After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, government and military officials in the U.S. knew they needed to act swiftly and decisively against those responsible for the attacks. The plan that was put together, Operation Enduring Freedom, was to be largely implemented by a person with a proven track record of success — Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald, a Minot, N.D., native who had successful records in both sports and the military.
Wald was a standout athlete in high school and during the four years he was in college, the teams he played for never lost a game. As a freshman at North Dakota State University in 1967, he played football for the "Baby Bison." In 1968 and 1969, the Bison football teams had perfect records with 10 wins each season. In 1970, the Bison had nine wins, no losses and one tie.
When Wald graduated in 1971, the Vietnam War was still going on and, since he had been an active member of the Air Force ROTC, he became a commissioned officer. After receiving 11 months of pilot training, Wald was sent to Vietnam as an O-2A forward air controller.
Charles "Chuck" Francis Wald was born in July 1948 to Frank and Richardina (Gange) Wald in Minot, where Frank was a telegraph operator and dispatcher for the Great Northern Railway Co. Chuck attended Catholic parochial schools Little Flower Elementary School and Bishop Ryan High School.
Wald played high school basketball for two different legendary coaches, who made names for themselves at the national level: Ron Earhart and Dale Brown. Earhart was Wald's coach during his freshman year in basketball and football, but left after that year to become an assistant football coach at NDSU. Brown became Wald's coach on the varsity basketball team where he played forward.
Brown told me there was something special about Wald that stood out. He said, "Wald was a listener," whenever Brown talked about strategy or the dynamics of the game. Wald not only heard what his coach was telling him, but also incorporated what he heard as to how it applied to him and knew exactly what he needed to do on the basketball floor. Brown likened Wald to Shaquille O'Neal, another player he coached.
Wald was a good basketball player, but football was his best sport. He was so good he received a scholarship offer to play football at Notre Dame for Coach Ara Parseghian.
In the meantime, Earhart had become head football coach at NDSU and he was not about to let Wald slip through his fingers. Earhart made a trip to Minot where he cornered Wald in the school cafeteria. According to Jeff Kolpack in a 2019 article for The Forum, Wald reported that Earhart said to him, "I know you’re thinking about Notre Dame, but I want you to go to NDSU," and he asked Wald if he "wanted to be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond."
Wald responded, "Coach, I don’t want to be a fish, but I will play at North Dakota State with you.” That decision proved to become even better when Wald's girlfriend, Marilyn Poole, also decided to attend NDSU.
Marilyn's father was Lt. Col. Charles D. Poole, an instructor pilot of the 723rd Bomb Squadron at the Minot Air Force Base. Poole earned numerous awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Presidential Unit Citation. He was someone who Wald admired, and likely influenced him to also become an Air Force pilot.
During his freshman year at NDSU, Wald was a star player for the Baby Bison that trounced its opponents. When he returned to school in the fall of 1968, Wald was tabbed to be a primary wide receiver on the team. In September, the Bison won their first three games, outscoring their opponents 91-13, and the Associated Press ranked them No. 3 in the nation in their poll of small college football teams.
On Sept. 28, the third game of the season, Wald established an NDSU record by catching 13 passes. The first big test for the team was to come on Oct. 5, when the Bison were to travel to Vermillion to challenge undefeated University of South Dakota.
The day before the game, Wald received the devastating news that Poole had been killed in a plane crash. Poole was piloting a B-52 Stratofortress jet bomber on a return to the Minot Air Force Base when the combustion chamber of the plane's engine shut down, causing the jet to crash. Poole stayed at the controls of the aircraft until the other members of the crew had ejected and, by the time it was his turn to eject, it was too late. Saddened, but determined, Wald played in that game as NDSU won 35-13 and moved up to No. 2 in the AP rankings.
The Bison finished the regular season 9-0 and then defeated Arkansas State 23-14 in the Pecan Bowl. When the 1969 season began, the AP ranked the Bison No. 1 in the nation, and they kept that ranking all season by going undefeated. On Dec. 14, NDSU played the University of Montana in the Camellia Bowl, and won 30-3.
Big things were predicted again for the Bison in 1970, and they were stunned to only tie Eastern Michigan in the season opener. However, the team quickly came back together and won the next nine games. At season's end, Wald had established a team record by catching 91 passes during his Bison career.
With the season over, Chuck and Marilyn got married and waited to see where he would end up in the NFL draft. Despite his amazing football career at NDSU, most NFL teams likely avoided picking Wald early because of his commitment to the Air Force. In the 14th round, Wald was selected by the Atlanta Falcons.
Wald graduated early in 1971 and, on Feb. 3, was commissioned as second lieutenant through the NDSU Air Force ROTC program. He was then sent to the Williams Air Force Base, 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Ariz., where he was trained to become a pilot. Following 11 months of training, Wald was assigned to the Da Nang Air Base, in South Vietnam, where he served in combat conditions as an O-2A forward air controller. Wald piloted a smaller Skymaster plane and located airstrike sites, which he communicated to fighter or bomber pilots. He was also involved in search and rescue efforts.
Wald was promoted to first lieutenant on Aug. 3, 1972, and on Jan. 23, 1973, a peace agreement was signed allowing the U.S. to withdraw its troops from South Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, Wald returned stateside and, in May, he was sent to the Craig Air Force Base, near Selma, Ala., to be an Air Force pilot instructor and wing flight examiner.
In Vietnam, Wald had his first wartime exposure and, during the next 30 years, he would become directly involved in the planning and implementation of every major military combat action taken by this country.
We will continue the story of Chuck Wald next week.
Correction: Last week's column about the history of Winona, N.D., incorrectly said the former town is now covered by Lake Oahe. Instead, it is now an island in the lake.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.