A hero among us: Perham man turns 95, flag flying over the U.S. Capitol today in his honor
Perham man Duane Donley sits in his Briarwood Assisted Living Apartment. In his hands are old black and white photos of a time most of us only read about in history books. For Donley, though, his memories of World War II are in vibrant color and detail as if it were yesterday.
But today — Thursday, May 23 — Donley is turning 95 years old. It is a day marked with a special event, because today there will also be a flag flying over the U.S. Capital. That flag is being flown for one reason and one reason only — it is in Donley's honor. The momentous occasion is made possible through U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.
"I can't believe he can do that," said Donley, who, true to the reputation of World War II veterans, is taking this all in with tremendous modesty. "I don't think it's possible...to fly the flag for me? This is the United States of America! I didn't earn it any better than any of the other guys did."
The flag will be sent to Donley to keep, along with a plaque that reads: This flag will be flown at the request of the Honorable Collin C. Peterson, in honor of Duane Donley's years of service to his country. Duane is a veteran of World War II, a dairy farmer, and an innovator for agricultural conservation. He has been a leader in his community and this flag is flown to commend him for his commitment to Minnesota's farmers, families and veterans.
From Perham to the battlefield
When Donely was just a small boy, his father died in a car accident during the Great Depression, leaving life even harder for him, his mom and his 10 siblings.
"At that time you had to pay for the bus ride (to school), but they let me work it off," said Donley. "So, I shoveled coal in the stoker and shoveled ice off the rinks in the wintertime, and did lawns in the summertime... I worked for the janitors to earn my fare."
Donley graduated from Perham High School in 1942, at which time the war was already underway. It didn't take long before Donley's number was up, and he was in the U.S. Army, set to study as an engineer in the Army Special Training Program at Western Maryland University. However, those studies were cut short due to the heavy fighting — they needed the 19-year-old Donley and men like him immediately.
"So, they put us in the infantry," said Donely, an expert marksman who was made a radioman in Company D 335th Infantry Regiment, 84th Infantry Division. Donley and 5,000 other troops were scheduled to take off for Normandy, but as Donley's ship was leaving New York, it hit a snag.
"We went by the Statue of Liberty, and it felt like we hit something," said Donely, who says, as it turns out, they hit one of the other ships in the fleet, causing them to lose all their fresh water. The mishap set them back three weeks, causing them to miss D-Day, "...which probably saved my life," said Donely.
Donley did end up on Omaha Beach a month later, and while he was late to both the carnage and victory in France, they needed those fresh troops to advance to Berlin.
"We were sent to reinforce Patton... They were just entering Germany at that time," said Donley, who was immediately sent with a group of 10 men whose job it was to neutralize the German pillboxes so that they could advance the line.
"We got a lot of luggers and P38s out of those things, so we thought we'd sell them to the Air Force guys that didn't get a chance to get any souvenirs," laughed Donley.
Carrying a 35-pound radio on his back, Donley was on the front lines in one of the most dangerous positions a soldier could have been in as they made their way northeast toward Berlin.
"When the calls would come in for mortar fire, you'd be the one that would have to tell them where to fire the thing and how far away and what kind of shells to use," said Donely, who had more than just a radio on his back — he had a target on there, as well.
"There were two kinds of people the German snipers like to shoot at — officers and radiomen," said Donley. "The officers didn't paint the stripes on their hats, but a radioman... well, you couldn't hide your damn radio."
The Battle of the Bulge
"The Battle of the Bulge..." said Donley, pausing and looking straight ahead as if lost in that memory, "...there was no warning for that. They (the Germans) just decided they were going to take back what they'd lost."
The Battle of the Bulge was a surprise attack — the last, major effort from the Germans on the border area of Belgium, France and Luxembourg.
Donley had just rolled into a little town in Belgium called Marche-en-Famenne. They'd heard the Germans were on their way, and they had orders to protect Marche at all cost. Donley says they got all set up to fight, but when nothing happened, a few of them decided to go get a haircut.
"Yeah, we did," laughed Donley, who says the barbershops there had the same signs as the ones back home. As it turned out, the family that owned that barbershop was incredibly worried that the Americans wouldn't be able to hold off the Germans.
"The mother was really anxious, and she said, 'Are you going to be able to stop them? Because if you don't stop them they're going to find out that Joe worked against them the whole time... They're going to shoot him — they're going to find us and kill us all,'" said Donley.
He explained that "Joe" was not just a Belgian barber, but also a newspaper reporter who had worked underground for the resistance for the past four years Germany occupied Belgium. Everybody had everything to lose, and bonds were quickly formed over little acts of humanity.
That evening, after Donley went back to that barbershop on a dinner invitation ("They had rabbit," said Donley), the first mortars came in, striking directly in front of the barbershop, breaking the glass above the door and seriously injuring an elderly man in front of the shop — a close friend of that family's.
"So, we helped get him downstairs into the basement," said Donley, later learning that the man did not make it.
From there, the Americans fought hard. They set up bazooka teams, and the engineers had every bridge ready to blow if the Germans got that far.
"The first German tank came rolling up the road, and we thought, 'Oh (expletive), what are we going to do now?'" said Donely, who says they'd decided to wait until the tank was actually crossing to blow up the bridge.
"The tank was a Panther, and the Germans in that tank must have saw some movement because they turned and blew up the house and killed everyone in the squad," said Donley, referring to the house where the American soldiers were holed up with the dynamite charges.
As German soldiers attempted to surround and split up the allied armies there, Donley remembers digging some foxholes to hide in.
"They told us that in Europe it didn't get cold...that it didn't snow in Europe," he laughed. "But it started to snow one night while we were digging the foxhole, and before we got done digging, it'd snowed 14 inches," he said, adding that all they had to eat were government-issued chocolate bars.
"We each got one a day. No water. We'd melt snow in our mouth," he said, adding that he was in that foxhole for eight days and nights, trading cigarettes for socks that he'd put over his boots.
"I remember being really cold," he said, wondering if he'd even make it out of that foxhole: "But everybody wondered that."
"They (the Germans) had mortar shells that they were firing at us," said Donley. "And this one kid hiding in the foxhole with me yells, 'I'm hit!' and I said, 'Where are you hit?' and he said, 'My leg!' So, I took off his boot, and his leg was skinned from hitting the ground, but there was no blood to speak of...and then I look up and there was blood coming down from his forehead."
Donely says the young soldier had shrapnel coming right down through his helmet, but with Donley's help patching him up as best he could, he survived. Not everyone was so lucky.
"I think we lost over 20,000 men," Donley said.
Donley says later he remembers going into a little German house in Hanover, Germany to get off the street with his radio, and there was a German couple standing by the kitchen stove and a man with a wooden leg sitting by the table, who spoke a little English.
"So, I asked, 'What happened to your leg?,'" he said, learning that the man had been a German soldier in Africa who was wounded and sent back to the States. About a month earlier, the U.S. exchanged him for a Red Cross volunteer who'd been taken prisoner, so he'd gotten to go home.
"I said, 'Why don't the German soldiers surrender so they can get back to building up the country instead of blowing it up further?,' and he said, 'Front line troops don't treat prisoners that well,' and yeah, I guess that's true enough."
But Donley assured him that any prisoners that surrendered wouldn't stay with the front line — they'd be sent toward the back and treated fine. The assurance led to a confession.
"He looked at me and said, 'There's a platoon that wants to surrender in the back of the house,'" said Donley, who then went back and found 16 German soldiers ready to throw him their helmets and weapons.
Coming face to face with these men, Donley realized that they seemed okay.
"They seemed like pretty decent people, but when we got up the river, only 60 miles from Berlin, these people were different," said Donley, who says they still wanted to fight.
"I guess they (the German soldiers fighting near Berlin) took a vote, and they decided they would die in battle," said Donley. "Most of them had lost their families because we'd bombed and burned their cities, so they had nothing to hold on to...so they voted to die in battle."
Donley went on to fight in the Last Battle before being discharged on Feb. 16, 1946 with honors including the Combat Infantry Badge, Expert Rifle Badge, European, African, Middle Eastern Theater Service Medal and the Bronze Star.
Once back home, 21-year-old Donley bought his mom a new refrigerator and oil-burning heater and began his life back on a Richville farm he started with his wife, Marion and their six children. He farmed that land for 67 years.
He served on the Dead Lake Township Board for 27 years, the Perham Cooperative Creamery Board for 25 years, the Zion Amor Lutheran Church Board for 18 years, the school board for 16 years and the Land O' Lakes District Board for 15 years. He is a lifetime member of the VFW and American Legion.
He has gone back to Europe several times since his time in the war, even visiting the same family from the barbershop.
He went back to Germany, too, to some of those little towns they'd helped level to not much more than rubble. He met a German couple in one of those towns, "And they treated us like royalty," said Donley. "And I said, 'How can you treat us like royalty when the last time we were here we destroyed everything in our path?' And she came to me and put her hands on mine and said, 'We must be friends.'"