Arlene Berdahl remembers clearly the day 40 years ago when military members came to the door of her home.
"I can still see it. I was in bed. It was early Sunday morning. My husband come in and said, 'You better get up. There's some military guys coming up the walk.' And I knew," she recalled.
Army Pvt. 1st Class David Donald Berdahl is still missing.
Eloise Ogden/MDN • Arlene Berdahl, of Minot, holds a photo Wednesday of her son, Army Pvt. 1st Class David D. Berdahl, who has been missing, but not forgotten, for 40 years. Arlene and family members will be special guests at Minot Air Force Base today at the base’s National POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony.
Today, Arlene Berdahl, 86, of Minot, and family members will be special guests at a ceremony at Minot Air Force Base for National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day. Arnie Havelka, Minot, American Legion district commander for several counties, will speak.
The day also includes a 24-hour run beginning at the base at 7 a.m. to symbolize the pain endured by POWs and MIAs. This evening, the names of those missing in action will be read and there will also be fireworks at sundown. Several of Arlene's children and a family friend plan to attend the morning ceremony at the base.
David Berdahl was one of 13 children of Donald and Arlene Berdahl. He was their eldest son.
David was on a search-and-rescue mission Jan. 20, 1972, when the helicopter he was in was hit by ground fire and crashed in Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam.
According to Defense Department reports, search-and-rescue forces on the scene recovered six people from the site but were unable to land and recover others because of the presence of hostile forces.
The helicopter had been on a mission to recover two downed F-4 pilots when it was hit. An accompanying observer pilot did not believe anyone survived the crash or subsequent fire.
David had turned 19 just a few days earlier.
"In fact, he didn't even get his birthday card. I had sent it way ahead of time. He would have been 19 on the 16th of January and he was killed on the 20th. He never got the birthday card," his mother said Wednesday.
David was supposed to be a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, his mother said. "But all of a sudden he ended up as a helicopter gunner. That's because he had volunteered. He always volunteered to make these runs when there was some rescue. He had made more than one run." She said David would write in his letters to her that he was making the search-and-rescue runs.
David was serving with Troop D, 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, of the 101st Airborne Division.
He was listed as missing in action on Jan. 20, 1972. His status was changed to killed in action in 1973. His remains have never been recovered.
Arlene said the Army has kept her informed over the years and still does. "They've been out there searching," she said.
"We've never gotten any dog tags, no remains nothing," said Linda Seaman, Minot, Arlene's daughter and David's sister.
Arlene said they were presented her son's Purple Heart and other medals by former Sen. Byron Dorgan at Minot AFB a number of years ago. The medals are in a frame near two photos of David, wearing his Army uniform, hanging on the wall in the Berdahl living room.
David was born in Michigan, N.D., Jan. 16, 1953. The family moved to Minot in 1955. He went to school in Minot and when he turned 18, he joined the military.
"He wanted to join before he was 18 but we put it off... Finally when he turned 18 then he said 'you don't have to sign for me anymore. I want to go in the service,' " his mother recalled. He joined the Army in 1971.
She said David always wanted to be helping people. "When he was here in town he was always helping somebody. He had to be doing something for somebody all the time," she said.
He especially loved being outdoors.
"David used to love the stars and loved to stay out and camp outside," Linda recalled. "I remember lots of times we'd camp outside. I don't know that we had sleeping bags, I think we just had lots of big pillows and blankets, and laying right out in the middle of the backyard. We had a big backyard. I remember one time we were out there and we were looking at the stars, we were talking about this star and all the stars."
She also remembers when David built into a tree a three-story fort of cardboard for the kids. "It had an upstairs, main floor and then the bottom floor. It was the neatest fort I ever seen in my life," Linda said.
During the 1969 flood in Minot the Berdahl family had to leave their home and move to Glenburn, but David stayed to help Minot AFB volunteers sandbag in the city. "He sandbagged and sandbagged," his mother said.
Linda also remembers when David sneaked her into the Corner Pocket so they could play pool together. Their mother didn't know anything about it, she said.
David's 12 brothers and sisters are, from oldest to youngest: Marlene Brandt, Minot; Marilyn Jorde, Kokomo, Ind.; Connie Mercier, Walton, Ind.; Carol Florez, St. Augustine, Fla.; David; and Roxann Keelan, Linda Seaman, Allan Berdahl, Donnie Berdahl, Peggy Sheppard, Kathy Berdahl, Lorie Meyer and Robert Berdahl, all of Minot.
Arlene also has 67 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. A grandson and a granddaughter served in the military. Another grandson just entered the Marines. Sons-in-law also have served.
Arlene's husband, Donald, died three years ago.
A memory marker for Pvt. 1st Class David Berdahl is located in Minot's Rosehill Memorial Park.
Every change of season Arlene said she goes to the cemetery to decorate her husband's grave, a grandson's grave and David's marker. She and other family members visit the cemetery often.
Arlene is a member of the Minot American Legion Auxiliary, Unit 26.
"I'm proud of the military. Without the military, what would it be like?" she said.
"And I'm so proud of this," she said, referring to the POW/MIA event at the base that she will be attending today. "I've waited 40 years for this to happen."