Carlson was born in Culver City, California, the son of Swedish immigrant Gustav Carlson. He graduated from North Park University in 1948, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Stanford in 1951, and finished medical school at George Washington University in 1956. After finishing medical school and five years of internship in Redondo Beach, California, he met and married nurse Lois Lindblom of Menominee, Michigan.
After finishing his medical training and preparation in 1961, Carlson committed to go work in work in the Republic of the Congo, where he had the charge of a large hospital and overseeing the care of lepers. During this time, Carlson earned the nickname Monganga Paul, a name revealing a close and loving relationship with the local Congolese people. This work continued until the political unrest of the time reached them. In August 1964, rebels captured Stanleyville, now Kisangani and the Carlson family crossed the Ubangi river to seek refuge in the Central African Republic. Carlson, however, remained committed to his hospital and work in Wasolo, and he returned.
This final return placed him in the middle of the political unrest of the time, and he soon fell into the hands of the communist-inspired Congolese rebels. The rebels accused Carlson of being an American spy and took him as a hostage to Stanleyville. Carlson was held there for over a year and was mentally and physically tortured. When negotiations failed to release the American hostages held by the rebels, American paratroopers were flown in and the rebels panicked. Some rebels soldiers opened fire into a crowd, and Carlson and several others ran to a wall in hopes of escaping. Before Carlson scaled the wall, he urged a fellow missionary to go first, and as Paul was climbing the wall, he was shot and killed by rebel gun fire.
Carlson’s tombstone, in Wasolo, bears the inscription “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
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