Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unworthy offspring of the Greatest Generation

Seventy years ago tomorrow, five of my mom's uncles, the Fahlgren brothers, somehow survived the Date Which Will Live in Infamy — the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, that plunged the United States into World War II.

Vern, Ervin, Glen, Warner and Gordon
Fahlgren, all served the Navy at
Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941
The date … the horrible war … the immense sacrifices by people stateside … the incomprehensible triumphs that came of a nation working as one … all dim at an alarming pace as the world twists on itself and we become removed by time.

The brothers in San Diego
The Fahlgren men are my grandmother Irene Gibson's brothers, of which she had seven. The oldest, Gordon, joined the Navy with brothers Warner and Vern in February 1941. Leonard joined the Army a month later. Brothers Glen and Ervin joined the Navy in July. Carl, the youngest, was turned down for military service.

Three of the Fahlgrens were assigned to Pearl Harbor: Gordon to the USS Vestal, a repair ship; Warner to the battleship USS Oklahoma; and Vern to the destroyer USS Hovey. At the brothers' urging, their mother — my great-grandmother, Theresa Fahlgren Lindstrom — asked the Navy to assign all her sons to the Vestal.

My great grandmother, Theresa Lindstrom,
christens the USS Susquehanna
Admiral Chester Nimitz said yes, and complimented the boys' mother for her patriotism, sending six sons into the service. In 1942, the Navy honored her patriotism by having her christen the tanker USS Susquehanna out of Tacoma, Wash.

(I'm getting all this information, by the way, from an account great-Uncle Glen had written for his family. The Billings Gazette based its own story, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, on Glen's report. The Fahlgren boys grew up in far northern Montana.)

The Vestal was readying for war, its welders sealing the portholes of all the warships in the harbor. It tied up to the USS Arizona Dec. 5 to begin work on her. The Fahlgren brothers took liberty Dec. 6, returning to the Vestal at midnight.

Glen arose before dawn Dec. 7, 1941. A baker, he was preparing coffee cake and pumpkin pies, when after daybreak the Vestal's officers began shouting at sailors to man their stations. Glen emerged from the galley to see smoke rising from the Arizona, and a Japanese plane diving toward the Arizona and strafing the Vestal with machine gun fire. The Vestal's anti-aircraft gun jammed immediately in the fight, the commander and some of the crew struggling mightily to get it working again.

A bullet hit Vern, and shrapnel struck a ship's cook. Their chief master-at-arms was killed instantly. Minutes later, a Japanese bomb raced through the mess hall, 20 feet from where the brothers stood, the concussion knocking them flat. Another bomb at the same time plowed all the way through the Vestal and destroyed its rudder. Sailors used axes to sever the lines mooring the Vestal to the burning Arizona. A Navy tug later pulled the listing Vestal away and shoved it into shallow water to keep it from sinking.

When the Arizona's forward ammunition magazines detonated from the blast of a final, fatal Japanese bomb, the force blew the Vestal's commander and many sailors and Marines overboard. Before the commander — covered in oil — could swim aboard again and rescind it, an order to abandon ship had already been given by the executive officer. While Glen took advantage of a lull to look for his brothers — coming upon the body of a sailor blown onto his ship from the Arizona — Gordon, Vern and Warner had already gone into the water.

Gordon made it back to the ship after the attack. Vern and Warner went missing for days, and all became separated. None knew until days later that they each had been put on guns along the harbor's beaches, bracing for more Japanese attacks which did not come. I never heard — or forgot if someone told me — what became of great-Uncle Vern's wound.

The five Fahlgren brothers served together again aboard the Vestal, which was eventually returned to service in April 1942, until November of that year, when the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, all died with the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau. After that, the Navy prohibited so many siblings from serving together. The Fahlgren brothers were scattered about the Navy, and after the war came home safely.

They did exactly what we imagine men and women did after serving in and surviving World War II. Having helped save the world from evil, they came home and carried the United States onward and upward. All went to their homes, assumed their roles in their communities, raised their families, fulfilled the promises they forged by their sacrifice and their witness to horror. I don't know that they even talked much about their time at war; I really don't know much about them, to my shame.

I met the Fahlgren men only a few times as a kid; played at events few and far between with their children, my third cousins (if I have the lineage correct), about whom my memories are also dim.

The Fahlgren children: Ervin, Warner, Carl and Glen in back;
Vern, my grandma Irene, Gordon and Leonard
My mom told me stories about her uncles, which have since become vague summaries in my aging brain. I have always remembered the part about the Vestal captain being blown overboard; I seem to remember my mom telling me the bomb blast forced my great-Uncle Glen to throw an armload of dough overboard too.

I remember great-Uncle Gordon the most. Because he lived closest — near the C&H Sugar factory on San Pablo Bay in Crockett, Calif. — I saw him the most, which still wasn't more than two or three times. Though in youth he looked much like his brothers, he had thickened and reminded me of a friendly bulldog; even the long thin nose, a feature of the Fahlgren children, had somehow become pugnacious and friendly on Gordon, at least in my mind. One — I don't know which! — lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon. I'm not certain where the others lived.

It is sad and beyond stupid that I don't know much about them, how many are even still alive; of those who survive, I do not doubt they are meeting with the remaining survivors of Pearl Harbor somewhere, remembering the thousands who died, maybe wondering how they survived, and whether they had made the most of the life left to them.

I know only enough about them to know they did.

My grandmother passed away almost 20 years ago, and my mom nearly three years ago. Mom was my gatekeeper to her side of the family, the keeper of the stories, and in her stories and my faulty listening habits, the Fahlgren men have melded in my mind with the men of Lake Wobegon in Garrison Keillor's stories, with their Midwestern, Swedish names. I don't come across any people named Warner or Leonard or Irene. My mom said Lake Wobegon was so much like the North Dakota and Montana towns in which she was raised. I imagine the Fahlgren men as somehow stoic and mirthful.

The last I saw most of the Fahlgren men was a family reunion in 1987, two years after we got married. I joined some of them and two of my cousins for a round of golf (by the way, if you're thinking of learning golf, the worst way to start is with a bunch of people who play golf well, on a South Lake Tahoe course, on the Fourth of July, on the easily contested assumption that golf is easy); I lasted four holes before risking my well-being trying to escape the course; it is nearly impossible to walk off a fully operating golf course partway through a game.

Before I did finally leave, I sat with one of my great-uncles on a bench above the third tee — I am a piteous fool for not knowing which uncle! — who told me, "Beware the man who plays a good game of golf. It makes you wonder how well he's looking after his business and family."

In some way familiar and strange, what he told me lives in me as the legacy for which the Fahlgren men fought.

Tomorrow I'll say a prayer for them and us.


  1. Shawn, this is your Mom' cousin, Ann, Carl's daughter. Read your blog which was posted on facebook on my lunch break. When I am home, I will fill in some of your questions. You certainly are not alone on not knowing family history. It seems that when I finally became interested, most of the brothers had died.
    Until later.
    Ann Hoffmann

  2. Wow, Ann, I had no idea this post would reach you. Yes, I'd love to hear more, and I thank you for reaching out.

  3. Thank you so much for this post, Shawn! I am Ann's niece. I would love to hear Ann's input as well. I always thought I was paying attention but it so easy to forget. I have always wanted to present the Hinsdale, MT Legion Hall with a framed photo with the story, but I only got as far as photo copies. Maybe we could all put our heads together- this is one story that shouldn't be lost.

  4. That sounds good, Krista. I'd like to help. Thanks for reading the post. It makes my day that you and Ann would stumble upon it.

  5. I am married to Ervin's son, Greg. We celebrated Erivn's 92nd birthday on Dec. 2. I will share your blog with him and our family. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  6. Shawn, I am Ervin's daughter, Bonnie. I was named after your mother. My Dad always says I got that name because she was his favorite niece. Thank you for posting this story. As Lora said, we just celebrated Ervin's 92nd birthday. He is the lone survivor of this Fahlgren's family and he misses his brothers and sister everyday. In 1980, your parents were nice enough to host me and two college girlfriends for the night. We were one a spring break road trip. I remember playing a game with you and your sister- othello- I lost every game. I miss getting your mother's Christmas letter and keeping up with your life.

  7. bonnie, to think i thought of not writing this, that it was too far off track from the usual drivel i produce. i'm amazed at the reaction and reconnection, and glad to hear from you. thanks for reminding me you are named after my mom.

    my dad, a veteran of Korea, thought highly of your dad and uncles as among those who gave him so much for which to be grateful.

    so far removed in many ways, in time and space and family, i find myself grasping for analogies in pop culture, and think of the dying Capt. Miller telling Pvt. Ryan in "Saving Private Ryan," to "earn this" gift of his rescue, and of Pvt. Ryan as an old man asking his wife to tell him he's a good person.

    Tell your dad he helped give so much to so many, and I join in thanking him; and wishing him happy birthday.

  8. Well all you needed was one cousins to post to Facebook and lookout. Greg, Leanne, Ervin and I are all in the Portland area. Let me know next time you are in Oregon. Tangen1@Comcast.net. Dad will be thrilled to see your story.

  9. I think a trip to Portland for Ervin's 93rd birthday would be a great idea for everyone.

  10. wow, didn't know. our daughter was just there yesterday. she attends uo.

  11. Shawn, I haven't forgotten about getting you family history. I do need an address to send you some things and maybe an e-mail. The more important news at this time is that Uncle Ervin passed away early this morning. I have tried to call Margo a couple of times, but no one answers. Will try again. Hopefully you will read this and let your aunts know. My e-mail is adhoff09@comast.net