Remembering a fallen G.I.

Mike Sampson of Columbus will be honored at the Vietnam Memorial in St. Paul on Memorial Day

Cliff Buchan
News Editor

The U.S. flag that covered the casket of Army Spec. 4th Class Michael Sampson of Columbus has remained folded inside a plastic case since the day of his funeral in October of 1970. Until recently.

Army Spec. 4 Michael Sampson's formal military photo.

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, the flag that covered Sampson’s casket following his death on Oct. 3, 1970 from wounds sustained in Vietnam on Aug. 30, 1970 will fly once again. In a rare honor, the Sampson flag has been selected to fly over the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the State Capitol in St. Paul.

A 3 p.m. program is planned on this the 20th anniversary of the memorial which honors the 1077 service members from Minnesota who gave their lives in Southeast Asia so many years ago.

The program will be led by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 470 from Anoka County. Ken Dufresne of Columbus, an Air Force veteran who served in the Vietnam era from 1961-1966, will care for the Sampson flag and lead the flag-raising ceremony on Monday.

A Special Day

Monday will be a special day for the Sampson family and the friends Michael Sampson left behind. It will also be special for the widow he left, Pat Rehbein, the former Pat Rogers Sampson.

Mike Sampson on his Norton motorcycle at age 17. (Photo courtesy of Pat Rehbein)

“It is [difficult] every year,” Rehbein said of the emotions that run through her on Memorial Day. Every year since 1971 she has made a Memorial Day visit to Oak Park Cemetery in Columbus where Sampson was laid to rest. A floral vase is placed next to his grave.

Her partner in the annual May cemetery visit is her husband, Randy, who has strongly supported his wife’s unflinching connection to five important years in her life.

Other than the Memorial Day visit, Pat Rehbein has stayed in the background, honoring Vietnam vets in her own personal and private way. She last attended a Memorial Day program at the MVVM in 1992, the year it was built and dedicated.

Two years ago for the fourth annual Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Day program in Forest Lake, she accepted an invitation to attend the local program that paid tribute to the six area men who died in the Vietnam War.

She will step forward again on Monday with her husband, some of her close friends and Sampson family members at her side during the St. Paul program. “I think it’s fantastic,” Rehbein said of the flag honor that is planned.

Rehbein has written some reflections of her short time with Michael Sampson. It will be read by John Bergum, a Wyoming resident today who grew up on a farm not far from the Sampson home place in Columbus.

Another close friend who grew up near the Sampsons, Sam Husnik of Forest Lake, will also address the crowd. Husnik will share his memories of growing up with Sampson in the 1960s.

Mike Sampson’s father, David, is likely to attend the program along with siblings Nancy, Curt, Keith, Jill, Beth and Bruce. Sampson’s mother, Lily, passed away last fall. Another brother, Dennis, is also deceased.

She Remembers

Rehbein fights back tears when she talks about the five years that she spent with Mike Sampson. It’s a tough subject to deal with, she says, yet an important part of  her life.

Pat Rehbein grew up in Wyoming, attended Chisago City High School, and was just 15 when she met Mike on a blind date. “That chance meeting turned into five years of really good memories,” Rehbein said.

It also was the foundation for lifelong friendships with Sam and Sandy Husnik and John and Nancy Bergum who remain in the area. They have stayed close over the years. Husnik, two years older than Mike, served four years in the Air Force from 1966-1969.

The 1960s in the years before the military draft were some good times for the Columbus gang and the Wyoming import who fit like a glove with the Sampson pals.

“We lived at Sam’s house when we were teens,” Rehbein said. Along with Husnik and Bergum, Jeff Campbell, Jerry Aljets and Roger Dufresne were part of the group of friends.

There were plenty of things to do. The Hub Drive-In movie theater was a popular summer hangout and so was the Forest Theatre in downtown Forest Lake. The couple enjoyed Fourth of July celebrations in Forest Lake, parades and the Minnesota State Fair, with the grandstand car races on Labor Day a must-see event.

As she dated a guy who loved motorcycles, Pat grew to enjoy her rides on the back of Sampson’s 1961 Cushman scooter and later a Norton motorcycle. With David Sampson a pilot, there was also a love for flying.

She also learned to cope with Mike’s passion for hunting and fishing, hobbies he shared with pals like Husnik and Bergum. The fishing opener got in the way of the Forest Lake High School prom in 1967, but Pat managed to get her date for the Chisago City prom that spring, the year both graduated from their respective high schools.

Mike was working with his father’s well drilling business in 1969 when he received his draft notice. With the Army calling and a tour of Vietnam likely, Mike and Pat set their wedding date.

Mike was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training that summer. He arrived home at midnight on Oct. 3 and the couple married the next day at what was then the Forest Lake Church of Christ. It was the duck hunting opener, Pat recalled, but the hunting blind had to wait.

Pat went with her husband to Texas for extended training at Fort Hood, but came home to Wyoming when he was sent to California for deployment to Vietnam.

Sampson arrived in Vietnam in late April or early May of 1970, Rehbein said, serving with the 27th Infantry of the 25th Infantry Division. Four months later Sampson was seriously wounded by a booby trap.

He spent a number of days in a Vietnam hospital before being sent to Japan. After fighting malaria and septic infection, Sampson lost his battle with the wounds of war.

A Tough Time

Rehbein was living with her parents, Bud and Peggy Rogers, while Mike was in Vietnam.

Rehbein says the five weeks between the time of Mike’s injuries and his death was a difficult ordeal.

“There were so many people going through the same thing,” she said. “We had no communication, except a letter. It was so difficult.”

The family’s spirits were lifted in September when the father of another wounded G.I. from Minnesota reported seeing Mike at the hospital in Japan and that he was recovering. The rising spirits were dashed, however, when the family learned that he had taken a turn for the worse.

The family was preparing to fly to Japan to see Mike when military officials arrived at the Rogers home and the Sampson home to notify them of his death. He had died on Oct. 3, 1970, one day shy of the couple’s first wedding anniversary.

Pat Rehbein said the first person to come to the Rogers home that day was Manola Kunshier. Her son, Gary Kunshier, had been killed in Vietnam just one year earlier.

Vietnam had left its mark on the community and many families. Ray Whitman, who had lived in Wyoming before moving to Forest Lake, was a classmate with Pat Rogers during her school days in Wyoming. He would also fall in Vietnam.

Time to Heal

Rehbein can only suppose what her life would have been had it not been for Vietnam. “We wanted to buy a fishing lodge somewhere,” Rehbein said of the ideas and dreams the young couple discussed.

“He would have made a good well driller, too. We had no set plans.”

Rehbein has never forgotten that part of her life, but was able to move on. “As one of the thousands of young widows created by this war, I had to start a new life for myself.”

She found it with Randy Rehbein and the two sons the marriage produced.

Ken Dufresne, a 1961 Forest Lake graduate, was not involved with the Columbus crowd but a younger brother, Roger, was and best man at Mike and Pat’s meeting. So there is a family connection for Ken Dufresne, as well.

He has handled the Sampson flag with great care in the days it has been in his possession leading up to Memorial Day.

In the years that he has been involved in the Capitol Memorial Day program, he had helped select one fallen Vietnam veteran for special recognition. That Mike Sampson could be honored has some special meaning, he said.

The honor goes hand in hand with the desire to have the Memorial Day program function as another tool in welcoming home Vietnam vets who still struggle with the war. If it helps in a small way, it is a positive, he said.

“If for just a moment, it [the program] is a little bit of the healing process.

“We’re trying to bring everybody home. Some of the guys are still working on that.”

The flag raising ceremony will be capped with a re-presentation of the flag to Pat Rehbein. Following a three rifle volley, the flag will be lowered and addressed with a three-corner fold.

Inside will be a musket ball and one spent brass shell casing representing America’s wars from the Revolutionary War through today’s military conflicts around the world. A personalized note from the Anoka County Chapter will also be included to help the family remember the day.

That Anoka County will honor one of its own is important to the Vietnam Veterans chapter, but not the most important thing, Dufresne said.

“What’s important is Mike and his family,” he said.