Neighbor Spotlight: Fred and Beverly Donner

Published in “Aitkin Independent Age,” November 8, 2017

Love and War in Vietnam: A Veteran’s Day Special          

by Brielle Bredsten

The story of two Aitkin, Minnesota Vietnam veterans whose hearts were captivated by their experiences while serving, meeting, marrying, and adopting a child across the globe. 

A young nurse…

It was 1950 when Beverly Fillips graduated from Aitkin High School and left her parents, Harold and Elsie Fillips, Hide-Away Resort on Sugar Lake to attend Hamline University School of Nursing. Beverly later attended the Minneapolis School of Anesthesia followed by a degree in nursing education from the University of Minnesota. 

In 1958 while a student at the University of Minnesota Beverly bought 10 acres on Sugar Lake not far from her parents and dreamed of building a house there someday.

Beverly taught surgical nursing at the University of Michigan and later Mounds-Midway School of Nursing. She learned that the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), a uniformed but not armed service headed by the U.S. Surgeon General, was recruiting nurse anesthetists for Vietnam service. She joined holding the rank of commander, USPHS ranks being the same as Navy ranks.

An Air Force Lieutenant…

Meanwhile Fred Donner spent six years fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service all over the West and Alaska including two years on the “smokejumper” (parachute) crew in Montana, the most fun he ever had in his life. The draft motivated him to join the military. During five years as an Air Force lieutenant he was stationed on Taiwan when he volunteered to go directly to Vietnam in 1964 to command a transportation unit at Bien Hoa Air Base. “Lieutenants as commanders were a rarity in the Air Force,” Fred explained.  “I was single, young, and adventuresome. I could have been sent anywhere in the world but it turned out to be Taiwan and Vietnam, the major turning point in my life.”

Treating casualties… 

As a USPHS nurse anesthetist officer, Beverly worked with thousands of Vietnamese civilian casualties for two years at the Danang Provincial Hospital on a U.S. government surgical team. “Danang is in the northern part of southern Vietnam and there was heavy fighting in that area,” Beverly recalled. “Some of the patients were enroute to the hospital for several days and were in very bad shape.”   Hospitals in Vietnam at that time were very primitive, Beverly said. At times there were two patients per small cot and the team sometimes worked day and night to keep up. “Once these people made it to the hospital, most survived. If they had made it that far, we were able to help. We did everything from brain surgery to cesarean   sections,” she said. 

One patient in particular stands out in Beverly’s mind as she thinks back to her days as an anesthetist. A small child, probably about six years old, was unloaded from a truck in terrible condition. “She was almost bled out from a severe injury to the leg,” Beverly said. “I put an oxygen mask on her. One of the doctors said, ‘You might as well stop. It’s too late.’” Against the doctor’s advice, Beverly kept administering CPR  until a heartbeat was detected. The child’s leg was later amputated.  “Every once in a while I think about her. I think there is a woman in Vietnam in her 50s who has one leg but she’s alive,” Beverly said. 

Meet and Marry in Danang…

After leaving the Air Force, Fred returned to Danang, Vietnam in 1965 as a manager with the U.S. government airline Air America doing essentially what he did in the Air Force. “Air America was often called the CIA airline but it served the entire U.S. government,” Fred said. “Travel was by air. You couldn’t drive. You could be ambushed on the road.” However he described life as being comfortable for American civilians not on the front lines and not in combat.

Beverly and Fred met in Danang. In October 1966 they married in Hong Kong, honeymooned in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and returned to Danang for another year with Air America. Fred left Air America to earn a degree in East Asian studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha because Taiwan, Vietnam, and East Asia in general had become of great career interest to him.

Fred and Beverly described southern Vietnam as suffering several wars within wars at the time of their service. “There was a lot of civil conflict,” Fred described. “Constant tension between multiple groups; Buddhist, Catholic, Chinese, former northern Vietnamese, as well as montagnards,  the French word for the 50-some tribal minorities in southern Vietnam. In other words the whole country was in chaos.”

Christian Service… 

Both evangelical Christians, Fred and Beverly returned to Vietnamin July 1971. Fred described the couple’s return as “not a compulsion, but a calling.” The war was still underway. Fred was a business and property manager for a missionary group and Beverly was a missionary nurse. “We went back to Vietnam as non-government civilians because we have a great love for the Vietnamese people,” Beverly said. “Our goal going back to Vietnam was to be of service in a different capacity than previously.” 

During their four-year missionary term the Donners visited a Christian orphanage resulting in the adoption of a six-month-old Vietnamese orphan, Susan, their only child. Beverly recalled there were six infants sleeping except one who was screaming. “I walked over to her and she stopped crying. Both parents had been killed in the war. Someone brought her to a pastor who had a number of orphans but no way of caring for an infant,” Beverly said.  Susan was almost three years old when they left Saigon on April 6, 1975 as volunteer escorts on an “Operation Babylift” flight bringing orphans to the U.S. “South Vietnam was falling,” Fred stated. “Babylift was using empty returning military aircraft to remove orphans.” Susan is now 45, a computer manager, and lives near them in Virginia.

Beverly added, “Some of these people, even all these years later, you think about. When we think of the Vietnam War, we think about the tragedy and suffering. Our government sent not only military to Vietnam, but also sent others to help with the humanitarian needs that were so evident.” 

Post-Vietnam… 

Fred finished a graduate degree in East Asian studies at the University of Minnesota. He became a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department serving five years in Manila and Washington, D.C. followed by 10 years as a Southeast Asia intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C. until retirement. He then worked 10 years part-time on a classified contract for the Raytheon Corporation. “As you can see, I couldn’t hold a job,” Fred joked. The Donners lived in the state of Virginia where Beverly continued her anesthesia career to retirement. 

Beverly’s mother used to send her an Aitkin Independent Age subscription. In May 2001 she read that a house built by Aitkin High School students was up for auction. She sent her brother Bruce with cell phone in hand to make her successful bid by phone. She and Fred moved the house from a vacant lot in town to Sugar Lake. For the last 17 years the couple resides there six months of the year, the other six in the state of Virginia. 

“After all these years I am still grieving about Vietnam and the way it was back then,” Beverly said. When one serves seven years in Vietnam in three trips and meets their spouse there and they adopt their only child there, Vietnam tends to have a special place in their hearts and minds. Ask the Donners. 

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