A hero’s surprise: WWII POW who survived D-Day, Battle of the Bulge celebrates 100 years

Ken Axelson spent three months as a prisoner of war in Germany until April 2, 1945 — his 21st birthday.

Ken Axelson marks his 100th birthday earlier this month in Rochester. (Alpha News)

At Golden Living Center in Rochester, Ken Axelson’s 100th birthday earlier this month was for much more than marking a century. It was a day of reflection, on a life of selflessness and service from southern Minnesota.

“You can’t ask for much more of that service than what he gave in his time,” family friend Brian Danielson remarked about Ken’s incredible story of survival.

After graduating from Red Wing High School in 1943, Ken Axelson was inducted into the Army.

“I guess if you go back a little bit, you’d say that someone who knows so much about guns would make a good infantry man, so the Army made him a medic,” Danielson joked to the crowd that gathered for Axelson’s birthday celebration.

But that assignment may have saved his life. His first medic mission came a year later — Omaha Beach on D-Day where more than 2,500 American soldiers died in the Allied invasion of Normandy in WWII.

Ken Axelson spent three months as a prisoner of war in Germany until April 2, 1945 — his 21st birthday. (Alpha News)

Two weeks and five practice jumps later, he went on to be a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. He then survived the Battle of the Bulge where 19,000 American soldiers lost their lives and Axelson was taken captive.

He spent three months as a prisoner of war in Germany until April 2, 1945 — his 21st birthday.

“Once the Allies came and liberated him from that camp, he sent a telegram to let his family know that he was OK. He told me on that day that his dad was walking to the church to plan Ken’s funeral. And he stopped by the post office, and he got the telegram that said Ken was alive and coming home,” Danielson remarked.

“My mother was a person who prayed a lot and that was a comfort to me in the fox hole. Knowing that she was praying for me,” Axelson said.

Danielson is certain Ken Axelson is a real-life hero.

“I also know him as Ken from Wanamingo who spent the rest of his life serving his community that I got to take advantage of as a kid growing up. My dad was an MIA from Vietnam and Ken was a POW. He was just very understanding of me as a kid struggling with knowing answers and loss in war. I never forgot that. It meant a lot to me,” Danielson said.

A retired Navy fighter pilot himself, Danielson wanted to make sure his hometown hero received a proper celebration when he turned a century.

“He told me one day last fall that his favorite pair of boots were his jump boots and he had to turn them in, and he never got a replacement pair,” Danielson recalled of the conversation.

Ken Axelson marks his 100th birthday earlier this month in Rochester. (Alpha News)

“I called the Army, and I told them you missed your jump boots … the Army was able to find a pair of jump boots to give you,” Danielson told Axelson.

Axelson was delighted to see a fresh pair of jumpers that were just the right size.

“These will last me the rest of my life,” Axelson joked.

Larry Van De Walker also considers Axelson a good friend.

“Can you imagine what mom and dad went through thinking they’re going to plan that funeral? And here he comes walking in, for goodness sakes. I just say never forget, that’s kind of the deal with all of this. Some gave all, he came close to being one of those guys who gave all. He gave more than some. Never forget,” Van De Walker said.

Update: Alpha News has learned that Axelson passed away peacefully Thursday, April 11.

“Ken lived an amazing life and how wonderful to know that the significant historical events that marked his service were only a small part of a larger legacy of raising a wonderful family and giving back to his community,” Danielson said.

“I was very lucky to know him and enjoyed all of our conversations. It was an honor to share his story with others and I am happy for those who got to find out how special he was.

“I think the perfect comment would be one from Ken himself. As he witnessed so much carnage and destruction in war and in a German Stalag, he said, ‘What came to mind was the question: What is truly important in life? At the top of the list is to love and be loved.’

“A very good reminder for us all. And if you knew him at all, you can see his infectious smile to accompany that quote. RIP, Albert ‘Ken’ Axelson. Your legacy lives on and thank you for your honorable and faithful service.”


Liz Collin

Liz Collin has been a truth-teller for 20 years as a multi-Emmy-Award-winning reporter and anchor. Liz is a Worthington, Minnesota native who lives in the suburbs with her husband, son and loyal lab.