As a gunner’s mate on the USS Alabama, Wally Orsund was just one teenager among the battleship’s 2,500 crew members. After World War II, he learned that one of his ship’s first missions included a personal connection deeper than perhaps any other sailor aboard.
Two years before the Alabama victoriously led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay in 1945, the 45,000-ton ship was anchored off Trondheim, Norway — hoping to lure the German battleship Tirpitz into action. The Nazis had occupied Norway since 1940, and the Tirpitz was an ongoing threat to Allied convoys.
“My Norwegian relatives would say nothing about the war except that it was in the past,” said Orsund, 94, who lives in Aitkin, Minn.
On one of his five trips back to Norway after the war, an aunt who never emigrated introduced him to her English-speaking neighbor, who had retired in Norway after 20 years at a Minneapolis electric company.
“He told me the Nazis starved my grandmother to death because she was too old to work,” Orsund said in a telephone interview.
Orsund gunned down a German reconnaissance plane from 5 miles away, but the Allies were unable to destroy the Tirpitz until the final six months of the war. British bombers sank it. By then, it was too late to save Orsund’s grandmother.
By late 1943, the Alabama received orders from Admiral William Halsey Jr. to sail to the South Pacific, where Orsund and the crew bombarded the islands and fought off kamikaze suicide air attacks.
From his gunner’s perch, he watched the destruction unleashed on docks, buildings and tanks. His left ear was among the casualties. He has 60 percent hearing in the right ear, but the left one is shot.
The Alabama engaged in fierce sea battles when Halsey sent it south to escort three aircraft carriers — somehow staying unscathed despite kamikaze attacks. The action grew hotter at the so-called Marianas Turkey Shoot — a three-day clash with the Japanese that Allied forces won overwhelmingly.
“Guns blazing away to beat hell,” Orsund said in a speech last summer at the Alabama — now a floating museum in Mobile, Ala. The ship, he said, was called “the hero of the Pacific … it was also my home away from home. I felt like I [became] what I was meant to be on this ship.”
Orsund was born in 1924 in Hoople, a town of about 300 people in northeast North Dakota. His father, Peter, had emigrated from Norway at 17 and homesteaded there, growing grain and children. Wally was the youngest boy among 10 siblings.
Listening to news of Hitler’s rise in 1941, Orsund’s father told him in Norwegian: “It won’t be long now. There’s going to be a big war.”
When Wally turned 17, his father signed the papers enabling Orsund to enlist in the Navy. During the violent battles at sea, he often prayed: “Please, God, let us get them before they get us.”
Prayers answered, he mustered out of the Navy in 1947 and moved to Pelican Rapids, Minn., and then the Twin Cities area, working as a union window glazer.
“I always wanted to work with my hands,” he said. “And I only had an eighth-grade education.”
He helped install the IDS Tower’s glass in the early 1970s as well as stained-glass church windows, including one at the Catholic church in Big Lake, Minn.
Why not go back to Hoople?
“You see any water around?” he quipped to Jeanne Schram, who profiled him last year in the Aitkin Independent Age newspaper.
Orsund did return to Hoople long enough after his service to stun his mother, who just “stared at me” from the couch. He wasn’t the 5-foot-8, 148-pound kid who left nearly five years earlier. “Now there standing in front of her was her baby boy, standing 6-feet and weighing more than 200 pounds.”
As they hugged, his mother, Anna, cried softly. “She was thanking God for answering her prayers; for all her three sons that had served their country were now back home safe and sound.”
Thrice married, including 22 years to his wife, Terry, Orsund worked as a window glazer into his 80s. He moved to Aitkin in 2004, happy to trade Twin Cities traffic for “a nice, peaceful small town.”
Orsund has seven children, 13 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandkids. His home is filled with antiques he refinished. Longevity runs in the family, with his mother living to 97, an aunt making it to 99 and a brother who died at 96.
At 94, his health and memory seem solid. “My memory is too damn good sometimes, to tell the truth,” he said.
At the Alabama’s 75th anniversary last summer, Orsund delivered the keynote speech as one of the last living crew members.
“Thanks for the ride,” he told the Alabama at the ceremony, “because it sure as hell was one damn exciting one. … Minnesota is a long way from here and now I am old and I’m tired. So with tears in my eyes, I’m going to stand up and I’m going to salute you and I’m going to say ‘goodbye.’ ”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at www.onminnesotahistory.com.