St. Paul native Donald R. Duchene was 18 years old when he dropped out of high school and bent the truth to enlist in the military during World War II.
He never made it home, but his body will finally return to Minnesota next week after his remains were identified as part of a Department of Defense program.
Duchene used a common teenage ploy to make his way into the military, his niece Diane Erickson was told.
“At that time, you needed a parent’s permission or had to be 21,” Erickson, of Forest Lake, said. “He had asked his mom for permission and she said no. So then he went to his dad saying, ‘Mom said it was OK,’ and he signed so that he could join.”
The remains of Duchene, who was 19 when he died, have been identified after nearly 80 years of being an “Unknown.”
In 1943, Duchene was assigned to the 344th Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group, 9th Air Force. On Aug. 1, 1943, he was serving as the tail gunner of an aircraft that was hit by enemy fire and crashed during the largest bombing mission against the oil fields and refineries at Ploiesti, called Operation Tidal Wave, which occurred north of Bucharest, Romania, according to a release from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA).
Since his remains were not initially identified, he was buried as “unknown” in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania, after the war.
“My mom was only 10 when he died, so she doesn’t have many memories, but she knows the effects it had on her mom,” Erickson said. “From what I understand, she never forgave my grandpa for that and the grief after him dying never left her.”
Another niece, Vicki Johnson of White Bear Lake, said her mom has a vivid memory of being out roller skating when the telegram came to inform their family of Duchene’s death. According to Johnson, he could have been discharged at the time, however, he decided to voluntarily take on his last mission.
”Her mother thought it was when he was coming home because she knew his missions were done, so she was so excited,” Johnson said. “She ran out to the telegram person and said, ‘It’s my son! It’s my son! He’s coming home!’ And indeed he was shot down and missing.”
Although Duchene was viewed as the “rebel” of the family by his brother and two sisters for his decisions, he was remembered as a “very outgoing, friendly, happy guy,” Johnson said her mother had told her.
The DPAA began in 2017 unburying remains believed to be associated with the unknown airmen from Operation Tidal Wave and sent them for identification and examination to the DPAA Laboratory at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
On July 8, 2022, Duchene’s remains were accounted for by identifying him through evidence including anthropological, dental, Y chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA analysis.
“We finally have closure,” Johnson said. “I never knew him, but it’s just such an honor to be a part of this and to welcome him back home for my mom.”
The remains of Duchene will be buried at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, where his nieces and nephews will gather in addition to his youngest sister, who is the only remaining member of his immediate family. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. at Holcomb-Henry-Boom-Purcell Funeral Home in Shoreview.
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