. The damaged warship sailed to Guam for repairs, and as the newest and most junior officer, Carson was assigned to supervise the removal of 20 dead sailors.

He later served as a communications officer in charge of decoding encrypted messages. He recalls that the high point of his military career was performing a magic trick for Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

After serving in the Navy, Carson attended and graduated from the University of Nebraska. After college, he worked for various radio and television shows in California. In 1962, Carson became the permanent host of the Tonight Show. He went on to host the show for thirty years, and became one of the most recognizable television personalities.

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