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From farm boy to salty sailor

Duane, center, with his parents, Edwin and Clara Lysne, on their family farm in Grant County, Minn., on November 11, 1953, the day Duane left for the service. He took a bus to Minneapolis, where he got sworn in. He says he wondered the whole way there whether he was doing the right thing. Looking back on his time in the Navy today, he says he wouldn't change a thing. Submitted photo 1 / 8
Duane's Navy uniform. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus2 / 8
Duane was a Machinist Mate on the U.S.S. Harlan R. Dickson, DD-708, destroyer for three years in the mid-1950s. Submitted photo3 / 8
The "official" certificate proving that Duane Lysne graduated from "pollywog" to "shellback" by crossing the equator in June of 1957. Duane still has the framed copy hanging up at his Perham home. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus4 / 8
Duane was 19 when this picture was taken, following his graduation from Navy boot camp at RTC Great Lakes in Illinois. Submitted photo5 / 8
Duane, in front of the Navy memorabilia he has hanging on the wall of his "man cave" at home. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus6 / 8
Navy veteran Duane Lysne, at his Marion Lake home in Perham, spent four years in the service shortly after the Korean War. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus7 / 8
Duane has framed and kept this informational piece about the ship he sailed on for three-plus years as a Machinist Mate in the Navy, the U.S.S. Harlan R. Dickson, DD-708. Marie Johnson / Perham Focus8 / 8

Duane Lysne still remembers the first time he crossed the equator. That was the day he graduated from a "slimy pollywog" to a "trusty shellback."

It was June 26, 1957, and he was travelling through the Panama Canal to Chili, South America with the rest of the crew of the U.S.S. Harlan R. Dickson, DD-708.

He had been at sea with the Navy for about three years already, but had never before gotten the chance to cross over to the southern hemisphere—an accomplishment considered a crucial rite of passage for any "seaworthy" sailor.

Lysne, along with the rest of the pollywogs on board the destroyer, was both eager and trepidatious; becoming a shellback was—and still is—a big deal for sailors. The shellback status is a badge of honor, and pollywogs must endure a number of cringe-worthy traditions to win the title. Lysne recalls crawling across the ship's deck on his hands and knees while shellbacks sprayed him with water and hurled profanity- and humor-laced insults at him. He also had to kiss the belly of the "Royal Baby"—a hairy sailor with a bare paunch (slathered in grease, for good measure).

Puckering up to that wasn't pretty, but Lysne's efforts paid off in the end: the former pollywog was successfully initiated into the ancient club of proud shellbacks. The proof is hanging on the wall of Lysne's "man cave" in the downstairs of his Perham home on Marion Lake—an "official" certificate proclaiming Lysne "as one of our trusty shellbacks." It's signed by some of the sea's greatest celebrities—none other than the servants of Neptunus Rex himself, the "Ruler of the Raging Main," as well as "His Majesty's Scribe," Davey Jones.

Lysne still cherishes and chuckles about the experience today. He has a lot of fond memories of his four years in the Navy, he says, but becoming a shellback is one of his favorites.

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Born in Valley City, N.D., Lysne moved to Minnesota while still a boy. He grew up doing chores around the family farm in Grant County and attended high school in Elbow Lake. He joined the Navy shortly after graduation, almost on a whim.

On "senior skip day," he explains, he tagged along with two of his buddies to St. Cloud, where they happened to talk to a Navy recruiter. His friends filled out applications, so he went ahead and filled one out, too, figuring he was under no obligation to join, so why not?

There was a waiting list to get in and Lysne wasn't sure his application would ever amount to anything. But when his number came up that fall, he decided to see it through. His farm job was coming to an end, and he felt ready for a change. One week later, he was on his way to boot camp at RTC Great Lakes in Illinois.

That was in November of 1953. The Korean War had recently ended, and the Vietnam War was still years away. Lysne didn't know it then, but his four years in the Navy would be mostly smooth sailing, pun intended. He would encounter no bloody battles, but he would have plenty of adventures.

The first of those adventures happened in the summer of 1954, before Lysne had even left port for his virgin voyage. He was stationed at Newport, Rhode Island, on board the Harlan Dickson, which was moored in the harbor. A hurricane was raging along the East Coast, and the storm broke the ship loose from its mooring. It started floating down the bay, with Lysne and the other crew members unable to stop it.

"We had no power," Lysne says. "A couple of tugboats had to stop us. That was my first crisis."

Fortunately, it didn't result in any serious damage and they were able to get the ship under control.

That wasn't the last hurricane Lysne would live through, nor the worst.

"We rode out some pretty heavy storms," he says. "Sailors always talk about seeing footprints on the walls, and I have actually seen people walking halfway on the wall and halfway on the floor, the ship would lean over that far (because of big waves)."

For Lysne's three-plus years at sea, the Harlan Dickson followed a typical annual pattern of six months of duty in the Mediterranean, alternating with training and fleet maneuvers along the East Coast and in the Caribbean.

He went on several "cruises," a.ka. missions, during those years, traveling to numerous countries and seeing many diverse corners of the world. His first time at sea was a cruise to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He still remembers the hot, muggy air there, and the juicy sweet taste of fresh-picked pineapples. From there, the officers headed to Greece, Turkey, France, Spain and other Mediterranean countries.

On his second trip to the Mediterranean, in 1956, Lysne experienced what he now considers to be his closest brush with combat. The ship was traveling through the Suez Canal as a war was threatening to break out between Israel and Egypt. The conflict is now known as the Suez Crisis.

The Harlan Dickson played a key role in the crisis, helping to evacuate American citizens out of Haifa, Israel.

"They were in danger," Lysne says of the Americans. "So we went in there one night, with guns loaded, and we got them out and brought them to Greece."

Lysne's role was to make sure the ship's engines kept running, so it would be ready to make a hasty exit, if need be.

"Everything went fine," he says, "but on the way there, we saw arcs going both ways across our radar, and come to find out, it was two ships shooting at each other and we were going right between them. We had to change course in a hurry."

As a Machinist Mate, Lysne was part of a team that oversaw operations of the ship's two main steam engines. There were usually four men on each engine at any given time: one operating the throttle board, another watching the pumps, another distilling ocean water into fresh water, and another taking readings. When the ship wasn't running, the team would do maintenance and repair work on the engines.

Lysne says they never ran into any problems with the engines at sea, but they did often have trouble with the generators, especially in warmer waters and warmer climates, which were harder on the machinery.

"When that happened, no one would have power and everybody would get mad at us," he says of the generators going out. "You had to answer for that."

In all, there were 200 to 300 crew members aboard the Harlan Dickson at any given time. Lysne roomed with the other Machinist Mates, and they got to know each other pretty well. They'd often spend their off-duty time together, sight-seeing, going out to bars and trying to find restaurants that served American food—steak and eggs was always a favorite dish.

Looking back on his time in the Navy, Lysne says, "I don't think I would do anything different. It was a very good experience for me. I had been raised on a farm; I had a lot to learn about living, and by the time I got out of the Navy, I could have gone to any spot in the world and wouldn't have had any problem. It was a very good education for me."

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After completing his four years of active service, Lysne joined the Navy Reserve and, after a couple of years of working in the mines on the Iron Range, went to the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton to study engineering technology.

He met his wife, Darlene, while recruiting for the Reserve. She was the daughter of his fellow recruiter's friend.

They met, "I asked her out, and that was that," Lysne recalls. They got married in 1961.

For the next several years, Darlene worked as a teacher, and Duane worked as an engineer. After that, she stayed home to raise their two sons, Dean and Tom, and Duane started teaching engineering, first at the technical college in Wadena and then at his alma mater, the North Dakota State College of Science.

They bought their Marion Lake property in 1970 and started spending their summers there. After Duane retired in 2004, they built a new home on the lot and have since lived there full-time.

Today, they're both active in their church, Calvary Lutheran, and they like to do volunteer work and spend time with friends and family. Some of their grandkids are active in Perham sports, and they enjoy getting out to games. Darlene is part of the P.E.O. philanthropic organization, and Duane has been an active member of the Dent American Legion for about the past two years.

"Duane is a terrific guy who is fairly new to our Legion Post," says Ron Bjelland, Commander of the Dent Legion. "He is always willing to step up and volunteer to assist on projects, no matter what."

Duane also spends a fair amount of time on his favorite hobby—researching his family history. Hanging alongside the Navy memorabilia in his man cave are shelves full of binders containing detailed information on his Norwegian ancestors. He likes to learn all he can about them from historical records, and then write their stories. Some of his records date back to the 1500s.

"Everything was meant to be," Duane says of how his life turned out. If he hadn't gone into the Navy, he says, he'd probably still be a farmer in Grant County, but he's happy with where he's been, and where he is now. He's never regretted joining the service.

"When he left high school, he didn't have any direction, so it was good for him," says Darlene. "It exposed him to the world. He always says it was very beneficial to him."

"It satisfied my urge to travel," Duane adds. "You learn to take discipline and follow orders. I don't think it's for everybody, but I sure would not deter anyone (from enlisting). I would never want to go through it again, but I would never give it up, either."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

(218) 346-5900 x222
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