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Parents hear 33 years later from their son's platoon members about that day in Vietnam

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(Note: Each year as Veterans Day rolls around I want to shout to the world, especially to those who consider it a "nothing" day, that it's a good time to remember those who have served in the military and are serving, some of whom made the supreme sacrifice. Today (Nov. 11) I was happy to see Coborn's in Princeton continue its practice of giving out chicken dinners to those who served or are serving, as well as the Williams Dingmann Funeral Home in Princeteon passing out box lunches to veterans, while the largest U.S. flag in captivity flew in their parking lot. While scrolling around for items for Sports Memories on Tuesday of this week I came across a column written 20 years ago this week. I consider it a grim reminder of why we have a day called Veterans Day.)

Kurt Duncan Luther Column

Kurt Duncan, in a photo on the front page of the Sept. 25, 1968, Princeton Union.

Kurt Duncan was a popular kid in the Princeton High School Class of 1965. In the fall of 1964 he was elected Homecoming king and reigned over the ceremonies with queen Bonnie Matz, his girlfriend. He was in the PHS band and also was active in his church youth group. About 13 months later he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, a popular thing then among young people in the Princeton area as the United States was getting involved in Vietnam. 

Kurt was trained as a hospital corpsman and in December 1967 he was assigned to a U.S. Marine platoon in Vietnam. Less than a year later, on Sept. 19, 1968, and with about only two months remaining on his tour of duty, he was killed when the vehicle he was riding in hit a land mine. He was buried at Oak Knoll Cemetery in Princeton 11 days later, the shiny new black car that he had asked his father to order never to be his.

Kurt was one of three Princeton men killed in Vietnam. The others were Steve Nelson and Mike Mathison.

Kurt's parents, Frank and Irene Duncan, moved to Fargo, N. D., the same year Kurt died and lived there until moving to Maple Grove in 1986.They have not missed a Memorial Day observance in Princeton in the 33 years since, Kurt's three brothers also making the trip many times in the years since.

Frank and Irene, who have known each other all their lives ("I'm 81 and she'll get mad if I tell you how old she is," Frank said with a laugh a couple days ago), are a remarkable couple. From Jacobson, Minn, both served in World War II, Irene as an Air Corps nurse and Frank as a pilot. All Frank did was fly about 130 missions, first for 55 in England and North Africa, and then for 75 more in the China-Burma area after a little rest at home. He was a supervisor for me at a job in Princeton between college and the Army 40 years ago and I had all I could do to pry that information out of him.

The story could end here but it doesn't.  

Last July, out of the blue, came a letter from Rich Hoffman, a member of Kurt's platoon who lives in Chicago. He followed it up with another three weeks later after the Duncans replied, and then Robert Uderitz, of New York state, also a platoon member, sent a letter.

Uderitz, expressing some concern about opening up old wounds, said he thought the Duncans would want to know that Kurt its still remembered. 

He told about being on a mine sweep that day and that he and Kurt would often walk together on them. That day, because of a bad sunburn from the day before, Kurt was riding in a truck and Uderitz jumped on the side and they talked. Uderitz called on his radio to the company that the road was open and that the truck could turn around.

"We had just made a terrible mistake," he wrote. "We forgot to sweep our truck turnaround area. The V.C. had placed a mine there the night before."

Kurt was killed instantly, Uderitz wrote. "Kurt was my friend. I still think about him often and wish I had made him get out of that truck. I know how bad it hurts as I too have lost a son. I cry for them both and pray for them both." 

Hoffman, the first to write in July, then contacted Uderitz and other platoon members. He told the Duncans about being exposed to the daily grind of war, not like they had seen in movies, but a real war "where we learned what life and death was really about."

Kurt had to give painful meningitis shots every three months to platoon members but, Hoffman wrote, he always put them at ease."I trusted him," he wrote, telling about Kurt removing a painful ingrown toenail after Kurt popped open a couple beers for Hoffman.

He was well liked by kids in the nearby village, "always dishing out candy and extra C rations. He was a like a Santa Claus to them."

And he told about the day Kurt was killed. "I can remember that day like it was yesterday," he wrote. He heard a boom late in the day and saw smoke, figuring the platoon had detonated a mine or booby trap. a common occurrence. A few minutes later he found out what had happened.

"I was angry for what happened to Kurt," Hoffman wrote. "I remember standing in the village shouting for someone, anyone, to come out, and started shooting grenades into the village . . . I kept shouting and yelling until some of the platoon came and got me. I hurt that day! For Kurt, his family and for the platoon that needed him."

Hoffman said he had trouble sleeping in Vietnam after that and kept trying to figure out why he was told to stay back at a bridge and why he wasn't with Kurt on the truck. "I can't count the number of times I wanted to try and contact Kurt's family and talk to them, but didn't have the nerve," he told the Duncans.

Hoffman went to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., a few years ago and told the Duncans he touched Kurt's name on the wall. And under Kurt's name was another name that shook him: Richard Hoffmann, USMC corporal from Illinois, killed in the same Quang Nam Province on the same day as Kurt. "I wonder sometimes if God chose the wrong Richard Hoffmann that day," he wrote.

"Please forgive me for not writing. Your son meant a great deal to all of us who served with him. I'll have him in my thoughts always."

The Duncans wrote back and for two days Hoffman left the letter unopened before asking his wife to open it and read to him. She began crying and said it was something he should read.

Hoffman read the letter and thanked the Duncans for their kind words when he wrote back. They asked him to visit them if he could get to Maple Grove and he wrote that he had a pilot friend who offered to fly him there. Last weekend Dave Duncan, a younger brother of Kurt, stopped in Chicago to see Hoffman, although Frank Duncan said he had yet to talk to son Dave to see how that went.

"It was interesting to hear more of a personal account," Frank said about the letters. "But it coincided with what the military had told us. We appreciated hearing from them after all these years."

"We were glad to get those letters but they have left us reliving those rough days," Irene wrote to a brother in Princeton this fall.

Kurt Duncan was born Sept 8, 1947, and died Sept. 18, 1968, in Vietnam, a few days after his birthday. He, like the two others from Princeton and many of the 58,000 who died there, was just a kid. He missed out on all the good things most of the others from that Princeton High School Class of 1965 have experienced.

But it helped Frank and Irene to know what his fellow platoon members thought of him.

Robert Uderitz closed his letter this way: "Some day I would like to visit his grave and say goodbye . . .so I could visit him a final time. I hope this letter has helped. It was not my intention to remind you of your loss but, rather, to tell you that others mourn his passing."


Nov. 22, 1956 — There was an intrasquad scrimmage as Coach Howard Solheim tried to pick starters for the basketball opener with Brainerd. On one team were Dick Olson, Dick Southard, Gerald Kucera, Arnett Alferness and Arnold Alferness, and on the other team were "Skeeter" Lane, Al Fischer, Dick Young, Jerry Kish and Dennis Thompson

Nov. 23, 1961 — With the basketball team coached by Clem Letich opening at home on a Tuesday night at 8 p.m. against Onamia, the wrestling team, coached by Al Provo and Jerry Peterson, was scheduled to open at home that afternoon at 2 p.m. against St. Francis.

Nov. 17, 1966 — Clayton Tonnemaker, an All-American center at the University of Minnesota (he was a teammate of Bud Grant), was the speaker at the Princeton Downtown Quarterbacks Club banquet.

Nov. 24, 1971 — With Tom Stenson as the head coach, the basketball team began practice with 27 out for the team, 17 of them sophomores . . . Don Cordes led the Rum River in rushing (stats listed last week) and Ken Ruis (18 catches, 272 yards) was third in receiving.

Nov. 25, 1976 — Tony Hofman had 17 points to lead Sternquist Implement over Crystal Cabinet Works, 60-56, in city basketball league play, and Ken Kettelhodt had 17 for Crystal. Flat Iron Bar beat Legion Club 116-26 as Jim Cartwright led Flat Iron with 19.

Nov. 19, 1981 — The PHS volleyball team (18-4) placed third in the Region 7AA tournament, losing to eventual champ International Falls in the first round and then beating Virginia. Kelley Talberg had 10 ace hits against the Broncos and Barb Blomberg had 7, followed by 8 against Virginia.

Nov. 20, 1986 — Todd Dohrwardt and Dean Swan were all-conference in football . . . Karry Schimming and Peggy Wesloh were all-conference in volleyball. 

Nov. 21, 1991 — There was plenty of experience for PHS teams beginning practice. Boys hockey had 16 letterwinners,  boys swimming 10, gymnastics 7 and girls basketball 5, three of them starters on an 18-7 team from the year before.

Nov. 21, 1996 — Sara Stark and Megan DeWall were all-conference in volleyball . . . Julia Fulton and Maria Hoeft each had a first and a second as the gymnastics team beat Little Falls in the season opener.

Nov. 15, 2001 — Lisa Pearson led the PHS swim team to a fifth-place finish in section swimming. She advanced to state in two individual events and on two relay teams, as she did in 2000. She was second in her two individual section events . . . Steve Gibbs, a 1999 PHS grad, made first team all-conference kicker for Northwestern College in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference. He was third in individual NAIA kick scoring with 64 points . . . Wendy (Jackson) Moritz, a 1992 PHS grad, coached her Sauk Centre volleyball team to the state 2A tournament and won in the first round before losing to the eventual champion in the second round.

Nov. 16, 2006 — Former PHS wrestler Justin Bronson placed third for the University of Minnesota at the Bison Open in Fargo . . . Hillary Street placed fourth in diving at the section swimming and diving meet and qualified for the state meet.

Nov. 17, 2011 —  Claire Barthel (second in the backstroke) and Carissa Fuller (diving section champion) qualified for the state swim meet at the section meet . . .The girls hockey team opened the season with a 3-2 loss to Holy Family Catholic as Raegan Anderson and Julia Osowski scored for the Tigers.

Nov. 17, 2016 — Princeton beat Rochester Century 7-1 as the girls hockey team opened the season at home. Cousins Maggie Peterson and Madisen Peterson each scored three goals.

(Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years), and has written about sports in the area for the past 54 years.)

Princeton Memory Lane

(Note: Memory Lane is published once a month with items from that month's editions of the Princeton Union and Princeton Union-Eagle of 25, 50, 75. 100 and 125 years ago.)

November, 1996 — Voters turned down the excess levy referendum sought by the school district, 3,012-2,491 (without votes tabulated from the Dalbo area). Seventy-six percent of the approximately $1 million levy would have been paid by the state.

Brian Humphrey and Russell Vance were elected to the City Council from among five candidates. Don Whitcomb was unopposed for the mayor position. Elected to the school board were incumbents Phil Lingle and Bonnie Broda, along with first-time candidate Mike Ehman.

Late Monday morning a handcuffed inmate of the Mille Lacs County jail escaped from custody on his return to jail from court. But the 20-year-old from Foley was captured later that day in Benton County, found hiding in a bedroom. Escaping from custody was added to the list of previous charges that included felony possession of a firearm, receiving stolen property and financial card fraud. 

There were no house fires in Princeton last month but it was a very busy month for the Princeton Fire Department with 31 calls. Chief Jerry Bieringer said the most calls the department has had in a year is 228 and the total for 1996, with two months to go after October was at 231. Part of the reason, Bieringer said, was that that the area is growing.

Todd Rust, former mayor of Princeton, died at age 43 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Rust, a 1971 graduate of Princeton High School, served two terms as mayor and was a longtime on-air employee of radio station WQPM in Princeton.

Wilco 6, which owned multiple funeral homes, including the Williams-Hanson-Kaun funeral home in Princeton, made a proposal to the local planning commission for purchasing the armory. (Note: The purchase was eventually made and the funeral home is located there today.)

Frank Pharmacy in Princeton terminated the selling of all tobacco products. Owner Dennis Frank gave approval to the idea of employees Lisa Robertson, Deb Burroughs and Paulette Thiel to do so.

Princeton High School sophomore Michael Lundell won the local Voice of Democracy speaking contest sponsored by the Princeton VFW and moved on to district competition. Placing second was Steve Meinz, Sara Nybo was third and Melissa Austin fourth. All won cash prizes.

November, 1971 — The City Council approved the purchase of a strip of land owned by Cliff Sandberg on Second Street, adjacent to the senior citizen housing unit, plus the lot housing the Seventh Day Adventist Church, for $9,500 to be converted to a park and sidewalks.

Dean Kral, David Berggren, Arlond Mathison and Robert Manary have filed for the City Council seat to be vacated by O. J. Odegard. 

A simulated explosion claimed 31 victims at North Elementary School at approximately 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 9 and was the beginning of a disaster drill to evaluate the performance of the local hospital and its staff, the ambulance crew, and the police and fire departments of Princeton in handling such a situation.

Aaron Mark is leaving the Princeton business scene. The store is Princeton's oldest business establishment. It was founded in 1899 and now is about to become a memory. For the past 40 years Aaron has driven every day from Minneapolis to Princeton to bring fresh produce and meats from the Twin Cities. (Note: Mark and his brother contributed the land where Mark Park is located today. The store was located on the northeast corner of the main intersection of town.)

The Chamber of Commerce elected five new members for its board of directors. They are Chester Erickson, Marvin Abrahamson, Peter Woody, Tony Damer and James Hanson. Special recognition was given to Del Liestman who had served 14 years as secretary-treasurer of the organization.

Candidates night in Princeton will be held at the armory Dec. 2, allowing the candidates for village elections an opportunity to present their positions on the problems of Princeton. The program is being sponsored by the Princeton Jaycees.

Dru Ann Bullis of the Greenbush Go-Fors 4-H Club and Douglas Gunnink of the Busy Bees were honored Nov. 18 when they received Achievement pins for outstanding contributions to their 4-H clubs. The awards were given at the annual Mille Lacs County 4-H Award Night.

November, 1946 — Halloween was properly celebrated in this village with numerous smaller parties and one big frolic in the armory sponsored by the Masons and Eastern Star members for the benefit of the hospital. The party was attended by 384 people and the net proceeds were $478.72. Practically all the 61 children and a large number of the 321 adults were in costume.

Mark Duffy on November 1 purchased from the Caley estate the building occupied by Our Own Hardware store, and on Tuesday he leased to the Red Owl store for a period of five years the annex on the south side of the building. (Note: The stores were located in the building occupied by Princeton Insurance Agency today.)

Armistice Day was fittingly observed at the meeting of the Parent Teacher association Monday evening in a program sponsored by the Princeton American Legion post, at which 200 persons were present. The closing feature was an impressive memorial service in which flowers were placed in wreaths for the veterans of World War I and World War II who have passed away.

Members of the Princeton Commercial Club are once again coming to the front for the drive for a community hospital. Arrangements have been made for  a loan of $25,000 to complete paying for the cost of the building, securing the necessary equipment, and providing a revolving fund of $7,500 for the operation of the hospital for the first few months it is open.

Mrs. Charles Klatt is probably the only woman in the Princeton territory who shot her own deer.

Advertisement: Thanksgiving Dinner. Turkey and all of the Trimmings. 12:30-3:00. If Possible Make Reservations. Shirkey Cafe, Princeton. Phone 325. 

Supt. John Slaymaker states that the Princeton school has on supply enough coal that will carry it through until Christmas. The Milaca school is a little better situated. Supt. Joseph Mork believes their supply will last until February 1 if the weather is not too severe.  

Princeton's municipal power and light plant has not yet been affected by the coal strike, due to the fact that the electricity is generated by oil.

 In accordance with a custom that has been followed in this village for many years, members of the Congregational and Methodist churches will hold a union Thanksgiving service. It will be in the Congregational church commencing at 10 o'clock Thursday morning.

November, 1921 — The first snowfall of the season in this locality made its appearance on Monday and was welcomed by the boys who were preparing to trail big game up north.

A number of hunters started for the wilds this week, Dr. Cooney and party leaving St. Cloud Sunday for a point north of Duluth to trail moose. Ira Stanley, R. D. Byers, Denny Byers and Dr. McRae started for Two Harbors to hunt deer, and Clarence Hill and party went north Tuesday to bag deer. Dr. Caley and Henry Plass were at Lake George this week hunting ducks, and numerous others have gone forth to hunt the denizens of the lake and the wilderness. 

Dr. E. L. Hall of Russell, Minn., has opened up the office formerly occupied by the late Dr. Armitage for the practice of medicine. He is a man of 19 years of practice and comes to Princeton highly recommended. It is an indisputable fact that there is plenty of work in Princeton and the adjacent territory for a third medical practitioner. We feel Dr. Hall is a man who will merit support. 

Wayne Steadman brought home a nice doe from the northern jungles and John McMinn, a big buck.

A. S. Mark was up from St. Paul looking after his business interests last Friday and Saturday. (Refer to an item in the Memory Lane items in 1971. His sons later ran the Mark store.)

Ben Whitney, Chester Cooney and Theron Nelson came up from the University of Minnesota to spend Thanksgiving with their parents in Princeton. 

November, 1896 — George Newton nearly severed two fingers of his left hand last week. His knife slipped while he was at work, inflicting a painful wound, but it is fast healing. 

A sneak thief entered Ed Hall's barn near Stanchfield last Sunday evening and took a harness. Ed was in Princeton Monday looking for the culprit with blood in his eye.

A German school has been opened in the German Lutheran church in this village.

A shocking accident occurred at Milaca which resulted in the death of Charles Curtiss, a young man of 22. He went hunting deer and was crossing the river at the upper dam. He stopped to put his hand on one of the timbers of the dam before jumping down, but before his hand touched the timber his hand slipped and he fell headlong to the gravel bed below. His rifle, a Winchester 40-65, dropped from his hand and striking on the rocks was discharged. The ball entered the prostrate man's head. 

The Sons of Veterans are planning to outdo their previous efforts in putting on the Thanksgiving ball. Their last year's entertainment was excellent, and if they give a better one, this year there will be some tall hustling. 

Next Monday morning the people who wish to transact business with Uncle Sam must look for his representative in a new location. The new case for the post office has arrived and is in place and the boxes will be put in next Sunday. The new building, two doors south of the Citizens bank, has been built expressly for the office and is roomy and well arranged.

Claire Caley, who has been attending Carleton College at Northfield, will eat turkey with his parents today. 

Tuesday morning while performing his duties as section foreman, Iver Larson was run down by a locomotive and seriously injured. He was walking on the end of the ties along one of the tracks in the yard and looking back saw an engine on the same track but headed in the opposite direction. He paid no further attention until he heard a rumble near him and turning saw the engine backing upon him. As he jumped he slipped and the tender caught him, throwing him violently into a culvert. His skull was fractured and his back wrenched and bruised.

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