Submitted photo
Don Danielson was recognized as “Veteran of the Day” for his devotion to his country last summer at Disney World.
Submitted photo Don Danielson was recognized as “Veteran of the Day” for his devotion to his country last summer at Disney World.
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Don Danielson served in the military during three wars. He’s helped countless sailors and soldiers, crossed the Pacific Ocean 42 times, and seen more of the world than most of us ever will.

Pretty heady stuff for a boy raised just south of Peterson.

Danielson, 92, was born in Pilot Mound but his family moved—in the dead of winter, by sleigh—to rural Peterson when he was a baby. He grew up on a farm four miles south of town and was scheduled to graduate from Peterson High School’s class of 1944, but never made the ceremony. Though World War II would end just over a year later, fighting remained hot and heavy and young, able-bodied men like Danielson were in high demand.

“My 18th birthday was November 21, and I figured I’d be drafted shortly after,” Danielson recalled. “But I wanted the Navy, so I enlisted with them on that day. They told me they’d defer my call until after I graduated, but they lied about that. On December 11, 1944, I reported to the Great Lakes Naval Academy in Chicago for basic training. My younger brother stood in for me at graduation that spring, and the Peterson High School superintendent read my speech.”

When he finished basic training Danielson was sent to Madison, Wisc., to complete training as a radio operator. “Then it was back to Great Lakes, where I was assigned to a Naval attachment that went to Naples, Italy,” he said. “I spent the rest of the war there as a radio operator. We’d receive messages from the U.S., sent through a station in England. Then we’d dispatch those messages to ships via Morse Code. Many of them were encoded so the enemy couldn’t break them.”

The war ended in 1945. Danielson finished his obligation to the Navy, then returned home in ‘46 to decide where his next steps would lead. The young Minnesotan had no way of knowing he was far from done serving his country. “I’d been interested in flying for as long as I could remember, and was thinking of becoming a pilot,” Danielson said. “I actually had my first flying lesson when I was 14 or 15 years old; I hitch-hiked the 75 miles from Peterson to Frontenac, Minn., where they had an airstrip. I took my lesson, then hitch-hiked home again. I had another lesson in Winona, and a third when I was stationed in Madison. Then I was off to Europe. So when I came home I started working on the farm, but had aviation in the back of my mind.”

Danielson worked on the family farm for a year, then decided to visit a flight school in Kansas. “I was thinking the whole trip home to Peterson and realized it wasn’t the right fit for me,” he said. “So I called my pastor, Reverend Phillip Hillier, and told him I wasn’t sure what to do. He told me to pack a suitcase, because he was taking me to college. He drove me to Northfield and I enrolled in St. Olaf three weeks after classes had started for the year. I ended up graduating with a degree in sociology and then felt called to the ministry, so I enrolled in seminary.”

His service to God became the second opportunity for Danielson to serve his country; as the Korean War drew to a close he re-enlisted, this time as a Navy chaplain. “I was first assigned to the Marines and was based in Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., then was sent to a military sea transportation unit that hauled fuel and supplies to ships and ports,” he said. “We’d be gone 10-14 days, come home for a little while, then be sent out again.”

That’s when Danielson began racking up his many voyages across the Pacific. It was also where he’d meet his wife, Charlotte. “I was on a ship that had a largely civilian crew,” he said. “There was a doctor, two nurses, a chaplain, a yeoman, and other crew members. That ship eventually got nicknamed ‘The Love Boat’ because six or seven couples met on it and were eventually married.

Charlotte was a Navy Wave working in sick bay when we met there. We fell in love and were married in San Francisco in January 1956. The ship’s doctor walked Charlotte down the aisle, his wife was our maid of honor, and their daughters were flower girls. My brother was in San Diego and served as best man.” The couple was married for 43 years and had four children (Leslie, Dawn, Kim and Doug); Charlotte passed away in 2009.

Danielson’s second hitch in the military ended in 1959, but once again his time as a civilian was short. “I’d been attending a church in San Francisco—the same one where Charlotte and I were married — and the pastor there was eventually called to a church in the Twin Cities suburbs,” he said. “I was still serving as a Navy chaplain when I received a call to be his associate pastor. I was working there when the war in Vietnam started. So in 1961 I enlisted again.

“For much of the next eight years I was stationed in Subic Bay in the Philippines. One of the ships I was on was a vessel that supported and repaired LST boats that went up the rivers for combat; the LST was the type of boat that JFK served on. I remember ministering to the sailors on those ships, learning many interesting things about a culture I didn’t know, and meeting people I wouldn’t have met any other way.”

Of course there were sobering moments as well. Danielson recalls when the USS Oriskany—an aircraft carrier—caught on fire in 1966 and lost 45 members of her crew. “I was one of the chaplains who blessed the bodies before they were shipped back home. “I’ll never forget the image of those young men being loaded from a ship and then on to a plane for the ride back to the U.S.,” he said.

Danielson’s duty to the Vietnam war ended in 1969, when he was called to serve at the West Side Veteran’s Administration hospital in Chicago. “It was part of a complex that included St. Luke’s and the University of Chicago hospitals,” he recalled. “I served there from 1970-1994, when I retired.” In a career that spanned nearly 50 years, Danielson would devote 28 of them—14 in active duty, 14 as a reserve—to the U.S. military.

Virtually no veterans serve with an expectation of being recognized for their devotion to country, but Danielson received just that when he visited Disney World with his son last summer. “We entered the grounds and were looking at maps of the place when an attendant approached us,” he recalled. “We got to chatting with him and when he learned of my military service he said ‘Wait right here’. When he returned he asked if we could come back at 4:40 that afternoon. I didn’t even know about the parade that occurred each day, and that they named a ‘Veteran of the Day’. We joined the parade for about a block and a half, then proceeded to where they lowered the flag for the day. The security detail folded the flag and presented it to me. It was quite an honor.”

But Danielson’s fondest memory may have occurred at the Rushford airport just last summer. “The Christmas before, my kids gave me the gift of two hours of air time from the Rushford airport, to see from a plane the country I’d once called home,” he said. “On July 11, 2017, I took off with Mike Thern to fly over the area where I was raised. “Though Danielson had maintained his love of flight—he’d eventually solo’d, received his pilot’s license, and once even owned a plane—he was convinced that part of his life was over.

“I never did any barrel rolls or spins,” he laughed, “But I was in control of the plane for about thirty minutes. We flew over country I’d known since boyhood and I recognized a lot of places; the Root Prairie Church, the Union Prairie Church, and Highland Prairie Lutheran cemetery, where my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and my folks, are buried. It was a pretty amazing day; it had been 61 years since I’d last flown a plane.”

Now on the north side of 90, Danielson can reflect on decades devoted to family and country. A lot has happened to the Peterson High School kid who missed his graduation in the spring of 1945 to join the Navy when his country was at war. “I’ve served my country, been happily married, and raised four kids,” he said. “I have 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandkids. I’ve had a good life.”