COKATO, MN The Frank and Mae Gifford family, with deep Minnesota roots, and a recent Cokato connection, has been proudly serving in the United States military for generations.
Three brothers, Quentin, Earl and Harold, each served heroically in World War II.
Harold Gifford, now 93 years old, served in the Air Corps during WWII, and later became a career pilot.
He recently published a book, “The Miracle Landing,” which details a January 1960 emergency landing in a cornfield of a DC-3 airplane carrying the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers team, of which he was the co-pilot.
Earl Gifford, who passed away in Cokato Dec. 30 last year, also honored his country with his service during WWII.
Due to a clerical error somewhere along the line, Earl was initially denied entrance to the Navy. His mother, Mae, wrote a letter directly to Eleanor Roosevelt explaining the situation and asking for the First Lady’s assistance. Mrs. Roosevelt obviously helped the Giffords through the situation.
Roosevelt’s response to Mae’s hand-written letter included a copy of portions of Earl’s Conservation Corps records, with a type-written note that read, “In answering the enclosed, please say you are doing so at Mrs. Roosevelt’s request.”
As per his wishes, Earl was soon a member of the Navy. His service would not be smooth sailing, though. His parents and his wife, Louise Anna Gustafson, of Mankato, received telegrams just prior to Christmas, 1944.
In part, the telegrams read that “Earl Frank Gifford, Aviation Radioman Second Class, is missing, following action while in the service of his country.”
The telegram continued, by asking the family to not divulge “the name of his ship or station to prevent possible aid to our enemies.”
Normally, such telegrams would be terrifying; however, Earl’s daughter, Brooks Cullison said that Earl had actually made it home on leave prior to his family’s receipt of the telegrams.
Earl and Louise eventually had a family of four children. Earl married twice more following Louise’s death in 1976, and he and his third wife, Donna June eventually settled in Cokato about a decade ago.
Donna June stayed in Cokato until this June, before moving to Willmar to be closer to two sisters and a daughter.
Quentin Gifford, the oldest of the five siblings, was a WWII Navy Radioman Second Class. He was assigned to duty aboard the USS Oklahoma.
In a letter written upon USS Oklahoma stationary to an aunt and uncle, Quentin hand wrote, “Things are starting to get pretty tough, and I am afraid something is going to happen before very long.”
As history shows, Quentin’s sense of foreboding was unfortunately accurate.
The Oklahoma was in Pearl Harbor, HI, on December 7, 1941, when it was attacked by naval and air forces of the Japanese. The attack was a horrible surprise.
The Oklahoma sustained three torpedo hits at the same time that Japanese bombs fell from the sky. Reports from that day indicate that within 20 minutes of the beginning of the attack, the Oklahoma had capsized and swung all the way over until the ship’s masts touched the bottom of the water. The ship came to rest with the starboard side above water, and part of the ship keel clear to the air. Four hundred-and- twenty-nine service people were killed aboard the USS Oklahoma that day. Quentin John Gifford, 22, was listed as Lost In Action.
It was, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared the next day, “a date which will life in infamy.”
It also meant war. “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire,” Roosevelt concluded.
For the Gifford family, at home in Mankato, time stopped shortly thereafter with a phone call.
Quentin’s little sister June was 6 when that phone call came. She remembers her father answering the phone, listening intently as a telegram detailing Quentin’s status was read to him, before he dropped to his knees on the floor.
Eventually June, now 80, reports, the family held a service for Quentin at a Catholic church in Mankato. His body had not been recovered.
Quentin’s siblings, Harold and June, have wonderful memories of Quentin.
For June, so young at the time of Quentin’s death, the memories are few. She remembers Quentin carrying her on his shoulders in their yard and letting her sit on his lap as he played his guitar.
Harold, only four years younger than Quentin, retains a few more memories of him.
Harold recalls that Quentin was very protective of his siblings.
He remembers leaving high school to take a job at a gas station. While working there one day, his brother Quentin showed up on leave.
Harold said Quentin encouraged him to return to high school, so the brothers could eventually attend college together and earn law degrees.
Harold proudly stated Quentin was a “good, meticulous, straight-arrow, motivated man.”
Harold also credits Quentin for his own life’s successful trajectory. He said Quentin’s constant concern and encouragement made him determined to succeed. He did, eventually becoming that life-saving pilot, and earning an honorary doctorate degree.
“My life would have been totally different,” Harold said, “I owe it all to taking my brother’s advice.”
In the 75 years since Pearl Harbor, Gifford descendents have bestowed the name Quentin on four of their newborns. Many descendents can claim US military service to this day.
In 2005, the US Department of Defense announced the intention to exhume the remains of service people interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where 60 headstones had been labeled “Unknown.”
Some of the comingled remains were transferred to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) lab in Hawaii for analysis.
Criteria for identification includes research, family reference samples to compare DNA, and comparison of medical and dental records. A likelihood of at least 50 percent identification must be found for individual unknowns.
In 2016, Quentin’s siblings, Harold, Earl, and June swabbed the insides of their cheeks and sent the swabs back to the military.
In early August, June received what she thought was a scam phone call and hung up.
The phone immediately rang again, and the caller quickly said he had news about her brother, Quentin.
The military representative on the phone told June that Quentin’s remains had been officially accounted for July 31.
The blessings and pain of closure
June says she burst into tears upon hearing the news. She wished her brother Earl were still alive to share the news. June and Harold together decided they wanted to bring Quentin’s remains home to Minnesota.
June said they originally thought of leaving him at the “Punchbowl,” a crater in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where Quentin and many of his comrades had rested for 75 years.
Harold had reservations at first, too. The family had always wondered if Quentin had perished in the ship’s radio room when the first torpedoes hit, or if he was one of many who suffered, trapped in the Oklahoma’s partially sunken shell for days.
Finally, the siblings agreed that Quentin deserved a traditional military funeral. “He deserves to be honored,” Harold said.
Details are pending at this time, however the military guarantees a personnel visit from the Navy, fully explaining their findings about Quentin, and helping the family arrange the memorial service of their choice.
“They said they’d contact us within three months, and come meet with us at our convenience,” June reported. “They promised to answer our questions and help us set up services at Fort Snelling.”
For the Giffords, and the generations succeeding them, this is mostly seen as a precious gift.
“This really puts a finality to it,” June said. “We have always wondered. We never thought we’d be able to ID him. This will give him the recognition we think he deserves.”
For further information about recovery efforts, military families may contact the DPAA at www.dpaa.mil, visit facebook.com/dodpaa, or call (703) 699-1420.