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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Marine Gunderson Once Survived 3 Days and Nights in Hurricane

By Vern Hollister



With Veterans Day Sunday, Nov. 11. the Nation turned to thanking men and women who served their our country. Schools held thankful remembrances, and other observances took place, including reunions among those who shared a common bond. This year marks the 237th birthday of the Marine Corps.

Eight or nine times in the past 20 or so years, Ken Gunderson, an Armstrong Creek resident and before that a resident of Goodman, travelled to St. Louis, Mo. for a reunion of crew members and families of 13 Marine Corps pilots who landed in the Pacific and survived for three days and three nights before being rescued.

At age 92 this month, Gunderson received his wings and reported for duty in the Pacific Theater. On his first mission, along with 23 other pilots in formation, he was on his way to move from one location to another in a Pacific Island chain controlled by the Japanese military. Without advance warning of weather conditions, the 24 pilots hit a “tropical hurricane.” Thirteen pilots landed on the 40-50 foot waves and trusted their lives to seat life rafts in which they sat. Eventually, they connected with one another while being bounced around. They tied themselves together with a section of rope made of hemp, and the pilots rode out the storm before eventually being spotted by a navy search plane.

Gunderson said he has gone to the reunion begun by a master sergeant and his family about every other year. He wished to travel to St. Louis in 2012. He asked Goodman resident Maurice “Maury” Casper if he’d like to go along and help drive. Casper served in the Navy from 1952-1961 on the USS Lake Champlain, an aircraft carrier.

Once he said to me, “I’ve got a reunion down in St. Louis,” Caspar said. “Would you like to go with me? We’ll take my car, and you can help drive.”

Gunderson would pay the expenses. He needed someone to help with the driving.

Two other veterans, younger, heard about the plans for the trip at the 8-HI Club in Goodman. Their reaction, according to Lenny Laabs and Mike Castelic, was “Road Trip? We’ll go on a road trip.”

Laabs served in the Navy out of Norfolk, Va., from 1962-1965 and Castelic was a former Army engineer. They were not only interested in the weekend trip, but they also had some concern for the the two veterans taking off from Goodman by themselves. They also thought it may be a good idea to rent a car. Castelic connected with Paul Eliason of Broadway Chevrolet in Green Bay who happened to be a Marine veteran. One serviceman to another, after hearing the story, Eliason said, “We’ll give you a car to drive.”

On Oct. 21, the four left with Laabs and Castelic doing the driving. When the quartet arrived at the hotel in St. Louis, each had a room and surviving members of the crews and families were present for the banquet and reunion. The hotel set up a “ready room,” just as if Gunderson, one of the two surviving pilots was preparing for another mission. The other survivor couldn’t make it because of health issues. Gunderson gets out almost everyday, and, according to reports, shoots a mean game of pool in a winter league that just began,.

Gunderson said that on previous reunions their stories have been taped. This year, he said a showing on a PBS station in Orange County, Calif., is scheduled, and the hope is that it will be picked up by other PBS stations.

When the 24 pilots left, they were unaware of the storm raging in their flight path. Roughly half the pilots and their planes didn’t survive the hurricane. Officially, they were “lost at sea” and “missing in action.”

They lost their planes, also, after releasing their seats, but Gunderson and the dozen others survived because of their own ability to handle the first intake of salt water and get away from the planes without being drawn underneath. Gunderson likened the survival raft to being in a “baby’s bassinet.” For two hours, as the were tossed about, they paddled with their hands to reach a comrade, connect, and then search for another. Sometimes they were at a wave’s crest and could look down to see another pilot. They struggled to use their lengths of hemp rope to tie them to one another.

Ocean water caused them to have the dry heaves. For three days and three nights, the 13 rode the waves, sang at times, and at other moments shot at sharks which followed them. About 5 p.m. the third day, a Navy search plane spotted the pilots. At 11 p.m. that same evening, they climbed a ladder thrown down from the deck of a destroyer to safety, put on clean pajamas, and slept in a bed that a sailor gave up for exhausted Marine pilots.

Gunderson followed this, his first mission, with over a 100 more. Nearing the age of 92 this month, he left with Laabs, described by Caspar as a “bilge rat,” a Navy veteran who worked with engines like those for Gunderson’s carrier. Caspar, they teased, only raised and lowered the anchor. Caspar said with a touch of pride, he could tie any knot the Navy required.

With the connection of those four at the 8-HI Club, the hardy veterans took a Road Trip to recall one of the harrowing experiences that veterans throughout the country have experienced. On Veterans Day, they are thanked for their courage and what they have done to keep this Nation free.


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