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Harrison Township honors veterans with ceremony

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published November 9, 2018

 The 49 cloth poppies decorating the Harrison Township Veteran’s Memorial Garden represent the 49 Macomb County residents lost during World War I.

The 49 cloth poppies decorating the Harrison Township Veteran’s Memorial Garden represent the 49 Macomb County residents lost during World War I.

Photo by Sean Work

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HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Lt. Col. Donald “Digger” Odell enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on Sept. 6, 1952.

Raised in Pontiac, Odell served until April 1954, when he entered the Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program. He received his commission and wings on Aug. 1, 1955, and became an instructor pilot in the U.S. Air Force Officer Training School from 1955-58.

He later served a tour in Europe from 1959-62, and was assigned to the 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. In late 1966, Odell received his assignment to F-105 fighter bombers undergoing crew training at McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita, Kansas.

Odell arrived at the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat Air Base in Thailand in August 1967, and was shot down on his 17th mission on Oct. 17, 1967, approximately 16 miles northeast of Hanoi, in North Vietnam.

Odell recalled the chaos that ensued at the time during a Veterans memorial program at Harrison Township’s Veterans Park on Nov. 3.

“I remember thinking this always happens to the other guy,” he said. “Turns out I was the other guy.”

Odell ejected from the flaming plane and landed right in enemy territory.

“I hit a rice paddy, slid down and there were six on me immediately; three of them were females, and they all had their guns pointed at me,” he said. “All I had was a .38. I wasn’t about to challenge them with a little .38.”

Odell was stripped of everything he had on him, including his clothing (except his underwear) and was taken prisoner. Along with his fellow POWs, he was subjected to years of torture from interrogators attempting to obtain military, political and autobiographical information.

“You would talk to him or you would die,” he recalled.

He also spent time at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he sustained a serious injury when one interrogator struck him on the head with such force that Odell was unable to use his arms and legs for a period, and even had to be fed. He was later imprisoned with another soldier he had known and who was coincidentally a physical therapist; something their captors were unaware of.

“He (his cellmate) kept at me all day until I was able to walk and use my arms again,” Odell said.

Odell was released from POW status after more than five years on March 14, 1973. After a hospitalization period, he returned home to Michigan on April 7, 1973, and, due to the injuries he sustained as a POW, was medically retired from the Air Force on March 11, 1975.

Odell continued to serve at Selfridge as the base Public Relations Officer until his retirement in 1990.

“There really is no bad day in my life,” he said. “Some days are better than others, but there are no bad days.”

For his service, Odell received the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal for Valor, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor.

During the township’s Veterans program, organized annually by the Beautification Commission, Odell was recognized with three other local veterans, including one posthumously, and their names were added to the Veteran’s Memorial Garden walls.

Also honored were veterans Larry Wyland, who served in the U.S. Air Force, William Burns, who served in the U.S. Army, and Michael Snyder, who served in the U.S. Army.

Presenting certificates of appreciation were former township Supervisor Anthony Forlini, now the district director for U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, and Mary Kay Sogge, legislative aide to state Rep. Steve Marino, who was unable to attend.

“All we can say is thank you,” Sogge said. “You all are our heroes.”

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