Two Harbors veteran to be honored in St. Paul

Deborah Smoger Otten was a third-grader at Minnehaha Elementary School in Two Harbors in May 1968 and said she remembered it "raining like cats and dogs" when she and her older sister Laurie Smoger Rubesch were called to the office and told that ...

Lt. Michael Smoger of Two Harbors was killed in action May 24, 1968 in the Quang Nam province of Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)

Deborah Smoger Otten was a third-grader at Minnehaha Elementary School in Two Harbors in May 1968 and said she remembered it "raining like cats and dogs" when she and her older sister Laurie Smoger Rubesch were called to the office and told that they needed to go home. No one told them why.

"We walked into my parents' kitchen and the first person I saw was Bob Huseby and I just remember looking at him and Pat Kane," Otten said. "I remember seeing these faces and I thought something's wrong here, something's really wrong here."

Huseby, an attorney in Two Harbors, and Kane, a family friend, were at the house because Otten's parents, Arthur and Haily Smoger, had just received news that thousands of other parents around the U.S. received that spring. Their son, Lt. Michael Smoger, had been killed in action in Quang Nam province of Vietnam on May 24, 1968. Michael Smoger had been wounded and was being evacuated when the helicopter carrying him was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, and the 21-year-old father was killed in the blast.

At 3 p.m. Monday, Smoger will be one of two men killed in Vietnam to be honored by the Anoka Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association of America (VVAA) during a ceremony at the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the State Capitol grounds in St. Paul. Gen Sjoquist, a Two Harbors native and member the Anoka VVAA, nominated Smoger for the honor.

"The reason I nominated Mike was because I grew up with him and I want to honor him for his service to our country," Sjoquist said, "which is very important to me and a lot of other people."


Because of the ceremony in St. Paul, the annual Memorial Day ceremony Monday at Two Harbors High School will be the first time the Smoger family isn't represented locally since 1968. Both of Smoger's sisters, his brother Robert, widow Kathy Schyma and his daughter Kristine Fesler and grandson Michael all will be on hand in St. Paul.

Schyma, Otten and Sjoquist all remembered Smoger as a kid who always dreamed of going into the military, but who also had a bit of a mischievous streak. Otten recalled that one time when Smoger arrived home from leave, he decided to have a little fun with his family. Without cell phones, the internet and flight schedules, many soldiers took buses or even hitchhiked back home and their families had little or no idea when to expect them home. The Smoger home near Larsmont had a second-story deck and Smoger climbed up to the entrance and walked through the door.

"I'm sitting in the living room watching TV and all of a sudden, here comes Mike walking through the sliding door on the deck and I just stood there looking at it him and I said, 'Hi Mike,' " Otten said. "My mom was in the kitchen and she said, 'Who are you talking,' to and I said 'Mike.' "

Schyma and Smoger grew up together in Two Harbors, but they didn't start dating until the couple's senior year of high school. After graduation, Smoger worked with his dad, who was an ore boat captain, as a deckhand, but it wasn't long before he enlisted in the military. After basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and some time as a military police officer, Smoger went to officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga.

The couple married after Smoger's graduation from OCS and moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where Smoger was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1967, Smoger received his orders to ship out for Vietnam and he drove Schyma back to Two Harbors eight months pregnant with their daughter. After a little more training, Smoger returned to Two Harbors in December 1967 and spent just two weeks with his newborn daughter before deploying for Vietnam on Jan. 2, 1968.

"The kicker is he was offered a job in Saigon and he turned it down because he said he hadn't trained all this time to be in an office," Schyma said. "He wanted to be with the infantry."

Exactly two months before his death, Smoger was recommended for a Bronze Star Medal after entering battle to evacuate wounded soldiers from both the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

Otten, who now lives in Edina, said she still enjoys returning to Two Harbors because of the memories it evokes of her brother.


"I love coming to Two Harbors, because I can talk to people that knew him and he's not gone, he's not forgotten and that means a lot," Otten said. "Having him honored in this way in St. Paul is the most remarkable thing; he's been gone since 1968, that's more than a lifetime. That is what is so remarkable is that he's been gone for all these years, but his memory lives on."

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