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80 years after he died at Pearl Harbor, Minnesota hero is finally laid to rest at home

Neal Todd came home to be buried Saturday, July 10, in Akeley, after nearly 80 years on the Missing in Action list.

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Six U.S. Navy sailors pull Neal Todd's casket off the back of a horse-drawn funeral caisson for his burial with full military honors Saturday at the Akeley Cemetery. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)
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AKELEY, Minn. — If Neal Kenneth Todd had died last week, he would have been 101 years old.

Instead, the remains laid to rest Saturday, July 10, at the Akeley Cemetery were those of a 22-year-old U.S. Navy fireman who gave his life on Dec. 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Todd’s ship, the USS Oklahoma, sank quickly in the waters off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. His was one of 429 lives lost on board.

Although the Oklahoma sailors’ remains were recovered later in the 1940s, most remained unidentified until recent genetic tests.

Todd’s remains were identified on Feb. 11. As his funeral program states, “He is no longer considered Missing in Action. He is finally home.”

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Todd’s burial, between his half-brother Alfred Staffenhagen Jr. and his mother Irena, was accompanied by full military honors. These included a three-volley, three-gun salute; U.S. military service flags presented to three members of Todd’s family; two U.S. Air Force flyovers; and a white-glove treatment by both active and retired service personnel.

“This is one of the highest honors I’ll ever have in my entire career,” said Kevin Cease with the Cease Family Funeral Home. “This is such a unique situation, in that we get to bring somebody home after all these decades and all these years: somebody who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, on Pearl Harbor Day! He gets to come home. I’m moved beyond tears.”

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Lt. Derek E. Martin, USN, presents a folded U.S. flag to Todd's niece, Diane Harris, on behalf of the Neil K. Todd memorial at the Akeley Paul Bunyan Historical Museum. Seated to the right of Harris is Todd's adopted sister, Karyn Stiffler of Akeley, who also received a flag; her husband, Glen; sister-in-law Delores Staffenhagen of Rogers and her husband, Orville, who is Todd's youngest and only surviving brother. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)

It was a long journey home for Todd — nearly 80 years long.

“It’s a long overdue homecoming,” said Todd’s nephew, Tony Staffenhagen. “We feel that he’s our hero, and he’s a Minnesota hero.”

Fireman 1st Class Neal K. Todd was one of nine brothers and three sisters raised by Irena Todd Staffenhagen and her two husbands, Robert Todd and Alfred Staffenhagen. Eight of her sons served in the U.S. armed forces; Neal’s brother, Wesley, was also on board the Oklahoma when it was attacked, but he survived.

Born in Bemidji, Neal graduated from Akeley High School in 1938. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October 1940 at age 20, and was 22 when he gave his life for his country.

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After several temporary resting places in Hawaii, Neal made his final journey last week. Approximately 60 family members met him at the airport in the Twin Cities.

Tony Staffenhagen called the experience “a powerful day” that brought a lot of emotions to the surface.

“We’re used to talking about Neal as a family,” he said. “To be actually able to see it coming true is pretty incredible. … It really got real the moment the plane started turning on the tarmac, and all of a sudden you had the dual water cannons going off over the top of the aircraft.”

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An honor guard salutes the flag-draped coffin of Fireman 1st Class Neal K. Todd as his remains are loaded into a hearse after his funeral mass Saturday in Nevis. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)

The mood intensified as Neal’s casket was removed from the plane and throughout the four-hour drive to Akeley and Nevis. It started with fire departments in the Twin Cities area saluting the funeral procession with flags on bridges along the route, Tony said. The family saw more of the same in towns farther north.

“Then we started seeing people along the roads,” he said, “with the flags, and saluting Neal as he was coming through.”

In Akeley, he said, people lined the streets as the hearse went by. Some of them posted pictures on social media, including what Staffenhagen described as a perfect shot of the hearse in front of the Paul Bunyan statue — “almost like the true ‘welcome home,’” he said.

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If anything, Neal’s reception in Nevis was “even more incredible,” said Staffenhagen, who was riding one car behind the hearse with his father, Orville Staffenhagen. Orville is Neal’s youngest half-brother, one of his two surviving siblings.

“Many times, tears were shed along the way,” Tony Staffenhagen recalled. “Just looking at the outpouring of people, coming out to support and honor his brother … the outpouring of love and patriotism towards him. You really can’t find words for that.”

Kevin Todd, another Neal Todd nephew who serves on the Chisago City Fire Department, wore his dress whites to the funeral.

“This was very awesome,” he said. “Me, my brother and my son were the last ones to put our DNA in, and within six months after that, they identified his remains. So, our DNA really brought it to life.”

Tony Staffenhagen said when the family talks about his Uncle Neal, he is remembered as one of the more sociable, outgoing and happy-go-lucky boys in the family.

Orville, on the other hand, remembered Neal as a “hard luck guy,” explaining, “Hard luck always came his way.”

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Members of the Patriot Guard and In-Country Vietnam Veterans joined law enforcement and firefighters Saturday to escort Todd's remains from Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Church in Nevis to the Akeley Cemetery. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)

During the funeral, Neal Todd’s niece, Rebecca Olafson, shared memories passed to her by her mother, Neal’s late sister Beverly Peterson. Describing Beverly as an extremely friendly “people person,” Olafson said, “She told me that Neal was just like her. She would tell me how personable he was and how wonderful he was and how much she loved him.”

After describing gifts that Neal sent Beverly from Hawaii, including a pink handkerchief, Olafson added, “That pink one is now in the casket with Uncle Neal. He gave it to her, and we’re giving it back to him now.

“We may not have met Uncle Neal, but we know him. We know him through his siblings and the stories they told us, as a community, as a family. And we know him because of generational memories.”

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World War II aircraft fly over the Akeley Cemetery on Saturday during Neal Todd's burial with full military honors. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)

Tony Staffenhagen said about 100 family members traveled from as far away as Washington State, California and Virginia to say goodbye to a family hero many of them never met in person.

Gov. Tim Walz declared Saturday to be Navy Fireman Neal Kenneth Todd Day. Staffenhagen said the family considers it special to see their loved one buried on his own day, while three family flags flew over the Minnesota State Capitol.

“We’ll be able to cherish the fact that he’s getting the hero’s welcome that he should have had,” Staffenhagen said.

Alfred Staffenhagen III, yet another nephew of Neal Todd said he couldn’t be more honored that the family’s hero is being buried next to his dad, Alfred Jr. He observed that the whole community is excited about a hometown hero coming home.

“He’s been a family hero from the time we were this big,” Alfred III said, gesturing at thigh level. “My dad was so proud of him, giving his life for his country. Dad served in the Navy twice in Pearl Harbor.”

He said Alfred Jr. was instrumental in setting up a memorial to Neal at the Akeley museum. “It was one of his goals to have the Defense Department identify those remains so he could finally come home,” Alfred III said. “It’s just sad that dad didn’t live long enough to see it come to fruition, but I know he’s smiling down from heaven, knowing that his brother is going to be laid to rest next to him.”

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By special authorization from the U.S. Department of Defense, an F-16 jet flyover concluded the burial ceremonies for Neal K. Todd on Saturday. (Robin Fish/Enterprise, July 10, 2021)

Related Topics: AKELEYNEVIS
Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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