This series of postings shows the power of the web, and faith, and a freedom tree. The original posting was first published on my MSN Blog just prior to Memorial Day in 2005. Via my blog, Google, and a Freedom Tree planted at the end of the Vietnam War, some remarkable events were set in motion.
- June 14, 2007: Captain Danielson is Home
- May 26, 2007: Memorial Day 2007 - A Final Journey
- March 21, 2007: A Soldier / MIA Comes Home
Original Posting: Just prior to Memorial Day in 2005
As we head into the Memorial Day weekend in the USA, please pause and consider the purpose of this holiday. In addition, you will find updates at the bottom of this posting.
A few years ago, while serving our church in New Hope, Minnesota, I had a few minutes before a meeting. As it was a nice Spring day, I took a walk outside. I noticed that a large tree 40 yards from the church's main entrance had a small brass plaque. Upon closer inspection I discovered the tree was a "freedom tree" planted in the early 1970's for Captain Danielson, a Vietnam MIA.
I asked around the church, and now some 30+ years later, very little was know about this beautiful tree. Thus, started my web research. Captain Danielson paid the ultimate price. Here is an excerpt from his last mission: (he was shot down over Laos)
"Search and rescue (SAR) efforts were immediately initiated, however, all six attempts to secure the downed crewmen on the first day were driven back by heavy enemy ground fire, and all SAR operations were terminated at dusk. During the first day Lt. Bergeron saw Capt. Danielson twice and had radio contact with him all day and all night over their survival radios. Capt. Danielson advised Lt. Bergeron that he would only transmit by beeper if he thought the enemy was too close for voice transmission. Lt. Bergeron reported upon his recovery that roughly 45 minutes after daybreak on 6 December, he heard several beeper signals notifying him communists troops were in close proximity to Capt. Danielson's position. He also reported that he was close enough to observe several enemy soldiers searching the area that Ben Danielson was down in. The weapons systems officer reported that he believed that his pilot was captured around this time.
About an hour later, he heard several voices, then a volley of automatic weapons fire sounded followed by a scream that Lt. Bergeron believed was made by Capt. Danielson. After the activity across the river subsided, no further enemy searches were observed or heard other than at one point Lt. Bergeron heard what he thought sounded like a seat pack being dropped to the ground. SAR efforts resumed after first light on 7 December and the weapons systems officer was rescued at approximately 1200 hours and after spending nearly 50 hours on the ground in extremely hostile territory."
This past Christmas, the freedom tree ... now a beautiful 3 story high Ash shade tree, served as the backdrop for our living nativity at House of Hope Lutheran.
If you like to learn more about Captain Danielson's last mission, please follow these links:
Memorial Day is coming up in just a few weeks. Please honor those soldiers who by their sacrifice allow the rest of us to be free ...
Update #1: posted on Friday, May 26, 2005
1. Message for Captain Danielson's nephew (comment w/o email address - May 8th)
- Please contact me privately. Since my original posting, I have been in contact with a Major from your Uncle's outfit. He has a "reel to reel" recording of the Search and Rescue operations from the day your Uncle died. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
2. House of Hope of Hope Lutheran Church in New Hope, Minnesota
- Our Church news letter, which will be published in a few days features this posting, and additional information about the Freedom Tree
Update #2: Later on Friday, May 26, 2005
- Captain Danielson's family saw this new posting today, and contacted me privately. I have put them in contact with the Major who has the Search and Rescue tapes. This really proves the power of the following:
- God's Love and a Church's Freedom Tree - growing hope through the years
- Happy Memorial Day!
- God's Love and a Church's Freedom Tree - growing hope through the years
Update #3: Easter Day, April 16, 2006
- Captain Danielson's son, following in his Dad's footsteps, is a pilot with the USN. He is now over in Laos searching for his father's remains. Here is a link to a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune Article. (don't know how long the article will stay online)
Follow-Up Posting: Just prior to Memorial Day in 2006
I originally posted on this topic last Memorial Day. Given events over the past few months, revisiting last year's posting with updates is required. To make a long story short, because of House of Hope Lutheran Church's Freedom Tree planted in 1973 and dedicated to Captain Ben Danielson (MIA from the Vietnam war), and because of some amazing circumstances, I met via email Captain Danielson's son, who is also now a pilot for the United States Navy.
- Background Information - Last year's posting
A couple of week's ago, Captain Brian Danielson, sent me this email concerning his recent trip to Vietnam and Laos in search of his father's remains. With Captain Danielson's specific permission, I am posting his email in this blog.
Before you read the trip report, please reflect upon the ultimate sacrifice many service personnel make for our country. This is not an issue of politics.
Finally, Captain Danielson is the first surviving family member of a Vietnam MIA, who is also a member of the US armed forces to take part in an official remains recovery mission. I have included a few photographs at the end of this posting.
Captain Brain Danielson's Trip Report
From: brian danielson
Sent: Friday, April 21, 2006 2:56 AM
To: Hoeg, Rich
Subject: Danielson, Brian: Trip Report
Have written this email about ten times and cant do any more revisions. Pardon the length,but wanted you all to know. Take care and lets be in touch,
For those of you have heard about some of my recent exploits, I would like to send a quick update (which really isn't very quick at all). If you are busy at work feel free to move on, but if you have time allow me to build the picture
Here is a quick summary from my father's case as a Vietnam MIA, and as it pertains to my recent trip;
1991- His gun turned up in a museum in North Vietnam along with a painting of the battle that took place when they shot him down, the attempt to rescue him, and subsequent successful rescue of his backseater.
Summer of 2003- A piece of bone fragment, along with a set of dog tags, was turned in. The bone fragment turned out to have a positive match with my grandmother's DNA, and the dog tag was assessed to be his.
2005- A former North Vietnamese Anti-Aircraft Artillery battalion member was taken to a site where he reported to have seen an American pilot on the ground. The time frame and location was determined to be close enough to specifically relate to my father s case.
I guess, for a lack of a better way of putting it, there has been a renaissance of information coming out in reference to my Dad and his story. I recently found out that the airborne Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) of Boxer 22 (My Dad's aircraft callsign) was the not only the largest airborne CSAR effort of the war, but could arguably have been the largest CSAR in history. You can read about it in a web page that has been dedicated to it at; http://www.pjsinnam.com/VN_History/Boxer22/Boxer_22.htm
A man named Ron Lapointe has done an excellent job posting the story that needs to be told and serves as a great lesson in CSAR that can apply to any officer today.
I have also met with another outstanding individual Major General Daryle Tripp, who has compiled all the data from the rescue of my Dad s backseater and has written an excellent book in CD form. In 2001 when I was doing a training detachment in Nellis, he was there giving a presentation to the Weapons School about the rescue and giving out CDs. Unfortunately, I was unaware he was there because I was at another great meeting of another influence in my life, LtCol Stan Drozdz, who was my Dad s roommate. All who were at the presentation however, said the brief was excellent, the CD was a hot item, and the impression left was more than notable. I have copies for anyone who would be interested in reading it. For active duty aircrew, or anyone who is interesting in reading about the skill and bravery of select airborne heroes of Vietnam, I would strongly recommend it. The photos, along with the information enclosed in the book exist as critical pieces of reference material which were valuable not only for my trip but now for future efforts to successfully close the case. It was truly an honor to meet him and glean some important information that you could only learn from some one who has such an impressive resume as well as reputation.
There are myriad organizations working the POW/MIA issue. Last year at a convention for the National League of Families for POW/MIAs, I got the idea that I should spend some time to research all these new developments and see if they could start making sense. I found out that the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a military organization based in Hawaii, was planning to make a trip to Laos to dig the remains from the site where the North Vietnamese Officer had identified a body. I investigated ways to get orders for this trip called a Joint Field Activity (JFA), or excavation of remains. To make a long story short, (call me if you want more details) I just spent the last 40 days attached to JPAC and deployed to Khammoun Province, Boulapha District in the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos as an assistant to the team that was attempting to excavate my Father's remains.
After some pre-deployment training and enough shots to make me feel like a voodoo doll, I accompanied a team of a Forensic Anthropologist, an Officer in Charge, an NCO in charge, a doctor, a medic, a photographer, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert, a Life Support (flight equipment) specialist, a supply sergeant, 4 communications specialists, linguist, and an officer in charge and an NCO in charge-in training. If, say 20 years ago when I was working on the farm in Kenyon, Minnesota, you had told me that 20 years later I would be in Laos accompanied by Laotian nationals and soldiers and flying in a very old Russian helicopter, I would have probably escorted you to the nearest drug testing station. Without overstating the obvious, it was a very surreal experience and brought forth meaningful moments in many ways that I could never have imagined.
To make a short summary, I can say that the conditions were Spartan. Our guest house could be about as far from the Waldorf-Astoria as John Kerry from a young Republicans Convention (Insert DNC figure and appropriate meeting as fits your preference. Either way, a weak attempt at humor). The hole in the floor and measuring cup for a flusher was another added touch not found often in American homes, but was better than most all Laotian houses in our neighborhood, so I tried not to complain. I did however have a moment of weakness when we watched an episode VH-1's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous", and had an actual visceral reaction to the spoils of an unnamed celebrity as compared to the people I was with. It never hurts to witness other cultures to see the ridiculous aspects of our own, and this trip was no exception. I was also able to note the injustice in comparing the noble efforts of my work companions who were doing work of national importance for mere dollars to what someone else who spends their time dancing around and acting like a jackass does for millions. (but that's just my opinion)
We flew in an old MI-17 Russian helicopter to get to our excavation site. It is said that the hallmark of Russian aircraft design is their simplicity. I found out that it was borne out of the simple ability to scare the passengers into a new found respect for life. That thing shuddered and shook in ways that I never thought were imaginable out of a flying aircraft, and this is coming from a guy who flies a 30 year old airplane for a living. As it turned out, the pilots were not that bad and all flights went with little significance.
We spent the next 30 days working long hours in ten day sessions braving the heat, unexploded ordnance (over 20 of various flavors, of which none were very welcome), snakes (cobras and bamboo vipers), and completing endless hours of various forms of hard labor. With the expertise of our Anthropologist, we charted out an outline of 100 square meters, cordoned them off into 4 square meter grids, and started to investigate them according to the most likely place of a partial burial.
With the assistance of 80 locals from a nearby village, we cleared all topical obstructions (trees, shrubs, bamboo, snakes, unexploded ordnance, etc), dug into the ground, and then sifted the dirt through quarter inch screens looking for any traces that could be found. It was a back-breaking, heart-aching labor of love. There was not a part of my body that did not ache; from the tendons to ligaments to the last muscle. Most days I was completely spent. I know that I had as much of a reason to find something as anyone there, but there were still some days that required all the strength I could muster just to get out of bed. If it had not been for the professionalism of the team and their enthusiasm for the job, I don't think I would have made it. Let me tell you, the JPAC personnel are among the most professional, motivated, and technically talented groups of folks that I have ever had the privilege to work with. From my prior Maintenance Officer tour I thought the bar had been set, but I found out that I was wrong. (My maintenance troops will always be a very close second, and I will never forget how much I enjoyed working with them)
Working on the screens was without a doubt one of the most difficult things I have ever done. While I could spend countless hours trying to unsuccessfully place many historical examples in context, I can summarize; while it was unfortunate that we did not find anything on this excavation, the things I learned about the process of remains repatriation, specifics of my Father's case, the current nature of US/Lao relations, and the story of JPAC and all personnel who work the MIA cause, were a shear godsend and true honor. Also, getting to see firsthand the challenges and issues that have been affecting success (or unfortunate lack of success) for getting our missing servicemen home, was for me as a family member, a very unique privilege, and one that I will not take for granted. With my penchant for being me, it was good to have the added pressure of not screwing it up for anyone else. I think it was perceived as a good thing that a family member was there and there may be a possibility for other family members during future endeavors, which I think is a very good thing.
In closing I would like to answer one key question that I have heard, and have now learned to answer from this experience. The Question is Why? Why, after 37 years do we bother to resolve cases like these of POWs and MIAs and work so tirelessly against unfavorable odds?
Forgive me for the soapbox. While I can tell you that I am prepared to answer this question on many levels, I will keep it to just a few. The first reason why is the importance of POW/MIA / JPAC's existence as a critical appeal to our nation's psyche in that we unquestionably honor our commitments to those we send to defend our values. The work and sacrifices of the personnel at JPAC ensures that those commitments still exist. The certifying of that precise commitment holds our government to a very crucial standard and ensures that our acts serve as an extension of the integrity of our constitution. Without it, we run the risk of forgetting the importance of what we are doing in the first place; attempting perhaps to right a perceived wrong, and/or to create conditions that are more acceptable than before, and best for ALL. A condition that makes it worth the sacrifice, you could say.
As I prepare to deploy to Iraq for the 5th time in my career, my thoughts are not on the topics of why, how, and who should have done things different but that I am allowed the privilege to hopefully contribute to our destiny, and hopefully utilize the capabilities of our aircraft well enough to allow some folks to come home safely (achieve our mission). I also realize that the efforts and sacrifices of past heroes have paved important roads for us in the future. I am a part of that process, and hope to be a part of that success. I strongly believe that we are allowed to positively contribute to our future by learning from our past, and there are key points to this story where I have seen that our country is so much better off because of the sacrifices of POWs and MIAs. POW/MIA issues will only be a tragedy if nobody was aware of that. Anyone who takes it as their mission to ensure that those sacrifices are not forgotten and that the lessons are not repeated is every bit a hero in my eyes.
The rescue efforts of Boxer 22 and the efforts of JPAC are another reinforcement of the fact that our country places an extreme value on a human life. That value for a human life is manifest in the heroic actions of a few. I was lucky enough to meet a few of those heroes, past and present. I apologize for the preaching, but the things I was able to witness on this trip were perspective builders for sure. Where it could have been said in the past that the POW/MIA issues brought forth the worst of human nature, the people I have met recently and the acts that they have committed, (from JPAC, to all those who participated in the rescue of Boxer 22) have shown me the best of human nature. It made me realize that the failure to find any thing on this trip, while unfortunate, is no justification for discouragement, pessimism, and disillusionment. I got the distinct impression that my new JPAC heroes, from direct quote, would spend their whole tour without finding anything and not let it deter them from their difficult work out of the sheer fact that they believe in what they do. They are aware of the importance of their job and what it means to the values that they hold dear.
The motto of POW/MIA is "You are not Forgotten", but what does that mean? These great people get to live out and uphold our nation's responsibility of "You are not Forgotten". While I am obviously biased, I can see few more worthy or noble tasks.
I have to admit that my journey as a family member has had many turns, but seeing the things that I have been able to see and meeting the people that I have met in the past three years specifically, has given me a new perspective and motivation. It would be wrong to focus on the lack of a proper returning of remains as a sign of success. My success has been measured in the people that have come into my life; not only for me, but for the people that touched my father's life, and those lives that he touched. I would have very much liked to have a repatriation ceremony for my father. Based on future efforts, it may not be out of the question, and the results from this past trip have ensured that future investigations are in work.
The key component however, is why you are receiving this email. It may not be anything less than a rationalization, but it is important for me to acknowledge the importance of certain people in my life. If all I can do is say thanks for your support and give an update to what I am now realizing is a great story; that is my purpose for taking your time.
One importance of this email for me was to thank some important people I have known in my life. If you receive it, please believe that it involves some form of sincerity even though it may come in the form of a lengthy mass email. I have been humbled by the recent outpouring of support. Please acknowledge that I hope not to lose some sincerity if it gets forwarded to many others. It doesn't matter to me if you send it out to others, especially if you send it to people who have been following my mom and me, but we would prefer a small amount of discretion. I have always had an amount of struggle in keeping this a private affair and wanting others to know this story. It is an amazing story and I have taken some moments to rejoice in getting to share the good parts.
Take care, and keep in touch. I would appreciate any contact during our summer vacation and will keep you posted on any new developments.
The photographs are:
- Captain Danielson while in Laos
- House of Hope Lutheran Freedom Tree Plaque
- House of Hope Lutheran Church and Freedom Tree