Minnesota Vietnam MIA makes it home for final farewell
WANAMINGO TOWNSHIP - Friday marked the beginning of the end of a long journey.
After 38 years, Maj. Ben Danielson was home and the guest of honor at a tribute his family has been waiting for.
"This is our miracle," Mary Danielson-Gates told hundreds of people gathered to honor her husband, an Air Force fighter pilot. "This chapter is not closed. That means we go back. Let's just say finished."
Danielson's plane was shot down in 1969 during a Vietnam War combat mission over Mu Gia Pass in Laos.
A massive airborne search turned up nothing and the 26-year-old Danielson was declared missing in action.
Then, in 2003, part of Danielson's remains were turned over to U.S. authorities in Vietnam and brought back to Kenyon in May of this year.
Plans for a final burial and memorial service began shortly thereafter.
The tribute to Danielson began Friday and was capped off with a military program that included a jet fly-over and hundreds of waving flags.
"This is a moment of honor, joy, sadness, resolve and everything in between and more," said Steve Goldammer, a retired Navy commander. "Finally his moment. Finally."
Danielson's journey will end today when he is buried at First Lutheran Church in Kenyon.
Only 18 months old when his father went missing, Brian Danielson has been on a mission to put the pieces of the tragedy together.
He traveled to Laos last year in an unsuccessful attempt to find more of this father's remains. The experience - and his father's homecoming - has opened up a flood of emotions, he said.
"The 38-year MIA saga definitely felt like hopeless despair," said Brian, a Navy lieutenant commander. "But how tragic would it have been to succumb to those feelings?"
"My life will never be the same after this," he added.
Satn Drozdz, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, knew Daniels in 1969, the year his plane was shot down.
Drozdz was in charge of sending Danielson's belongings back to his wife.
"The boxes were sent but the mission was not over," he said. "Mary saw to that. Brian saw to that."
Friday was declared Maj. Benjamin Franklin Danielson Day across Minnesota.
Rep. Steve Sviggum presented Danielson's widow with a plaque. Then he joined alumni of St. Olaf College - Danielson's alma mater - in a lighthearted version of the school's fight song.
Danielson's family and friends spoke Friday of the relief and sense of peace this weekend's funeral will bring not only them but the pilot missing for so many years.
"Ben, you can sleep now," said retired Air Force Col. Robert Lambert. "You can rest."
Jen Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
388-2914, ext. 120.