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Stories of veterans past haunt Memorial Day present

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Ken and Kris BilderbackMemorial Day means different things to different people.

For some, it will be little more than an excuse to fire up the barbecue for the first time this year. For caretakers at local cemeteries, however, the holiday marks the busiest time of the year, as they prepare the grounds and place flags on the graves of veterans. For the families of some of those veterans, Memorial Day is somber, as they visit the graves of their loved ones. Over the decades, however, some families have not even had the simple comfort of knowing that their loved one is at rest.

Such was the fate of the Lien family during World War II. Norman Lien was a kid from Banks who got straight As in high school. He was also a star athlete and a member of the Banks High School debate team that won the state championship in 1941. Norman graduated at the age of 16 and enrolled at Oregon State College. When he turned 17 he joined the Navy, which transferred him to the University of Colorado, where he won national honors in mathematics.

The Navy had high hopes for him, but Norman had other ideas. He asked several times to be sent to the front lines, and in 1943 the Navy complied. On Feb. 13, 1945, just weeks after Norman arrived in the war zone, his parents received a telegram informing them that their son was dead.

The message was cryptic, saying only that Norman’s death involved a shotgun and an accident. They would never learn the details. The telegram said that he was buried on a South Pacific island, the location of which would not be divulged until the war ended. Indeed, after the war his parents learned that he had died on Samar Island, and his remains were sent home to Oregon.

In the Vietnam War, Forest Grove was shocked when two well-known local men went missing in action. Months passed before Darlene Sehorn learned that her pilot husband was being held in a North Vietnamese prison.

Meanwhile, the Condits, owners of a local feed store, clung to hope that their pilot son, Douglas, was alive, even if he was in prison.

James Sehorn returned to a hero’s welcome on March 30, 1973, with a police escort and cheering crowds all the way from the Portland airport to a huge rally in downtown Forest Grove. Although now living in the Puget Sound area, he still occasionally visits his hometown.

Douglas Condit’s mother, Eva, on the other hand, held onto hope for a happy reunion with her son for the next 17 years but died in 1990 with her hopes unfulfilled.

Douglas finally got the welcome home he deserved, though not the one anyone wanted. His remains were found in a dense jungle in 1992. On July 24, 1993, four F-15 fighters flew overhead in formation as he was laid to rest at Forest View Cemetery, next to the grave of his mother.

Sadly, the wait for the Hutchens family, in all likelihood, will never end. Wayne Hutchens was the co-pilot on a B-17 bomber, flying daring raids over the Mediterranean Sea in 1943 during the World War II battle for North Africa. On one such raid, his plane was hit by heavy gunfire, knocking out three of its engines and most of its controls. Wayne earned a Distinguished Flying Cross on that April day, after he was able to crash land the battered B-17, saving his crew.

On July 8, he was attacked again, and this time there was nothing he could do to save his plane or his crew. Because he went down at sea, the military held out hope that he had been taken prisoner. On Dec. 6, 1944, while still hoping that his son was alive, Orval Hutchens, owner of the Forest Grove Shoe Store, was given Wayne’s Distinguished Flying Cross and nearly a dozen other medals he had earned for bravery.

Wayne Hutchens’ remains were never found.

This weekend, families will place flowers on the final resting places of their beloved heroes. That’s a privilege and an honor that has been denied to other families for agonizing months, years, even decades.

Memorial Day means different things to different people.

This column contains excerpts from "Walking to Forest Grove" by Ken and Kris Bilderback, who write the bimonthly "Now & Then" column for the News-Times. For a list of local retailers, visit kenbilderback.com.