Born on the family farm near Hubbard, Oregon, Carl was always attracted to aviation. He learned to fly while attending college and soloed after merely 2½ hours of instruction; eight to ten hours is typical. He studied engineering at Oregon State College (now a university) and, in 1938, graduated as a lieutenant in the Army Reserve.
Carl resigned his commission to become a naval aviation cadet and received his "wings of gold" and Marine Corps commission in December 1939. His first posting was to Marine Fighting Squadron One (VMF-1) at Quantico, Virginia. After a year there, he was posted back to Pensacola as an instructor pilot helping to train the rapidly growing number of naval aviators, before receiving orders to the newly formed Marine Fighting Squadron 221 (VMF-221) at NAS North Island in San Diego, California.
The 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor found VMF-221 preparing to embark aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga for transport to Marine Corps Air Station Ewa on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The unit was rushed to Hawaii, then to Wake Island as part of the WI Relief Task Force, still aboard Saratoga. After the relief attempt was canceled, VMF-221 was deployed to Midway Atoll on Christmas Day, 1941. Carl's first combat occurred six months later during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942, when 15 of the 25 aircraft VMF-221 put into the air that morning were destroyed. Nevertheless, Carl was credited with destroying one enemy aircraft, a Mitsubishi Zero. All the survivors of VMF-221 were returned to Hawaii shortly after the battle.
After a short rest, Carl was reassigned to Marine Fighting Squadron 223 (VMF-223), led by former VMF-221 pilot Captain (later Major) John L. Smith. On August 20, VMF-223 was deployed to Guadalcanal, the first fighter unit ashore with the Cactus Air Force. Over the next two months, Carl became the Marines' first ace, running his tally to 16.5 victories, during which time he had to bail out once from a badly-damaged airplane. It is believed that on August 26 Carl shot down the famous Japanese Navy Tainan Kōkūtai ace Junichi Sasai over Henderson Field. When the squadron left Guadalcanal in October, Carl was America's second-ranking ace behind Major Smith.
In 1943, then Major Carl returned to the Pacific and led VMF-223 until the following summer. During combat in the Solomon Islands, he claimed two more enemy planes, finishing as the Corps' seventh ranking ace with 18.5 victories.
In 1945, Carl graduated in the first test pilot class at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. As a lieutenant colonel, he conducted pioneering jet operations from aircraft carriers and later commanded VMF-122, the first Marine jet squadron.
In 1947, Carl was one of two pilots selected to fly the Douglas D-558/I Skystreak in record-setting speed attempts. That August, he was recorded at 650 miles per hour (1,050 km/h), establishing a new world record for a conventional aircraft. When Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October, he also broke Carl's record.
At Patuxent River on April 1, 1952, Carl had a close brush with death. He was performing a series of check spins in the new Grumman AF-2S Guardian anti-submarine attack aircraft. The anti-spin parachute that had been fitted in earlier tests had been removed. Climbing to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) over Chesapeake Bay, Carl commenced the spin. The aircraft entered a flat spin with strong centrifugal forces. Carl could not break the spin and rode it down to 4,000 ft (1,200 m). He tried to operate the ejection seat, but the face blind ripped away in his hands and the seat failed to fire. He climbed out at 3,000 feet (910 m). He then tried the wind-tunnel approved method of getting out on the inside of the spin, but was forced back due to airflow. He finally got out on the other side and felt his parachute open as he fell into the splash of the aircraft. The success of this proved bailing out on the inside of the spin to avoid being hit by the tail was an incorrect theory.
During a second test pilot tour in 1953, Carl set an unofficial altitude record of 83,000 feet (25,000 m) in the Douglas D-558/II.
Between test pilot duties, Carl commanded other units including a reconnaissance squadron based on Taiwan. In 1954, he led missions over Mainland China, photographing Communist forces along the coast. After his death, an incorrect version of his reconnaissance missions appeared in several obituaries, stating that he had flown U-2 spy planes.
Though still a colonel, Carl became Director of Marine Corps Aviation for five months in 1962. In 1964 he was promoted to brigadier general; in 1965, he took the First Marine Brigade to Danang, South Vietnam. Despite his seniority, he repeatedly flew combat missions in helicopter gunships and jet fighters.
Carl received his second star as a major general in 1967, commanding the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina from 1968 to 1970. He subsequently served as Inspector General of the Marine Corps, until retiring in 1973. By then he had logged some 13,000 flying hours, more than twice as much as most contemporaries.
Carl returned to his native Oregon, where he and his wife Edna settled near Roseburg. Marion Carl's memoir, Pushing the Envelope, coauthored with his friend Barrett Tillman, was published in 1994. In 1998, at age 82, he was shot to death with a shotgun during a robbery, defending Edna from a home invader. Carl was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
His murderer, 19-year-old Jesse Fanus, was apprehended one week later. In April 1999, he was convicted on two counts of aggravated murder (and 11 additional felony charge) and sentenced to death. In 2003, his conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. In December 2011, the sentence was overturned based on the prisoner's inadequate legal representation; a new sentencing session was expected in 2015. Fanus was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on May 7, 2015.
Carl's decorations include (having declined any personal medals for service in Vietnam):In 1992 Carl was inducted into the Lancaster Aerospace Walk of Honor.
On July 21, 2001, Carl was enshrined at Dayton, Ohio, in the National Aviation Hall of Fame class of 2001, along with North American X-15 pilot Joe Engle, USAF ace Robin Olds, and Albert Ueltschi.
In 1984, 1986, 1989, and 1992, Carl was honored at the Air Command and Staff College's Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Air Base, Montgomery Alabama. This program encourages the study of airpower history by emphasizing the contributions of air and space pioneers.
Roseburg Regional Airport, in Roseburg, Oregon, was named the Marion E. Carl Memorial Field in his honor.
MATSG-23 holds an annual "Mud Run" in honor of Carl at the Naval Air Station, Lemoore, California. The 5-mile run includes mud pits, climbing walls, and other military obstacles to challenge the runners. The 13th Annual Mud Run was held on June 6, 2006.
The airfield at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay was named for Carl.