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It’s a Family Affair: The Danielsons Legacy of Service

Ben Danielson as a Lieutenant, in front of his T-38 trainer.

Cadet William Danielson is a junior in the AFROTC program at Washington State University. He was awarded a Daedalian Foundation matching scholarship tied to Inland Empire Flight 41 in December. However, the scholarship award was only the latest chapter in a family history strongly tied to a military aviation legacy and relationship with the Order of Daedalians.

In December 2019, several of our staff met Cadet Danielson and his family, including CDR Brian Danielson, a naval aviator. The occasion was a memorial flight and banquet at JBSA Randolph. The banquet was one of a series of events honoring the 50th anniversary of the Boxer 22 rescue effort.

“Boxer 22” was the call sign Cadet Danielson’s grandfather, Captain Ben Danielson, had flown under during his final flight. He was shot down during a combat mission over Laos in an F-4 Phantom on December 5, 1969. Captain Danielson had been awarded the Orville Wright Achievement Award in 1968.

Captain Ben Danielson was raised in Kenyon, Minnesota. He attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota where he was a member of the football team and a cadet in their Air Force ROTC program. Following graduation and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, Danielson married his high school sweetheart Mary Gates. They would go on to have one child, Brian Danielson.

Ben Danielson wanted to fly but was initially rejected for a pilot training slot because he couldn’t pass the eye test. The Air Force initially made him a weatherman instead. While attending weather school, he worked toward civilian pilot ratings by getting as many flight hours as possible with civilian flying clubs.

During this period, he also helped start up the Air Force Academy flight program.  While stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Danielson spent as much time as he could teaching cadets at the Air Force Academy flight program. Through these efforts, he was recognized for his flying ability. Magically, Danielson passed his eye test and was able to transition to become a pilot. The Air Force sent him to flight school in Selma, Alabama.

The tenacity Ben Danielson had demonstrated in pursuing as much flying time as possible to attain civilian pilot qualifications paid off at undergraduate pilot training. He was one of five individuals awarded the Orville Wright Achievement Award in 1968. The host that year was none other than the legendary Robin Olds. Danielson and his entire family were extremely proud of this high honor.

Upon completion of pilot training, Captain Danielson was assigned to a one-year tour of duty as an F-4C pilot in the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at Cam Rahn Air Base. On Dec. 5, 1969 Captain Danielson, and his weapons systems officer, 1st Lt. Woody Bergeron, were shot down in Laos during a bombing run over the Mui Gia Pass. Danielson and Bergeron ejected, landing on opposite sides of a dog leg in the Nam Ngo valley. Unfortunately, the area had a high concentration of enemy forces, making the rescue effort challenging from the start.

The subsequent rescue mission to save the two aviators stands as the largest combat search and rescue operation of the Vietnam War. A total of 336 sorties were flown by Skyraiders, HH-3, and HH-53 helicopters. Over the course of three days, they expended 1,463 smart bombs, high-explosive bombs, cluster bombs, smoke bombs, napalm bombs and rocket pods in the attempt to recover Danielson and Bergeron from their positions, heavily surrounded by enemy fighters that were diligently searching for them. The life of one pararescueman was lost, five Skyraiders were damaged, and five of the Jolly Green Giants involved would never fly again. A full account of the rescue mission can be read here.

Bergeron and Danielson were able to remain in contact over radio over the course of the first day and night. During the second day, Bergeron lost contact with Danielson after hearing yelling by enemy forces, followed by a long burst of bullets, and a scream. Bergeron believed Danielson had been killed. Another terrifying day and night followed, but Lieutenant Bergeron was ultimately rescued after 50 hours on the ground, with enemy forces closing in as near as 25 meters of his position. Captain Danielson’s were not recovered, and he was listed as Missing in Action until 1976 when his status was officially changed to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered.

Brian Danielson was just 18 months old when his father’s F-4C Phantom was shot down. Following this disaster, Danielson and his mother, Mary, lived in the community of Kenyon. Attracted to his father’s legacy of service and sacrifice, Brian would go on to pursue a career in military aviation, flying  EA-18 Growlers as a Naval Flight Officer. In 2006, CDR Danielson had the unique opportunity to serve as an Individual Augmentee in Laos, where he helped a joint military forensic team excavate the remains of a missing service member. He became the first active-duty service member to search for a father who was officially missing or killed in action. In 2007, Captain Danielson’s remains, discovered in 2003, were officially identified after being discovered, and he was finally laid to rest at home in Minnesota. CDR Danielson is Daedalian Member Number 2623 and continues to be actively involved in POW/MIA work and advocacy.

In 2011, a squadron at JBSA Randolph dedicated their auditorium to Captain Ben Danielson. The day of remembrances during the dedication also included a “heritage flight” in T-38s as CDR Brian Danielson and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim George, who led the rescue effort, were able to fly together as passengers in a T-38 pair.

During 50th Anniversary ceremonies held at JBSA Randolp in 2019, grandson William Danielson had the opportunity to participate in a heritage flight with Woody Bergeron, his grandfather’s backseater, as passengers in a T-38 pair. Bergeron has remained in touch with the Danielson family, and has shared memories and stories of Captain Ben Danielson with his grandson. His grandfather’s legacy has inspired William to serve as well.

Cadet Danielson has been awarded both a “You Can Fly” ROTC scholarship toward a solo flight and a Daedalian Foundation matching scholarship from Inland Empire Flight 41 and has ten flight hours. Will is currently a junior architecture student and AFROTC cadet at Washington State University. His career goal is to attend undergraduate pilot training and become a career Air Force pilot. The family is proud to continue their tradition of service to our nation as military aviators.