Always loved, never forgotten

An unexpected series of events led to a Basin Electric employee carrying out a task her father started more than 30 years ago and forming a connection with the uncle she never met.

Private First-Class Donovan Walton.

Basin Electric Senior Legislative Representative Jean Schafer’s uncle, Private First-Class Donovan Walton, was killed in a plane crash in 1944 on his way to the United States while serving in World War II. At just 18 years old, Walton was one of nine Marines on the flight leaving Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands when the plane ran into bad weather and crashed, according to the crash’s sole survivor. The bodies of the eight soldiers who died were not able to be identified and were buried in a mass grave in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, and Walton was one of the unidentified soldiers.

The sign that marks the mass grave where Donovan Walton is buried.

“His death was tragic all around,” Schafer says. “They had just lost their mother two years earlier – she died in childbirth – and their father signed a waiver for Donovan to join the Marines at 16 years old. He wrote a letter to my dad from a military hospital shortly before his death. When the plane crashed he was on his way back to the United States for medical attention, but we don’t know if that was a result of being wounded in action or an illness.”

Schafer says her uncle’s military records state that he was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the Victory Medal for his service, however, the family never received the medals. Schafer’s father, Ray Walton, Jr., was Donovan’s younger brother and he thought it was possible the medals may have been sent to their father, Ray Walton, Sr., in 1950, but he had died in 1949, and the medals were never located.

“My dad worked very hard for decades to get a headstone at the North Dakota Veteran’s Cemetery to acknowledge his brother’s death and service to his country and to locate the medals he was awarded but our family never received,” Schafer says. “He was able to get the stone placed at the cemetery and often said he considered it to be the first evidence he received of any recognition of his brother’s death and burial, even though it was only symbolic.” He was not successful in getting the commendation medals before he died in 2007.  

Fast forward to 2023. After seeing Schafer’s mother, Bernice Walton’s, obituary in the local newspaper, a descendant of one of the other crash victims (who is writing a book on the men who died in the crash) contacted Schafer and her sisters wondering if there was a relation to Donovan Walton.

“We began working with him and another individual who are both involved in documenting the history of those soldiers,” Schafer says. “We wanted to do what we could to take up the mission of getting the replacement medals to honor not only Donovan, but our father, as well.”

After contacting the National Archives to request the replacement medals with no success, Schafer contacted U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota) who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asking for assistance. After hitting some roadblocks, as well, members of his staff reached out to the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs and were able to get replacement medals for the Walton family.

They also asked if a military service and burial flag was ever provided to Donovan’s family. It wasn’t. When the North Dakota Honor Guard offered to provide them, Jean and her sisters decided to take it a step farther and right a wrong that happened nearly eight decades ago.

“Our father would have been 16 years old when his brother died and would not have had the means to attend a funeral for his brother, so he never received that closure or the honor of a military service or flag,” Schafer says. “We began sharing Donovan’s story and began planning his long overdue military funeral. We want people to know that he existed for a brief 18 years and that he died serving his country because there has been little to no recognition or acknowledgement of that. On Sept. 7 at 11 a.m., at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, the tragic history of his life, death, and legacy will officially be recognized. We as family want to make this an open public ceremony to anyone that is interested in joining us to provide that recognition and closure,” Schafer wrote in a press release announcing the funeral.  

In addition to the Honor Guard who presented the flag and performed a 21-gun salute, both men the Walton sisters had been working with on Donovan’s story attended the funeral, as well as several family members, Cramer’s staff members who assisted in getting the medals (which were presented at the ceremony), local media, and a Marine representing the North Dakota Patriot Guard, who nobody knew, attended the funeral.  

Walton's headstone, along with the folded flag and commendation medals presented to his family on Sept. 7.

“The service was quite moving, very meaningful,” Schafer says. “I just wish our dad could have been there to see the recognition that was given in honor of his brother’s sacrifice to this country and hold the medals that he rightly earned. He would have been so proud. It would have been a full circle moment for him.”

The folded flag, commendation medals, and a coin given to the family by the Marine at the funeral will now sit in a place of honor where they rightly belong - with Donovan’s family. “Shortly after our mom’s death, I found a folder my dad had saved all these years. It included letters Donovan wrote to him during the war, his military records, the telegram informing him of his brother’s death, and the letter of burial in the mass grave,” Schafer says with a catch in her voice. "We are having his stone redone to read, ‘Donovan Walton, always loved, never forgotten.’ My sisters and I have a lot of gratitude for everyone who came together to make this happen.”

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