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The boys from Balaton

Monument honors five men killed in action 

“Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that can happen, being forgotten is.”

- Susie Stephens-Harvey, sister-in-law of Stephen J. Geist, MIA since Sept. 26, 1967

By Gary Kass of Balaton

Lakeside Cemetery Memorial grave markers (L to R) Swan Swanson Jr., Jerry C. Christensen, marker for the unknown dead (middle), Charles P. Garton and Warren G. Collins. In the foreground is the marker for Larry D. Williams. The memorial is located between Balaton and Lynd, Minnesota. Contributed photo

Just off Lyon County Road 5 between Balaton and Lynd in southwestern Minnesota lies Lakeside Cemetery. There, atop a pine-covered hill, an American flag flutters weakly in the frigid Minnesota air. The flag sits atop a circular concrete memorial marking the graves of five young men from the area who gave their lives in the service of our country. However, the graves are empty, their mortal remains lie deep in ocean depths, in unmarked graves near long forgotten battlefields where they fell or, in a grave far from home. Here too, is a memorial to all the unknown soldiers who died for our country. Two sailors, one airman and two soldiers are remembered here.

Lakeside Memorial Dedication by the Balaton American Legion Post 237, L to R: Lynn Wichmann, Kenneth Miller, Dean Mitzner, John Daniels, (partially obscured) Lou Roberts, Pastor Lori Von Holtum, Larry Sloan, Gary Loeck, Ron Borchert and Kenneth Gilberry. Contributed photo

The monument, dedicated with full military honors by the Balaton American Legion Post 237 in 2019, is the result of a committee formed in 2017 by three Vietnam-Era Veterans, Jim Wickman, Ken Gilberry and Carl Peterson. They were aided in conceiving the Memorial by contractor Douglas Kass, the brother of a local veteran. Kass poured the concrete slab and helped with the artistry on the face of the monument. The Memorial is dedicated in memory of five local sons and the unknown dead. These lives, forever unfulfilled, are remembered here in honor. Smitten families remember them best but, Veterans too, know the pain of comrades lost far away, all too young.

Warren G. Collins

April 7, 1921-April 17, 1944

Warren G. Collins was born in Lake Wilson, Minn., on April 7, 1921, growing up in Murray County. He attended rural schools in that area and graduated from Balaton High School in 1940. His family moved to Chicago and he joined the Army Air Corps there on Jan. 14, 1943. After initial training he was assigned to Headquarters Company, 309th Bomber Group. He was one of seven airmen on a medium bomber that was on a training flight over the Atlantic Ocean on April 17, 1944. The plane never returned to base and, after an extensive search, Collins and his six shipmates were declared to be lost at sea.

These men from Balaton are memorialized for serving and giving their lives for our country in WWII. L to R: Larry Williams, Charles Garton, Jerry Christensen, “Swan” Swanson, Warren Collins. Four of the men died in action and their bodies were not recovered. Larry was buried at Fort Snelling Cemetery. Contributed photo


Pershing Garton

April 23, 1919-Oct. 20, 1944

Charles P. Garton was the youngest of nine children. He grew up near Balaton, Minn., and graduated there in 1938. After graduation, he was working for the CNW railroad when, in January 1940, his mother, Mary passed away. Shortly after, Garton decided that he would have a better chance of schooling in the Navy and joined in the fall of that year. Gunners Mate 1st Class Garton served in several campaigns in the Pacific aboard fleet flagships. Garton’s ship, the USS Honolulu, was hit by a torpedo plane near Luzon on Oct. 20, 1944. He was killed in the explosion of the torpedo near his duty station. An inquiry by the Navy determined that Garton was killed in the explosion and lost at sea.

Swan Swanson

March 27, 1925-Jan. 8, 1945 

Swan Swanson was the third of seven children. His parents divorced when he was about nine and his two older brothers moved to Avoca, Minn., with his dad. Swan and his four younger siblings stayed with his mother in the Balaton area. His older brother Elmer would often hitchhike between the two cities. He said that Swan was his favorite brother. Without parental permission, Swanson enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was sent to the Pacific. In hopes for a better future, he mailed his dad a great deal of his Navy wages, even selling (then issued) cigarettes and sending home that money too. Swan was assigned to the USS California, a battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor and later raised and repaired. On deployment for the invasion of the Philippines, the California was hit by a kamikaze plane on Jan. 6, 1945, off of Luzon. Swanson was severely injured and died two days later. Because of operational urgency, Swanson, along with the other 43 sailors killed in the attack were buried at sea off Luzon. Unknown at the time, his brother Elmer was fighting with the 6th Infantry Division on Luzon some 50 miles from where Swan was killed.

The National League of Families POW/MIA flag, often referred to as the POW/MIA flag, was adopted in 1972 and consists of the official emblem of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Its slogan is “You are not forgotten.”

Jerry C. Christensen

June 13, 1925-December 10, 1950

Jerry C. Christensen grew up near Balaton, Minn., and attended school there. He joined the Army in 1946 and served with the occupation forces in Japan. Christensen was sent to Korea shortly after the hostilities began there on July 1, 1950. He was assigned to the S-3 (Operations) of the 34th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. With the North Korean Army’s aggressive and successful early actions, the 24th Division experienced major battlefield setbacks and Christensen was captured in fighting near the Town of Taejon S.K. on or about July 20, 1950. Forced to march to North Korea in what is now known as the “Tiger Death March,” he was believed to be held as a prisoner of war near Hanjang N. K. Even after the Korean Armistice of July 27, 1953, there was no word about Christensen. It was not until 1954 that the Army changed his status from missing in action to presumed dead on or around Dec. 10, 1950. It was determined that he most likely died as a POW in North Korea and was buried there. He was survived by his parents and a young wife Adele, all of Balaton. 

Larry Williams in 1964, on the day his daughter Brenda was born. Larry was killed in an ambush in Vietnam about three years later. He had only been in Vietnam for nine days. Contributed photo

Larry D. Williams

August 14, 1943-May 5, 1968

Larry Williams grew up the oldest of two children. His sister Lona recalled he was a fun-loving and mischievous older brother. He was active in many school activities. He dropped out of school and joined the Army from 1962 until 1965. He re-enlisted on March 1968 and was assigned as a heavy vehicle driver in the 43rd Signal Battalion, 1st Signal Brigade. William’s convoy was ambushed and he and everyone in the convoy were killed on May 5, 1968, just nine days after he arrived in Vietnam. He is buried in Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis. He left behind his wife Patricia, three-year-old daughter Brenda, sister Lona and his parents.

The weak March sun shines dimly over the understated memorial, even as the winter wind blows raw. I reflect on these proud young men memorialized here in frigid glory. I remember the grainy pictures I gathered from old newspapers and their sad families. Those pictures and these cold stones now constitute the only earthly manifestations of these brave young men and the price they paid to keep us free. Let us never forget them. 

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