Donald Grella was born in 1940 and lived on a farm near Laurel, Nebraska until his father died in 1953 when Donald, along with his mother and sister, moved to Laurel. Don was a member of United Lutheran church where he served as an usher. Folks in Laurel may remember Don with his lawnmower or snow shovel, working hard as a teenager to keep spending money in his pocket. He was also quick to accept any offer from area farmers to stack hay, cut cockle burrs, etc. Growing up in Laurel, Donald loved the outdoors and was an avid hunter and fisherman. Although small for his age, what he lacked in size, he made up for in grit. Donald was fearless. If he was ever afraid of anything, no one ever knew. The hours he spent lifting weights eventually carved impressive muscles on his growing frame. Even though he was never afraid of hard work, he also never neglected his social life. Don loved a good time! Don graduated from Laurel High School in 1958 and worked in the Laurel area until volunteering for the draft in 1961. He spent his two years in the states serving as a crew chief for fixed wing aircraft. After his discharge, he waited almost a year before re-enlisting in the Army with plans to make the military a career. His first assignment was Korea where he was trained as a helicopter crew chief. Before leaving Korea in 1965, he requested Vietnam as his next assignment.
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Upon his return from Korea, Don received advanced training as a crew chief for the now famous Huey helicopters. He was then assigned to A Company of the newly formed 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The unit arrived at An Khe in the Central Highlands in September 1965 and was immediately thrown into the tasks of establishing their base and fighting a war. Don was only in Vietnam for three months before going MIA, but there is no doubt that he saw plenty of action during that time. His days there were probably best known for the deadly Ia Drang battles fought in November of 1965. The A Company Hueys and crews provided the airlifts for the infantry who fought in the Ia Drang Valley. Only one month after the Ia Drang, on December 28 1965, Donald and three other crew members were on an early morning supply mission which would take them through the An Khe Pass. Dealing with darkness and poor weather, the aircraft and crew vanished without a trace. Despite ongoing searches, the fate of the crew remained a mystery. After one year, the crew members were reclassified as “missing…..presumed dead.” When the war ended, they were listed as Killed in Action, Body not Recovered.
In 1999, Don’s sister and brother-in-law, Shirley and Ron Haase, began actively pursuing information regarding Don’s fate. When they first reviewed his file, their attention was drawn to one particular report in the file. A Vietnamese refugee has had written a letter in 1985 telling the approximate location of an alleged crash site of an American helicopter which had the numbers 63-8808 painted on it. The tail number on Don’s aircraft was 63-8808. For the next 11 years, Shirley and Ron made many trips to Washington, DC continually pushing the government to pursue the 1985 lead. Progress on the case was slow until 2006 when a US investigative team interviewed villagers in Central Highlands. One villager said he had shot down an American helicopter in that area at the time Don went missing. A visit to the site of the reported shoot down revealed pieces of wreckage of an American UH1 helicopter, most likely that of our crew. The cause of the crew’s ill-fated mission was hopefully solved.
Three years later, in March 2009, the crash site was excavated and human remains were recovered along with one dog tag bearing the name, Donald Grella. A forensic laboratory in Hawaii positively identified all four members of the missing crew. Don’s remains were returned to Laurel on September 26, 2009 accompanied by Shirley and Ron. On October 4, a funeral was held in Laurel and Don was buried between his mother and father in the local cemetery. The human remains recovered at the crash site which could not be identified to any particular crew member were burned in a group gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery on April 10, 2010. During his military career, Don earned the following medals: Air Medal with 7 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, Korea Defense Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with “60” Device, Presidential Unit Citation, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm Device, Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Honor Medal First Class, Expert Badge with Rifle Bar, and Aviation Badge. In 2012, SP5 Donald Grella was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.