May 18, 2007

Long lost Minnesota pilot is finally home

At dawn on a crisp and clear Thursday morning, a long-lost Minnesota pilot finally came home.

In 1969, Ben Danielson was a 26-year-old U.S. Air Force Captain. He had married his high school sweetheart in Kenyon, Minnesota and doted over his one-year-old son, Brian.

Vietnam was a very public war in 1969, but Ben was flying in the then "secret war" over neighboring Laos. On December 5, 1969 his fighter plane was shot down. A rescue attempt was launched and searchers found and saved his navigator. Ben was never found.

Mary Danielson-Gates recalls those days as happy, even though her husband was away in combat.

"I was never worried about it. I was sure he was coming home. And he was never worried about it. He was sure he was coming home. So, it was, naturally, a shock."

That little baby grew up to resemble his father in more than just good looks. Brian Danielson earned military pilot's wings of his own. He spent a lifetime, off and on, searching for the man in his mother's stories and the old family portraits.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Brian Danielson has served two tours in Iraq, but made time to personally journey to Laos, seeking the truth about his father.

Pouring over satellite photos with his mother and Uncle Dennis, Ben's brother, he explained where some remains were found along a small river.

"Now, we know that he was down here because you see this bend in the river? Kind of forms a little bit of an 'M'. That 'M' right there and so we know that he was right there."

In his years of research, Brian has learned that the effort to rescue his downed pilot Dad involved hundreds of personnel. It is believed to be the largest SAR (Search and Rescue) mission in the history of the United States. They could not reach Captain Danielson in time, but they did rescue navigator Woody Bergeron on the opposite side of the small river.

For the next three decades, the Danielson's, their friends and the Kenyon community were left to wonder what had happened to Ben. Finally, the family has answers.

On Tuesday, Brian, Mary and Dennis flew to a military laboratory in Hawaii. After a few private moments of grieving and gratitude, they claimed the remains that have just been confirmed as those of Ben Danielson.

On Thursday, after 37 long years, they brought their pilot home to Minnesota.

Ben's last flight ended on the tarmac at Twin Cities International Airport as his flag-draped coffin was escorted by the Kenyon Veterans Color guard.

Northwest Airlines ramp workers who were veterans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with on-duty and retired Air Force and Navy representatives to salute their fallen comrade. Curious travelers on the same plane, pressed their faces to the concourse windows overhead.

Brian, in his white Navy uniform, was touched by the reception for his father.

"It's not just that we could do this for him, but for all the other people who've been with us all these years and it's just as much for them as it is for anyone."

As for the Kenyon Color guard Brian says, "They're pretty good group of guys. They're pretty special. They've all been heros to me growing up."

Who better then, to join Ben Danielson's son in a final, silent salute with the roar of jet engines in the backdrop? The aging men of the color guard slowly placed Ben's casket in the hearse of a Kenyon funeral parlor.

"I felt like he's finally where he wants to be. He said he was coming home and now he has," said Mary with a tear in her eye.

The drive to Kenyon took Ben's coffin past the home of his 89-year old grandmother. The family wanted her to be able to see that her grandson was finally home.

Ben Danielson will be buried next month with full military honors in Kenyon.


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