Maj. Robert Olson came home at 1:07 p.m. Saturday, a Delta Air Lines plane ushering his remains along the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport tarmac on Father’s Day weekend, 46 years after his EC-47 aircraft plunged into a Laotian jungle while at war.
His widow, Mary Kay Olson, stood with four of their five children as they watched an Air Force major carry Olson’s remains from the plane, place the urn inside a silver hearse parked near the family’s cars and give Bob, as he was known, one more salute.
Olson, then 32, was one of 10 airmen killed in a February 1969 crash. Unable at the time to positively identify all the remains, officials buried them together at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.
Mary Kay learned in September that DNA samples provided by the Olson family had produced a match good enough to identify her husband’s remains. She gave her children — all of whom have lived past his 32 years — a choice of five cemeteries. They chose Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
“This is about these people,” Mary Kay said, gesturing to her children. When their dad disappeared, none was older than 9. They all wondered where he was.
“They got their answer today,” she said. “I’m loving watching my kids.”
A funeral program for Monday’s service reads “Welcome Home Dad.”
After he graduated from Cretin High School in 1954, Bob Olson went on to the U.S. Military Academy and married Mary Kay four years later. He taught navigation at the U.S. Air Force Academy and completed his master’s in engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1968 before being sent to Vietnam.
In the months Bob was at war, the children sent care packages and exchanged letters and audiotapes. One side of each audiotape reel Bob returned contained messages for the children, the other for Mary Kay.
Mark Olexa, then 8, was among three of the children to attend Olson’s service in St. Louis. The two youngest, Kathleen and Marjorie, stayed at the family’s Faribault home with neighbors because they were too young to attend, Mary Kay said. As he waited on the tarmac Saturday, Olexa remembered his first airplane ride, the one that took him and his family to St. Louis.
Olexa said his father’s death didn’t hit him until almost a year later as he struggled to build a Pinewood Derby car for Boy Scouts.
“It looked like a stick of dynamite had hit it,” he said. “I was upset that I had no one to show me how.”
Mary Kay, who has lived in Albuquerque the past 10 years, has honored her husband by volunteering as a social worker at services for survivors of deceased military members. The Olsons’ five children had 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Mary Kay said. Family members traveled this week from Florida, Kansas City and elsewhere.
Those able to watch Bob Olson’s remains be carried back to Minnesota saw a brief ceremony that saw more smiles than sorrow. “I’m just relieved for my mom to have a place to come back to,” said Kris Harrison, the oldest of Bob and Mary Kay’s children.