ST. PAUL -- As Senate president, Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd, is no stranger to presiding at public events, but Tuesday's Bataan plaque commemoration on the state Capitol grounds was personal.
The fall of Bataan, the subsequent death march and Brainerd's link to that valiant struggle has been a lifelong fascination for Samuelson because his father, 1st Sgt. Walter Samuelson, lost his life in a Japanese prison camp after surviving the march.
The lawmaker, who was master of ceremonies to Tuesday's ceremony, was only 8 years old when Walt Samuelson left Brainerd with the 194th Tank Battalion. It was February 1941.
Memories of his father are precious and the 69-year-old Samuelson is amused at some of the odd childhood occurrences that stuck with him from those early years. He remembers visiting his father in Washington before the unit shipped overseas and how his dad siphoned gas from a vehicle so his family could fill gas cans and make a side trip to Oregon to visit relatives despite gas rationing.
Bataan Death March Survivors Jim Bogart, Walt Straka and Ken Porwoll shared a moment minutes after a wreath was laid during a plaque commemoration ceremony on the state Capitol grounds Tuesday.
He described his dad as a rough and tumble sort of character who was a bricklayer, a profession the legislator would also join before turning to union business and politics.
1st Sgt. Walter Samuelson died Dec. 7, 1942, but it wasn't until the fall of 1943 that his wife and her two children officially learned of his death. The National Guard member was 38 at the time of his death and as one of the older members of the unit, the younger Samuelson said his dad had the chance to become an officer or leave the unit.
"He would have nothing to do with that," Samuelson said.
Reading books about Bataan has been Samuelson's avocation -- always hoping to unearth some small crumb of information about the father he lost too soon.
At Tuesday's ceremony he recalled the excitement he felt when one author wrote how his Philippine-based unit was the envy of others because its members had stumbled across fresh flour and an unnamed first sergeant who was a bricklayer built them an oven so they could make fresh bread. Samuelson had little doubt that the enterprising soldier mentioned in the book was his father.
The Brainerd legislator spoke of his pride in his father and described the Bataan soldiers as true guardians of freedom. He briefly interrupted normal Senate business Tuesday to thank them and support a resolution, which was unanimously adopted, honoring them. The Senate action was followed by a standing ovation by the lawmakers as the Bataan veterans stood in the gallery and were recognized.
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