by CESAR SALAZAR
Five decades later, a Winona County missing-in-action (MIA) soldier is remembered fondly by his family and friends. Now, those friends and family are honoring his ultimate sacrifice with a highway dedication.
County Road 25, which connects Minneiska and Rollingstone, will soon be marked as the Maj. Richard John Schell Memorial Highway to commemorate his service. Schell was a hardworking farm kid growing up with his six siblings in Mount Vernon Township. Schell, a man of faith, attended the Holy Trinity Catholic School in Rollingstone and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Minneiska.
However, being a young man during the Vietnam War era, the war loomed over Schell. Rather than wait for the draft to get to him, he took matters into his own hands and enlisted in the U.S. Army; he was later commissioned as an officer and deployed to Vietnam in 1966. Schell was reported MIA in August 1967 following a helicopter crash in South Vietnam, just eight days before he was set to return home.
“He was supposed to get discharged as soon as he got back,” Richard’s brother, Bill Schell, said. “He was supposed to get married as soon as he got back. He had a lot of things going on, and just like that, boom.”
Richard’s closest friend, whom he considered his brother, Clem Wiley, remembered the day he was delivered the somber news. He recalls the family being at church for Richard’s brother’s wedding, leaving just Wiley and Mary, Richard’s sister, at the Schell household. “I heard a knock on the door and looked up and saw an officer in uniform — on a Friday night, this is not good,” Wiley said, teary-eyed. “He wouldn’t tell Mary or me anything. Mary went up to the church and got her mother, brought her home, sat her down, and gave her the news that he was missing in action.” He continued, “She was pretty overwhelmed with everything. It was very tough for her and everybody.”
Richard was a passenger with eight other soldiers when their helicopter crashed. Search and rescue crews were able to rescue four of the occupants, and later recovered the remains of another, but Richard and three other service members were never found. “He went down in a river in a helicopter … but Lord knows what happened to him,” Bill said. “One member was supposedly seen in a prisoner-of-war camp in Cambodia. They were identified as one of the four that went down in the helicopter.”
Richard was declared MIA by the U.S. government for 10 years, before being legally declared dead. Soon after, the Schell family held a memorial service at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “Even though that was some sort of closure, to me it still wasn’t, because we had no idea,” Wiley said. “There was never a body recovered … I guess we’ll never know.”
Richard was posthumously promoted from first lieutenant to major. He was also the recipient of the Silver Star and a Bronze Star for his actions during the Vietnam War.
Bill described Richard as a hellion and as a well-known member of his community. He recalls him driving in his 1956 Chevrolet around the community, as well as him being an undisputed arm wrestling champ at the local bars.
Wiley said he was the last loved one to see Richard. He recalls being stationed in Japan in 1967, and Richard had gone over to spend his rest and recuperation days with his best friend. Wiley also recalled receiving snail mail from Richard, which didn’t reach him until he returned home. In it was a letter from Richard prior to his MIA status, asking Wiley to be his best man at his wedding and if he would ride motorcycles together with him when they drove home from California, Wiley said.
The Maj. Richard John Schell Memorial Highway will be the first of its kind, according to Winona County Highway Department Engineer David Kramer. Previously, no county roads have been set as memorials by the Winona County Board, so Kramer had to do research with materials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation on how to set up memorial highways. A letter from Wiley had been sitting at the Winona County administrator’s desk for a couple of years, set aside due to COVID-19, but the County Board approved the memorial designation last December.
Richard’s friends and family are planning an unveiling of the memorial later in the spring, but they haven’t set the details.
Thanks to the help of Richard's friends and family, he will be remembered and honored in his community. Another friend of Richard’s, Bill Hager, had been a driving factor in getting the memorial set up. “These are the things we have to do for our veterans,” Hager said. “It’s been 50 years, but we have to remember our veterans and their hometowns are so important to them and their families.”
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