NELS A. GUNDERSON, LT, USN
Nels Gunderson '46
Date of birth: March 2, 1923
Date of death: May 2, 1956
From the 1946 Lucky Bag:
Unable to find any details about Nels's loss, except that he was "lost at sea in a plane crash." Unable to find a burial location or memory marker.
Date of death from Register of Alumni; date of birth from Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps of 1947.
From his wife's obituary:
She married Navy Ensign Nels A. Gunderson III, in April 1946 in Minneapolis, and embarked on years of travel across the United States as a Navy wife. Widowed in 1956 after Lt. Gunderson was lost at sea in a plane crash…
Nels was a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School in 1954.
He survived an at-sea ditching of his AD-4 Skyraider on December 22, 1950, off the coast of Korea. "Engine fire, ditched 20 mi from task force; rescued by a motor whaleboat from USS Keppler (DDE 765)."
"Budweiser" - Aboard USS Keppler (DD 765)
Nels Gunderson Accident Report December 23, 1950
Courtesy of Diane Lawrence, widow of VADM William P. Lawrence '51, USN
You don't know how good it feels to be actually writing to you instead of telepathing to you, I was having a hard time getting to you yesterday at this time.
I imagine that you've heard in the papers about my rescue. Gee, it was a dandy—the best rescue I've ever been in. It was complete with flares, tracers, and searchlights! Like a movie premier yet!
But where to start to tell you about my experiences. Well, to start with I was on a test hop on 5098 which had had a carburetor change. I was alone; I had completed the test and was orbiting at 1000 ft 20-25 miles from the task force in the Roger sector on the radio navigation gizmo we use. I bore 240 degrees from the task force. I had just called in and asked for clearance in to the task force to await the signal to land—and had been told to wait, when wham, barn, thank you ma’am, there I was in the drink! I was cruising very slow, 125 knots, to conserve gas, when the engine started banging violently. In a couple of seconds the air scoop in the front Of the windshield had come loose, and fire was pouring out of the right side of the engine. I called "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday"; this is 509 passbook in assigned sector, 20 miles. My engine is banging the air scoop has torn loose. Mayday, Mayday". Then I heard Pass book answer back about "Who dat say Mayday?" By this time I was down to 300 ft, so I said "Mayday this is Pass book on fire and going in". I had kept the plane in a flat attitude and at 300ft. I noticed that I had 85 knots, so I put down my hook and flaps, eased the nose up a hair and I was in. The whole thing took no more that 30 seconds. Oh, yes I also in the time, turned 45 degrees and headed into the wind.
There wasn't much to the landing. Nothing much different from an arrested carrier landing except that when I looked up, the nose started to sink and water started to come in the cockpit. So, I stood up, looked down to see if my raft and chute were there, they were, so I stood on the edge of the cockpit and jumped away from the plane. I inflated my life jacket after I was well clear of the plane, took off my chute and broke out my raft. I inflated the raft and hopped in just as old 509 went down. I estimate this took about 30-45 seconds. So within 1 1/2 minutes my mode of transportation changed.
So there I was in the raft, fit as a fiddle, I was a little worried that it might get dark before they could get to me, for I went in at 1630 and sunset was at 1705 and it was good and dark by 1715. But I had just called in and given my position and there was a whole flight of 18 planes on its way back and it should pass thru the Roger sector on its way back to the task force. So I didn't have a thing to worry about. Oh, it was a little cold, but I was ok. When Clem Craig had gone over the bow, he was in the water for less that 1/2 hr and he said that he had trouble with his hands getting so numb he could not use them. I was prepared I figured, for I dug into my pocket and put my heavy blue wool gloves on under my leather flying gloves. I figured that would help me as much as anything would.
So, always conscious that I'd need my hands, and that if they got too numb I couldn't help myself, I proceeded to get my flares all set. I stuck them on a ring with a lanyard on it so that I could fire the flares if necessary by biting the lanyard and jerking the flare away from my face, therefore setting it off. My knife proved invaluable, for without it I couldn’t have pried up the "0" ring on the flare to attach the hook.
Next I looked all around the side of the raft for the rest of my raft kit which contained more flares, a radar antennae and chow. But I wasn't interested for once in my life in the chow. I couldn't find the kit though, so I figured that I had lost it as a matter of fact, I discovered after I got aboard that it was tied to the raft all right.
My gun was my next thought; we carry a .38 cal revolver with tracer bullets in it. But because the old man specifically said that we weren't to have our guns loaded in the ready room, and there never was time to do it on the flight deck, the gun was empty. It took me 5 minutes to get my gun out of the holster; the snap on the strap that held it in was so tight. And then I couldn't get the damned ammo out of the bandolier, because it too, like the holster, was under my life jacket, so I couldn’t see -only feel and feeling was pretty hard through those 2 pair of gloves. But one by one I'd pry them out and put them in my mouth, until finally I got the gun loaded. It was a hell of a chore.
Then I saw a plane. He was going by and was quite a ways out, but I set off a smoke flare, which he didn't see. By that time the sun was getting lower and lower on the horizon, and was about to disappear behind the mountains. I was only about 5-7 miles off the shore (hostile), and could see the mountains easily.
So I waited and waited. My watch stopped at 1655. I blew up my raft, looked around, blew up into my gloves, and blew up my life jacket. Spread dye marker, the sea wasn’t too rough, but it broke over me quite often. The raft naturally was full of water, for you can't keep it out. The temp f the water was 44 degrees and the air was probably 35, but I felt fine. Not sick at all. I just shivered. I just shivered until my legs and back ached, but I had no cramps and didn't feel bad at all. I could wiggle my toes, fingers etc. My suit of rubber had some water in it, but I didn’t feel drenched.
Soon it was dark and I wondered where those air dales were. The moon came up, and it was fairly light outside. There was nothing to do but sit there. I'd catch myself dozing, and would have to work hard to stay awake.
And I prayed. I started to say the Lord's Prayer as we do before we go to sleep, but it didn’t exactly apply to the situation. And neither did the Midshipman's Payer. And so I just prayed, "Lord, is it be thy will, deliver me from my predicament. If not, dear Lord, who knowest our every thought, allow me to know thee and see thee" And I prayed to God that he look after you, Kris and Nick, and that he bless you and keep you. And I tried to cry, but I couldn't cry. I could smile, though and I did, I could smile for I figured I was so very fortunate to have such a wonderful family and a good life. I was sorry that I couldn't see you again, but I was sure that it wouldn't be long before we would be united again in Heaven. Somehow, it never dawned on me that either of us would go to hell. And I wondered who you would marry. I hoped that it would be Jerry, for Kris and Nicky need a Daddy. I asked God to forgive me my many sins, and to allow me to dwell with him forever. But that if it be his will, to deliver me.
I was still wiggling around every once in a while, and I could still use my hands and wiggle my toes. But I was napping more and more, so I fired two shots into the air, I didn’t figure that anyone could see them but I just wanted to see if they worked. Finally, I could see that my raft was running out of gas, and I couldn't blow it up. And the water was creeping up in my suit so that it covered the lower part of my chest. I figured that it wouldn’t' belong now, so I fired two more shots (these two were seen though I didn't know it by the Keppler which was 10 miles away). He called Anyface 5 a guppy to investigate, saving two more if I could not stand the cold anymore.
I was dozing, when I heard a plane engine, saw its lights coming towards me. I pulled my flare and he turned and went back toward the way he had come. I was sick. I thought he had not seen it. And I had only one more flare. Then he turned a couple miles away and it looked as though he dropped a flare. Afterwards, I found out that this flare was the Keppler's search light. It went out and I thought the plane had lost me. So next time he came anywhere near, I lit off my second flare. That was a big decision let me tell you! The plane still, kept orbiting, but instead of having me in the center of his orbit he went right over me and then off to the North again in a race track orbit. I was sort of worried that he'd lost me again. But then I looked up toward the North, and saw the ship off in the distance coming toward me! I turned on the little one cell flashlight on my jacket, waved my arms and hollered "Ship ahoy, ship ahoy". I guess that is what all shipwrecked mariners holler! And they turned on their searchlight and picked me up in its beam. Then they threw me a line, and I tied a loop in it and put it around my chest. In a jiffy I was alongside. But then the ship backed down, and I drifted past the bow. They tried to tow me, but my foot was caught on my parachute which acted like a sea anchor. I hollered up that my foot was caught and they cast loose the line, lowered a boat, and in a couple of minutes I was aboard.
In the boat I asked them what ship it was. They said they were Budweiser, which is their code name. They said something about giving me some brandy and I said no thanks but how about a beer. Well, they didn't have any cold they said. I told them that didn't bother me. But I got the brandy and not the beer!!
They dragged me out of the boat and up a ladder. When I got to the top I told them to let go and let me walk, which I did. I asked what time it was when I got in captain's cabin, and when they said it was 1930 I dropped my uppers. Why any fool knows that a man can't live 3 hours in that water and walk around and talk. I figured it must be the Lord again! All in all, it is just fantastic for a man just can't live immersed in 44 degree water for three whole hours and then walk, tie knots and help himself into the boat. You try and figure it out, I can't.
But, Life is so good! It is so wonderful to be able to tell you this, even though it isn't such pleasant reading. Don't feel badly, Margie, because it is a happy day. I love you so. Even with the shivers, I had to smile when I thought of you. I really do love you, dearest. It is going to be so wonderful to be with you again.
All day today I've felt pretty good. Just awfully weary is all. I had a 4 hour nap this afternoon and I should sleep ok tonight. It is just pretty hard to sleep thinking, that's all.
As far as I can figure, it just was not god's will that my life should end. There is no other explanation, for it just so happened that the ship happened to be steering toward me when the traces were sent. They might easily have missed them and not a thing wrong with me except a little burn the size of a nickel on my chin! I guess you know I must be naturally tough! And I don't give up easily. Thank the Lord again.
I guess you know these men of the Keppler are really treating me fine. Yes indeed! The chow is fine, I have a nice bed and clothes to wear, and I'm alive and kicking, so you know I'm well off.
Today the Princeton was gone replenishing and tomorrow we go to replenish, so it will be Christmas day that I get back aboard. Some Christmas present! Well, that's all there is to it. Fortunately one doesn't usually have such big adventures every day. I imagine that I'll spend a good part of a week writing reports and answering questions. And then I'll be back airplane driving.
If I can pull through with everything against me, the cold, the darkness, the aloneness, the low altitude and slow speed at the time of trouble, think how easy it will be if you have just something for you. But if God is looking after you, and I'm convinced he is looking after me, you're fat!!
Love you, love you, love you, love you, I do.
Your own, Nels
P. S From now on Budweiser is my drink!!!!
Memorial Hall Error
All references to Nels are with the suffix “III”, but he is not listed as such in Memorial Hall.