Two elder Navy veterans were slowly escorted to chairs under a cobalt clear sky.
A bright spring sun warmed their places at the edge of Eden Prairie’s Veterans Memorial. It was Memorial Day, May 31, 2021.
Some 250 grownups and children sat on the lush lawn in front of them. Others wandered quietly through the gardens that embrace the handsome memorial. They welcomed the return of their city’s annual veterans remembrance to Purgatory Creek Park.
Two years ago, the event was rained out. Last year’s pandemic-careful ceremony was a virtual event via a streaming service. The only apparent change to the memorial’s setting was the high, French curve of cement and steel that now flanks the park’s northeast edge. The structure will carry light rail trains.
People seemed relieved to be with others in the sunlight without masks. Smiles were public. Smiles were shared. They came to honor those who had died while serving in the military. They also came to salute Lou Ellingson, a Swift Boat officer-in-charge during the War in Vietnam, in person, as well as Jim McDougall, a gunner on an amphibious plane in the Southwest Pacific during the Second World War.
The Monday ceremony began with gravitas. The colors were presented by honor guards of the Viking Civil Air Patrol Cadets and the Eden Prairie Police Officers. Retired St. Andrew’s Church pastor Rod Anderson sang “Taps”. Mayor Ron Case called for the people of Eden Prairie to make a difference in someone’s life regardless of who they are; to make the world a better place one day at a time.
Jim McDougall, who lives in Minnetonka, was greeted at the podium by Eden Prairie Veterans Memorial Committee member Steve Steele. The 98-year old veteran recounted missions he flew as a crew-member on a Navy PBY Catalina. The slow flying, amphibious planes were black painted and used for search and rescue, reconnaissance, and bombing enemy ships. Steele injected questions to prompt McDougall’s stories within stories. While McDougall talked, his admiring friend 10-year old August Reibe roamed the crowd holding high a large model of the Catalina craft that U.S. sailors had dubbed “The Black Cat.”
Luther “Lou” Ellingson was escorted to the podium by his daughter Katherine Oliver, granddaughter Avery Schotsko and his colleague Bill Cochrane. Behind them was the Eden Prairie Veterans Memorial. It is appointed with sculptures of soldiers from U.S. wars and dressed with Minnesota black granite bearing names and dates. The two vets stood next to one another at the microphone as Cochrane spoke on behalf of his friend.
Dementia and Parkinson’s Disease can fog a good Lou Ellingson story or block a name or fact. Bill covered for Lou and spoke for him. But Lou also had Bill’s back, whispering to him the correct pronunciation of the U.S.S. Mountrail, the attack transport ship he had served on prior to his swift boat command.
As told by Bill, Lou’s armed, 50-foot-long Swift Boat patrolled Vietnam’s coastal waters, rivers and canals from the De-militarized zone in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south.
During Lou’s training in San Diego for Swift Boat deployment in Vietnam, he met a young lady named Paula who would become his beloved wife of 42 years. Paula died in 2013.
Attending the ceremony were Lou’s son Chuck Ellingson and his wife Melea, as well as their children Mason and Mathew. Katherine’s son James (one of Lou’s grandsons) and her sister Elizabeth Shotzko and her husband Adam and their children Avery, Evan, and Eli were present as were family friends Chad O’bert and Chaily Elfstrom.
Each presentation was rich with accounts of being in the thick of things, with the nostalgia, perspectives, and humor of the men who, during their youth, sported those white, Navy service hats dubbed “dixie cups.” Lou Ellingson and Bill McDougall shared smiles.
During a June 2nd phone conversation, Chuck Ellingson explained that his father Lou has moved from their long time home on Darnel Road to The Waters of Eden Prairie, a care community for seniors with memory impairment.
Ellingson says that his father’s dementia and Parkinson’s Disease were brought on by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam. The defoliant was sprayed by helicopters flying over mangrove stands and shipping channels that Lou’s swift boat had been patrolling.
For more about Lou Ellingson and Jim McDougall read the May 24, 2021 Eden Prairie Local News article.