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A chance to say goodbye

Family members of Earl Halvorson, whose submarine went missing in WWII, gather as he received military honors

Photos by Deb Gau Elaine Johnson, sister of Earl Halvorson, is presented with an American flag during military honors for Earl at Hemnes Lutheran Cemetery on Friday morning. Below, wreaths and a framed photo of Earl Halvorson were placed near the site of a new headstone with Earl’s death date.

MINNEOTA — Elaine Johnson was 13 when her brother Earl Halvorson left to join the Navy, but she said she never got the chance to say goodbye to him. Then for 75 years Earl was missing.

The submarine Earl Halvorson served on disappeared during World War II.

Everything changed when the wreck of the USS Grayback was found off the coast of Japan.

“It was two years ago when my cousin Terry (Gniffke) called and said, ‘Elaine, the Grayback’s been found,’ “ said Elaine’s son Thomas Johnson. “Now it’s my mom’s turn to say goodbye.”

Family members and guests gathered at Hemnes Lutheran Cemetery on Friday, as a new headstone with Earl’s date of death was placed. Military honors were held for Earl, and Elaine was presented with an American flag in her brother’s memory. U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach also spoke briefly at the memorial.

“It is my honor to be here today to honor Earl’s memory,” Fischbach said. “He never will be forgotten.”

Seaman 1st Class Earl Halvorson was one of the 80 submarine crew members declared missing when the U.S.S. Grayback failed to return from its last mission in 1944. Japanese reports said the submarine was struck by two 250-kilogram bombs on Feb. 27, 1944.

Earl’s mother Amelia Halvorson worked hard to get a headstone for Earl in the first place, as it was not something that would typically be done for a service member missing in action, said Earl’s niece Deb Anderson. Over the past two years, Earl’s family worked with a range of people including staff at the Lyon County Veterans Service Office and Fischbach’s office, to get an updated headstone with Earl’s death date.

“The stone’s journey is a long one,” Earl’s niece Deb Anderson said of the new headstone.

Anderson said the memorial service was “kind of overwhelming.”

“There was just a strong sense that there is patriotism, love of country and love of family,” she said.

Johnson reflected on Earl’s life and military service at the memorial.

“On Oct. 10, Earl would have been 97. We all might have been here today knowing Earl and celebrating the accomplishments of a long life,” Johnson said.

Halvorson’s family was part of the Minneota area community and the Hemnes church congregation.

“For a time, Earl had strong ties to his family, and his community,” Johnson said. Earl’s father Johnnie Halvorson died when Earl was 8. Amelia Halvorson struggled to raise five children alone during the Depression, and the family moved to Marshall and went on welfare.

“(Earl) quit high school after being accused of cheating on his homework and copying from his sister, which he didn’t do,” Johnson said.

Earl then had to leave home or risk his family losing their benefits.

Through it all, Earl stayed protective of his family and his country, and enlisted in the Navy at age 17, Johnson said.

“It turned out Earl was grounded by a strong mother figure,” Johnson said. “She pushed her children to work hard.”

However, Amelia suffered deep regret after Earl disappeared, he said.

Earl was only 19 when he died, but he still left a lasting impact on generations of his family, Johnson said.

Terry Gniffke said his experiences as a Marine and a Vietnam veteran taught him that military service members are part of something larger than themselves.

“I know my uncle Earl felt the same,” Gniffke said.

The crew of the Grayback were “heroes who gave their last full measure for their country,” he said.

“Uncle Earl, we love you and we wish we could have known you,” Gniffke said.

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