Thursday, December 21, 2006

Quest for WW II closure

By Jim Brown
December 21, 2006

I read a book a few weeks ago. Not a small accomplishment considering my recent track record at that kind of endeavor.

It was a book about World War II, but it brought back to me the day in 1972 when we got word that my brother Tom had been wounded in action in Vietnam. Until it's happened to you, you can't begin to understand the gut-wrenching dread a message like that evokes.

The book was about the the Gudgeon, a U.S. submarine in World War II. A bit gut-wrenching itself, the book is full of very humanized, personal stories from the ship's 12 wartime patrols deep in enemy territory.

The dictionary says a gudgeon is a "small European bait fish." What an awful name for a ship.

Granted, the Gudgeon was small as warships go, but it certainly wasn't small to the thousands of enemy military personnel who lost their lives to it, nor to the Imperial Navy whose ships it sank.

The Gudgeon and its crew were big, too, to the families of those who sailed aboard it.

But at the end, those families' messages in 1944 were similar to the one we received in 1972, except theirs said their loved ones were "lost at sea and presumed dead."

We only had to wait a couple weeks to receive the good news that Tom was recovering. Then he got better, we heard his story and everybody went on with their lives

The loved ones of those who died on the Gudgeon were not so lucky. Those men became missing and were believed dead, and that is how they stayed. The best the Navy or anybody else ever knew was that the Gudgeon went on patrol in enemy waters one day and simply didn't come back.

Now, Mike Ostlund, author of the book I read and a nephew of one of the men lost aboard the Gudgeon, has unraveled the mystery of the ship's disappearance.

He recounts how he researched everything from old sea dogs' stories to records he had translated from the Japanese war archives and finally found authoritative accounts that agree as to where and when the Gudgeon went down.

The Japanese records even identify the aircraft that dropped bombs through the ship's deck and conning tower on that sunny day in April 1944. They produced a huge geyser of saltwater and fuel oil that ended in a single moment, the last patrol of the little sub and its crew.

Ostlund has become more than the teller of a remarkable story, however. He has become a detective, seeking out surviving families of the Gudgeon's wartime crews. Ostlund's mission now is to tell those families what he has learned about the boat.

Which brings us to the Milwaukee connection: The Gudgeon's commanding officer on its last patrol was a Milwaukee native named Robert Alexander Bonin. He graduated from Boys Tech High School in Milwaukee and the U.S. Naval Academy. His wife, Regis, lived here while he was at sea.

Ostlund is looking for anyone with information about the ill-fated skipper's surviving family or friends. He would like to pass on what he now knows about the last days of the man and his ship.
Yes, it happened a long time ago, but to someone out there, it seems like only yesterday.

So, does anyone have even a tiny clue as to who Robert Bonin was or where his survivors might be? If so, contact me and I will pass on any information I receive.

Maybe it will mean closure at last for a nephew or son or daughter somewhere.



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