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Paynesville Press - May 5, 2004

Medal of Honor recipient honored posthumously as distinguished PAHS alumni

By Michael Jacobson

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. ~ John 15:13 ~

Ken OlsonKen Olson believed these words. And, in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968, while a soldier in the U.S. Army, Olson died by these words, saving another soldier.

Olson, a 1963 PHS graduate, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, which his family received from President Richard Nixon in Washington, D.C., in April 1970.

That Bible passage was also read at Olson's funeral. "He took that (passage) literally, and, when the time came, he did it," Edwin Schaumann Jr., Olson's relative and schoolmate, told the Press in 1995.

Olson, who grew up on a farm on the Meeker-Kandiyohi line, south of Lake Koronis, is one of 3,459 Congressional Medal of Honor winners, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The Medal of Honor, according to the society, is "the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the armed services of the United States. Generally presented to its recipient by the President of the United States in the name of Congress, it is often called the Congressional Medal of Honor."

Heroic death
Olson, a specialist four in the army, arrived in Vietnam around April 1, 1968. Six weeks later, on May 13, 1968, his unit was reinforcing a reconnaissance platoon that was engaged by an entrenched Viet Cong force.

According to his Congressional Medal of Honor citation, Olson "and a fellow soldier moved forward of the platoon to investigate another suspected line of bunkers. As the two men advanced, they were pinned down by intense automatic weapons fire from an enemy position ten meters to their front."

"With complete disregard for his own safety, Specialist Olson exposed himself and hurled a hand grenade into the Viet Cong position. Failing to silence the fire, he again exposed himself to the intense fire in preparation to assault the position."

"As he prepared to hurl the grenade he was wounded, causing him to drop the activated device within his own position. Realizing that it would explode immediately, Specialist Olson threw himself upon the grenade and pulled it into his body to take the full force of his explosion."

"By this unselfish actionÉOlson sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his fellow comrades-in-arms. His extraordinary heroism inspired his fellow soldiers to renew their efforts and totally defeat the enemy force."

By taking the full force of the grenade, Olson saved the life of Gary Lindley, the fellow soldier who had advanced with him to that forward position.

Olson's sacrifice was not a surprise to people who knew him, his giving nature and his deep religious beliefs. "Hopefully," Schaumann told the Press in 1995, "we all have that in us."

Congressional Medal of Honor
Olson is the only Paynesville graduate and the only University of Minnesota graduate to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Plaques commemorating his heroic death and his Medal of Honor are located at the Paynesville American Legion Post #271 and at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, where Olson studied agriculture, graduating in 1967.

Olson had planned to continue his agriculture studies in graduate school at Purdue University, but his Meeker County draft board informed him that his student deferment would not be extended. So he volunteered for the army. He expected to get a desk job, on the basis of his college degree, but instead was sent to the front lines in Vietnam, said his sister-in-law Juanita Olson, married to his older brother Daniel. Olson came home on leave just before leaving for Vietnam. He ordered flowers for his mother, Lydia, for Mother's Day from Hawaii. She probably was wearing those flowers when Ken was killed.

He died on Monday, May 13, but since Vietnam is a day ahead of Minnesota, it was still Mother's Day here when he died. His family first learned of his death a week later, when two soldiers came to the family farm to inform his parents, Ben and Lydia, that Ken was missing in action. He was officially listed as missing in action for a week or so, because his body had not been recovered, though his family knew that Ken was dead because his comrades had witnessed his death.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Ken had kept his faith and remained optimistic, according to Juanita. "He still knew that God would take care of him. God did, though not in the way we hoped," said Juanita.

Ben and Lydia received Ken's Congressional Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon in April 1970, nearly two years after his death. Ken's older brothers, Philip and Daniel, also went to Washington, D.C., and attended the ceremony in the White House. At the ceremony, 21 Medals of Honor were awarded.

Bright future
Ken Olson was the youngest son of Ben and Lydia Olson, whose farm sat right on the Kandiyohi-Meeker line, about six miles south on the Tri-County Road and a mile east of Nordland Lutheran Church. Their homestead was in Meeker County, in Union Grove Township, but their property extended into Kandiyohi County, in Irving Township.

Ken was the first person in his family to be born in a hospital. His brother Philip was ten years older, and his brother Daniel was six years older. He grew up loving to hunt and fish, and he enjoyed agriculture.

He attended country school through the eighth grade and then attended Paynesville High School. At PHS, he graduated cum laude, belonged to the National Honor Society, served as senior class president and president of the FFA Chapter, played trumpet in the band, played intramural sports, was a Homecoming candidate, starred in a drama production, and was chosen as the Boys Stater.

"He was one of my top students," said LeRoy Hillbrand, who taught agriculture and was the advisor for the FFA Chapter in Paynesville for over 30 years. Olson had outstanding scholastic ability, and he had a friendly, outgoing personality, according to Hillbrand.

Olson was also an active member at the Paynesville Gospel Tabernacle, now Crystal Hills Assembly, including serving as president of the youth group.

He was the first person in his family to graduate from college, earning his degree in ag economics.

Hillbrand believes that Olson would have had a successful career in agribusiness, in government dealing with agriculture, or as a farmer. "I think wherever he was he would have been successful," said Hillbrand.

His father, Ben, wanted Ken to come home and take over the farm, said Juanita. After Ken died, Ben sold the cows since Ken was never coming home.

Letters from Vietnam
Ken Olson agreed to write a weekly column for the Paynesville Press from Vietnam. That arrangement lasted only six weeks, as Ken arrived in Vietnam in April 1968 and was killed on May 13, 1968.

Olson was one of three PHS graduates to die in Vietnam. Also killed during that war were Lawrence Welk (Class of 1964) and Darwin Sturtz (Class of 1966).

Excerpts from Olson's Vietnam correspondence include:

Leaving the United States...
"When the wheels of our jet transportation left U.S. soil for good, a quiet hush fell across its passengers. We all realized now that we are actually leaving something we really cherished. The question "Why?" ran through many of our minds, yet we dominated our thoughts with the excitement of returning home in one year."

Conditions in the field...
"After a week, the dirt on one's body is almost unbearable, for you are drenched in sweat and mud. We hear that many men just change clothes as the clothes rot off. Our backs ache, our feet are sore, but we must stay alive for one goal. That is to return to the U.S. in a year. We are already lonely and look ahead for mail call."

First encounter with the enemy...
"An ambush (a small unit of men sent out of our perimeter to hit the enemy during a night movement) called the perimeter and said they had four Viet Cong in their kill zone and then proceeded to dish out everything they had. Sounded like a small war by itself. Well, we collected two pigs in the morning. Only in combat can two pigs and four Viet Cong have identical profiles."

Elusive enemy...
"The order was given to keep in contact with the Viet Cong. As time passed strangely enough they didn't move out; they faded (into the jungle)."

Last letter home...
"I know that you got the flowers, and they probably made you smile. Well, someone's mother in our unit is not going to have a happy Mother's Day, for her son was shot. (He was the first in Ken's unit to die.)

P.S. Be good. Pray but don't worry."

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