Enticed by the U.S. Navy’s recruitment pitch “to see the world,” Frederick “Fritz” Koerner enlisted during the Korean War. He made it as far as Illinois and Florida.
After his discharge, while working an engineering job with Honeywell, Inc., Koerner finally got to travel internationally. He and his wife, Jeanne, lived in Japan, England and Sweden while he worked on war spy planes, including the famous SR-71 Blackbird.
Last year, Koerner was moved to St. Therese of New Hope for dementia. On Easter, the family learned that Koerner’s roommate had COVID-19. Koerner died of the virus eight days later. He was 86.
“The day he died, we were behind glass,” said his daughter, Kandice Bennett, of Grand Rapids, Minn. “We spoke to him as a nurse held a telephone to his ear.”
Koerner grew up in Bovey, Minn., and graduated from high school in Litchfield, where he met his future wife. During the Korean War, he started to learn electrical engineering. He told his family that he was discharged after three years, three months and three days.
He attended the University of Minnesota while working for Honeywell in its aeronautics division. During his 39-year career, he worked on projects around the world, Bennett said. That included Area 51, where, he told his family, he never saw any aliens.
Koerner worked on the famed SR-71 Blackbird, a spy plane used during the Cold War that flew faster and at a higher altitude than any other airplane at the time.
“It was all top secret,” Bennett said. “As kids, we just told our friends our dad worked at Honeywell.”
After retirement, he moved to his lake home in Bovey and later to Minneapolis.
When the veterans’ home could no longer care for him, Koerner was moved into St. Therese. His wife visited him daily until virus restrictions were put in place in March.
Bennett raised concerns with the nursing staff after learning Koerner’s roommate had COVID-19. She was surprised they weren’t going to separate patients, but was told the nursing home was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“We just believed we would have to put our trust in God’s hands,” she said. “We feel the staff did the best they could.”
Koerner loved bird-watching, fishing and listening to country and gospel music. He was an excellent storyteller and “had so many interesting stories to tell,” his wife said.
Other survivors include daughter Kathy Bennethum of Maple Grove and son Mark of Brooklyn Park.
A graveside service will be held later in Litchfield.