OTTUMWA — Former teacher Don Hansen’s grandmother wasn’t happy when she heard him say he wanted to go into the military. It’s hard to blame her.
She had seven sons, each of whom had already been in uniform. Having a grandson put himself in that position just wasn’t something she was prepared to tolerate.
Looking back decades later, Hansen understands now how unusual his family’s stories were. Seven members of one family, all brothers, and all serving in the armed forces at different times. It’s a legacy that’s hard for many to imagine.
Soon, the brothers’ stories will be published in “Seven who Served,” a book Hansen has written based on family records and letters. The blurb on the back sums things up:
“A generation of service.”
The extraordinary story almost began earlier. Hansen’s grandfather, Leo, was a coal miner who volunteered after Pearl Harbor. But he was in his 40s, with nine kids, and in an essential industry. The military wouldn’t take him. That made Mitchell the first to join.
“People around here would remember him as Mickey,” Hansen said. Okinawa was the big battle Hansen remembers his uncle being in, “but he had battle stars from, I don’t know, about seven or eight other places.”
Ronnie was the second brother. Sent to the Atlantic, he served on a troop ship. It wasn’t usually direct combat, but there were moments that got plenty hairy when the ship knew there were U-Boats stalking the convoy.
Donnie, Hansen’s father, was third. He entered the Navy right at the end of World War II. Late enough, in other words, not to be in battles but still close enough that he wasn’t sure all of the enemy combatants knew the war was over.
“Dad had just gotten out of the Navy when Danny joined,” Hansen said. “He kind of ran away from home and he joined the Army airborne at the age of 16. He used Dad’s birth certificate.”
Since Hansen’s father was already out of the Navy and back home, the FBI took an interest in how he was apparently getting a paycheck from the Army. But Danny didn’t get kicked out. He had made something like 30 jumps and was a good soldier, so they let him stay until his enlistment ran out. He left just before the Korean War began.
Mike was next. He served in Iceland. He was the family daredevil, with a thing for racing cars. “He was quite a character,” Hansen said.
Pat went to Vietnam with the Army. Hansen thinks he got out shortly before the Tet Offensive. Hugh — Huey — the family’s youngest, served in Vietnam, too. He cleared mines for the Marines.
“He was wounded when his truck hit a mine that the Vietcong had brought in after they cleared the road and his squad was killed. He was the only one who survived,” Hansen said. “He was the last brother, and he was the one who was injured most severely.”
Huey survived his injuries. Not only that, but after he got out and he got a “Dear John” letter, Huey went back into the Marines.
The stories were just part of the family for most of Hansen’s life. They would talk at family events and tease each other about the intra-branch rivalries. It wasn’t until decades later when he really started to understand just how unusual his family’s story is.
“They just, they had a mutual bond. They were not just brothers by blood. They were brothers in arms. I don’t want to use the ‘band of brothers’ cliché, but they were brothers in arms as well,” Hansen said. “They were brothers in service. They felt they followed their sense of duty and they followed their sense of family.”
Several of Hansen’s cousins also put on the uniform in different branches of the armed forces. But not Hansen. His grandmother heard his plan to join the Marines and go to Vietnam, and had heard enough.
“Grandmother’s two rooms away. She comes storming in from the kitchen, shaking her finger, ‘You will not join the service! I will not send another one of my sons over there! I will shoot you myself!’” he said. “And I, ok, I never did.”
Hansen found another way to serve. He taught. His book will be published in about two weeks.