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Photo needed for Pequot Lakes Vietnam Vet killed in action

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In 2013, Robert Ahles of St. Cloud posted a tribute to Cold Spring classmate David Weber who died in Vietnam, and that started him on a mission to commemorate nearly 600 veterans in Minnesota.

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“I posted a tribute to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. About a month later, they sent me an email and asked me if I could find a picture of him. I said I would try. I contacted the American Legion club in Cold Spring, Minnesota, and they sent me all four pictures of the four veterans that died in Vietnam from Cold Spring. One included David Weber, my classmate,” Ahles said.

Of all the Minnesotans killed in Vietnam, it turns out Weber was one of nearly 600 without photos in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“I really felt these guys deserved to have their picture with their memorial,” Ahles said. “I just decided to take on the project myself. I kind of made a commitment to find those 570 pictures. With the help of a lot of other people, I’ve sent letters out to American Legion posts, VFW posts, asking for help. I’ve sent letters out to hometown governments, the mayors and councils and veterans’ hometowns, asking if they could help me. I’ve received a lot of help.”

Ahles is a Vietnam veteran himself. He served with the 25th Infantry Division, so he empathizes with his fellow veterans. To date, he has helped locate approximately 280 photos. Among the most recent photos was Pequot Lakes veteran Gerrit Blanksma. Blanksma was born in Amsterdam, and brought to Pequot Lakes by his parents. He graduated high school, attended college in Brainerd and then the University of Minnesota. He intended to become an architect, but instead, he was drafted in 1967.

“He didn’t want to go, but he was drafted. He had choices. He could have gone back to the Netherlands. He was still a citizen. He could have gone there, or Canada, or jail, but he decided it was his duty. I really respect his decision. His country called on him,” Ahles said.

Blanksma went to war, and he was killed May 25, 1968. Blanksma’s photo was missing until this month, when Ahles was able to add Blanksma to his list of photos found.

“I was searching for his picture for quite a while. I sent a letter to the Legion in Pequot Lakes about two veterans,” Ahles said. “We’re still looking for (Sgt. Earl) Derby. It’s been a long process. It’s been a long time since they passed away.”

Ahles is asking for help from area residents to locate Derby’s photo.

“I’m getting older, too, and I don’t know how long I’ll be around to do this,” Ahles said.

Derby was born May 29, 1942. Little is known about him. He is believed to have graduated from a local school, though there doesn’t appear to be record of him at Pequot Lakes High School. He started his tour in Vietnam on Nov. 16, 1966, and was killed by small arms fire April 17, 1967. There may have been a photo of Derby in one of the local newspapers around the time of his death, but the Country Echo began in 1972, so was not around at the time of Derby’s death. There are other Derbys in Pequot Lakes, but they don’t seem to be related.

Ahles is also looking for photos of other veterans from surrounding communities. They include Darrel Gene Dorman of Hackensack, James Jay Hochstetter and Arthur Joseph Turner of Brainerd, Marvin James Wilson of Crosby, Robert Harold Kunkel of Fort Ripley, Carl Leonard Carlson of Swatara, Alvin Edward Kurtz and Larry Lee Nieken of Hillman, Lyle Archie Kloek of Little Falls, William Oscar Wagner of Bertha, and Roger Dale Jensen of Staples.

If you have photos of Derby or one of the other veterans listed above, contact us at news@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler can be reached at travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him at facebook.com/PEJTravis and on Twitter @PEJ_Travis.

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