Valor Friday

| November 24, 2023

Kenneth Olson

While driving around I like to look at the memorial highway designations. Many of them in my state, I’m aware of who they are. The stretch of I-35 through Lino Lakes, MN is dedicated to Officer Shawn Silvera. He was a police officer who died in the line of duty trying to stop a fleeing felon. A death I happened to hear play out live as I was working and scanning that channel on the radio. Similarly, the Richard I Bong Memorial Bridge between Duluth, MN and Superior, WI is named for Major Bong, the American Ace of Aces and Medal of Honor recipient in World War II from the area.

It was on a recent trip across the state that I came across a Medal of Honor memorial highway with a name I was unfamiliar with. Being a military historian, you know I immediately looked up the man’s story.

A portion of MN State Highway 23 in Paynesville is named for Kenneth Olson. Born in nearby Willmar, Olson was just 22 when he posthumously earned the nation’s highest award for gallantry in action in Vietnam.

Olson enlisted in 1967 and was in the thick of the jungle war inside a year. Assigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, Olson is one of only five Minnesota men to have received the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War.

On 13 May 1968, Olson and his comrades were part of Operation Toan Thang I, the Allied response to the Tet Offensive. Toan Thang means “complete victory”, and the intent of the operation was to put major pressure on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the III Corps area.

On that day Olson’s company was moving to reinforce a reconnaissance platoon that was engaged by a much larger enemy force.

Arriving at the site of the battle, Olson’s platoon struck the first line of enemy bunkers, silencing them all. Olson and a fellow soldier moved up to the second line of suspected defensive positions. They started to take heavy direct fire from just 10 yards ahead.

Pinned down, Olson completely disregarded his own safety by exposing himself to throw a hand grenade. Unsuccessful in stopping the enemy barrage, he again exposed himself to toss another grenade. Winding up to throw, just as he was about to release the bomb, he was critically wounded by enemy fire.

The enemy shot caused Olson to lose his grip on the live grenade, the ticking bomb now within the midst of him and his fellow soldier. Knowing full well it was moments away from exploding, Olson grabbed the grenade and smothered it with his own body. While dying with his final act of unimaginable bravery, he saved the lives of his comrades in arms.

Following Spec Four Olson’s example, the men of his platoon rallied and ferociously attacked the enemy positions, completely routing them. As I said above, Olson was just 22. His body was returned home, where he’s buried in his native Paynesville.

Of the other four Minnesotans to have earned the Medal of Honor during Vietnam, only one man lived to receive the honor. While Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Leo Thorsness of Walnut Grove, MN survived the action for which he earned the MoH, he was shot down and captured just a week and a half later. He was a “guest” of the North Vietnamese for almost six years. His medal was awarded while he was a POW, so it was kept secret until his repatriation.

Army Specialist Four Dale Wayrynen of Moose Lake, MN also died while smothering a grenade, almost a year to the day before Olson’s doing the same, to earn his MoH. He was just 20 years old.

Army Staff Sergeant Laszlo Rabel enlisted from Minneapolis, but had emigrated from Hungary after the 1956 Revolution. He enlisted in 1965 and was killed in action in November 1968 when he too jumped onto a grenade, earning his MoH. He was 31.

Staff Sergeant Robert Pruden, a Ranger with the 75th Ranger Regiment, died in action after repeatedly advancing on an enemy position despite being struck by enemy fire several times. Even after mortally wounded, the 20 year old Ranger directed his men into defensive positions and coordinated by radio the evacuation helicopters.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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STSC(SW/SS)

Brave men all, I salute them.

They are better than what Minnesota deserves today.

26Limabeans

Thank you Mason. And thank you Spec 4 Olson.
I will pay closer attention when driving America’s highways.

USAFRetired

We have a pair of those along a 10 mile or so stretch of I-75 in Bibb County. The southernmost one is the Sgt Rodney Maxwell Davis USMC that memorializes the I-75/I-475 split named for the Medal of Honor Recipient who smotherd a grenade in 1967. The other just up the road is the I-75/I-16 split interchange named for Major Bobby M Jones MD POW/MIA.. The-F-4D he was in the backseat of disappeared on a ferry flight between Udorn RTAFB and Danang AB. He remains the sole Physician MIA from the war.

KoB

We also have the Hartley Bridge Rd/I-75/I-475 Interchange that is named for Marine SGT Kelley L. Courtney who was killed along with 7 other Marines on 30 October 2004 in Fallujuh. That young man grew up in my neighborhood and attended the same grade school as I did though it was many years later. Kelley and Bobby Jones were not MoH awardees as Rodney Davis was but they were considered Heroes to the local community. I have been honored to meet the families of each.

My bucket list includes a cross country trip on US Highway 20. Been on several legs of it but never the whole way.

Reading the story of these guys just emphasizes how despicable the valor thieves are.

Thanks again, Mason!

David

Didn’t know you could go cross country on 20, thought it ended at 10 in Pecos.

Claw

Yep, longest highway in the states. Begins in Oregon and ends in Boston. Goes right by Stately Claw Manor here in Idaho on it’s way to Yellowstone.

Last edited 2 months ago by Claw
USAFRetired

You’re thinking I-20 vice US-20 I think.

USAFRetired

Here’s another physician.

Maj. Thomas F. Koritz

Major Thomas F. Koritz, MD, was one of a very select few dual-rated pilot/physicians in the U.S. Air Force. He was killed in action while on a low-level night bombing mission when his F-15E was hit by enemy fire over Basra, Iraq, on 17 January 1991. He gave his life for his family, his people and his country.

Sparks

THank you Mason for telling their deeds. God be with their families.