Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 26 June 2007 15:26
Few of the countless heroes who have gone to war to fight for American independence and freedom receive a reward adequate for their selfless service.
Fifty-five years ago, Marion native Donald D. Dunn may have came as close as any U.S. military veteran has to receiving proper compensation when he and his family were selected as the winners of a $50,000 farm set up in the Columbia River basin of Washington following a nationwide search conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The contest to find “the most deserving World War II veteran with a farm background” was the idea of the Columbia-basin residents to celebrate the irrigation of 67,000 acres of semi-arid land through the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.
The contest winner would receive an 122-acre farm on previously undeveloped ground—complete with a seven-room $15,000 model farm home, a machine shed, a loading shed for cattle and a chicken house.
In addition, the Dunn family would begin its farm operation with fields newly planted with alfalfa, grass for pasture, oats, red clover, early-maturing hybrid field corn, pinto beans and potatoes.
And everything, except the installation of the irrigation system and pouring of concrete foundations and flooring, would be completed in one day.
Organizers in Moses Lake, Wash., called the extravaganza Farm-In-A-Day. Donald Dunn called it a chance to start over.
“He entered that contest with the idea that what one river took away, another river could give back,” said Max Dunn, 79, youngest of four Dunn brothers, who lives in Marion today.
A year earlier, in the Great Flood of 1951, the Cottonwood River had wiped out Donald’s prospering farming operation southwest of Marion.
In 1952, the controlled waters of the Columbia River gave him a chance to get back on his feet.
World War II heroism
Donald Dunn was drafted into the U.S. Army in August 1942. He had just turned 21.
Dunn became an armored-tank driver with the Ninth Army, and in fall 1944 he and his comrades made the initial drive through France into Germany. His outfit was the first to cross the Ruhr River.
During a series of successful skirmishes, the outfit inadvertently bypassed several German towns.
“It was dark and we thought the tanks in the rear were our own,” Donald Dunn wrote in his contest application. “Everything was thrown into confusion when we discovered the tanks were of the enemy.
“We exchanged tank fighting for hand-to-hand fighting and many men on both sides were killed and wounded, but luckily I escaped without a scratch.”
He and a comrade were the only ones among 36 tank drivers in their original overseas outfit who were not either killed or wounded.
Dunn was in combat for 10 months during his three years, three months and one day in the Army. He received three battle stars as well as ribbons for each of the five theaters of operation in which he served.
“The last day was the best,” Dunn wrote of his time in the service. “I guess I was a pretty good soldier, but I surely was looking forward to getting back on the farm.”
An initial start
Dunn’s wish came true following his honorable discharge in December 1945. Having married as high school sweathearts in 1942, he and Vernetta Jean Seifert, rented a 160-acre farm near his father’s farm a few miles from Marion.
There the couple grew wheat, corn and alfalfa, kept a few head of dairy cattle and either a herd of beef cattle cattle or feeder lands during the winter, and fed a few hogs from time to time.
“On July 8, 1951, I could see all I had ever dreamed of coming true,” he wrote. The Dunn farm had grown to 400 acres of rented land and two children had joined the household. “We were happy and comfortable, with hardly a worry in the world.”
The next night the bottom dropped out. Their crops, livestock and much of what they owned went swirling down the raging Cottonwood River.
The 1951 flood was considered at the time to be the worst natural catastrophe in Kansas history.
And the Dunn family was in the middle of it.
“They got word about (the rising waters) and took the truck and the car and the kids and had to drive three-quarters of a mile to cross the bridge and get up on higher ground,” brother Max recalled. “They were in water when they went across the bridge—that’s how close it was.
“They wound up with 6 feet of water in the house.”
The Dunns did manage to salvage some things.
“When he ran out to get the truck, he opened the corral gate—that’s what saved his livestock,” Max said. “They found them about five days later, way down the river on the other side. The (cattle) made it across in the flood.”
A new start
With relatives in Yakima, Wash., Donald and Vernetta sold whatever they could recover from the flood to pay off their debts, then moved the family there. He took a job as a farm-implement salesman with the dream of setting aside money enough to someday buy a farm of his own in the area.
Then came the contest.
“The Bureau of Reclamation in Washington was getting ready to open the waters of the Grand Coulee Dam to allow irrigation in the Columbia River basin,” Max recalled. “So they got the VFW to conduct a contest. It went on and on.”
The winner was selected by a board of judges, all prominent in the field of agriculture and not affiliated with the veterans group.
“I was in the Philippines in the service at that time,” Max said. “My mother had written me that an FBI man came down (to Marion). They were down to the 10 finalists and they sent an FBI man to every one of those communities to check those stories out. The guy was there almost a week, interviewing people.”
Finally, the board of judges announced its decision.
“I’m standing in the chow line and here comes a guy with the Stars & Stripes,” Max said. “He said, ‘Dunn, is this guy any relation to you?’ He handed (a copy of the newspaper) to me and there was a big picture of my brother and his little girl on the old Farmall tractor, announcing he was the winner of the Farm-in-a-Day Contest.”
Presentation of the “Farm In a Day” was made with much hoopla May 29, 1952, during the 10-day Columbia Basin Water Festival.
The event was expected to draw some 50,000 spectators.
At midnight, an army of 60 carpenters, plumbers and electricians went to work. By dawn the roof was on the house and by noon the house was fully enclosed.
Meanwhile, huge earth-moving equipment leveled the land after removing about 20 ton of river rock with specially equipped machines.
“That night they had a ceremony with TV cameras and everything and gave him the house,” Max said. “They shot off skyrockets—my parents told me about it.”
As the contest winner, the Dunn family received a gift from the governor of every U.S. state and territory. The gifts were wide ranging.
“They got a case of handmade Indian dolls from the Virgin Islands and a case of coconuts from Guam,” Max said. “And Gov. Allan Shivers of Texas air expressed a Hereford heifer calf to him.”
Prior to the presentation, Donald Dunn testified before the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Scoop Jackson, the well-known senator from Washington State, submitted a full report of Dunn’s selection in the Congressional Record for May 23, 1952.
In October of that year, Dunn personally presented President Dwight D. Eisenhower with the first bag of potatoes grown on the new farm—and the next day received a thank-you letter written aboard the Eisenhower campaign train from the fellow Kansas native.
Through all the acclaim, Donald Dunn accepted his good fortune as a typical Marion County product would.
“Rather humbly,” Max said.
Return to Kansas
The Dunn family operated its “instant farm” for only about four years before returning to the Sunflower State.
“They got homesick for Kansas—and that irrigation is an expensive project,” Max said.
“They got a full set of equipment from the local dealers, except it was all antiquated because they wanted to get rid of stuff. So (the family) had to buy new stuff.”
But when they left Washington, financial success followed the family—which came to include eight living children—to the Midwest.
After a stint as manager of a farm cooperative in Rifle, Colo., Donald became the top salesman for Carey Salt Co. in Hutchinson and then prospered in sales at Hesston Corp.
“He would sell his quota of machinery in six months and then loaf the rest of the year,” Max said with a chuckle. “They won every trip they offered, went to Acapulco and did this and that.”
Donald Dunn died two years ago at age 83, climaxing a full life of accomplishment and loss, of hard luck and good fortune—a tale of two rivers that ended well for an American hero from Marion.
“It really is something,” Max said.