Culver's Titanic History

Willpower the key for Titanic survivor

Culver Wennerstrom holds the little notebook with the greatest of care, turning the brittle pages slowly. The words are carefully typed in the best English that his father, August Edward Wennerstrom, could muster. "Am going to tell you a true story about a boat, called Titanic."

 And what follows is August Wennerstrom's eyewitness account of the 1912 disaster that claimed 1,522 lives. By now almost everyone you know has seen the movie "Titanic," $1 billion in ticket sales, the biggest money-making film of all time.

 Almost no one has seen August Wennerstrom's real story, 30 or so small typewritten pages about the night he came to grips with life while facing certain death. August Wennerstrom was a 27-year-old newspaperman from Malmo, Sweden, when he boarded the Titanic in April 1912. He was traveling under an assumed name, a political dissident fleeing Sweden to a job in Chicago. He was lodged in the lower part of the gigantic ship, in the third-class section. Up above, in first-class luxury, were the powerful multimillionaires, John Jacob Astor, Isidor Strauss, Bruce Ismay and Benjamin Guggenheim. The Titanic was a floating party ship with swimming pools, a gymnasium, tennis courts, cocktail rooms- "every convenience and pleasure you may find in any large city," Wennerstrom observed. So when the steward called passengers onto the decks as a precaution after the Titanic scraped an iceberg, August and his Swedish friends were hoping for more drinks. But because the bar was closed, they amused themselves by starting a ring dance on the deck. The extent of danger took a long time to sink in. Even when the life boats began to fill and leave the luxury liner, taking their leave in the choppy waters of the North Atlantic, there was a sense of calm. " I and the rest of my company, (and) nearly everybody left on the Titanic, just stood there, silent and wondering, once in a while slowly walking up and down the deck. "We helped a couple Swedish girls into one of the boats, smoked a cigar and had our eyes wide open and noticed everything that was going on but could not feel any sorrow or fright. "It was more like that we were part of the audience in a wonderful dramatic play and during all this time, the band was still playing, 'Nearer my God to thee."' But desperation finally took hold, expressed in the form of prayer, tears and terror. "All those who had believed that the Titanic could not sink began to have a doubt, and the glorious last act of a wonderful dramatic play was going on," he wrote.  "Cry, cry everywhere. Prayer and more prayer.  Not very often has God been remembered and called on as he was in that night. August and his party searched the ship for safety vests, knowing the lifeboats had all filled and left. He had returned to the deck when a boiler exploded and the Titanic began sinking. A second boiler exploded, throwing August into the air. He landed right in front of a collapsible boat that had been overlooked in the evacuation. He and others had loosened the small canvas vessel from its bindings when a third explosion tossed them into the sea. August and the men with him found themselves separated from the Titanic. The blast also had torn the bottom from their life raft. But because the little vessel had a cork railing, it would stay afloat. The Titanic, just 50 feet away, had nearly disappeared beneath the surface. "The place where she went down was immediately filled with drowning people," August recalled. "Many died very quickly, others put up a hard fight but could not stand the chill." August's bottomless boat was swapped as other passengers fought to climb aboard the rails. He found himself afloat on top of three dead bodies. Eventually, he was able to make it back to his little boat. There he helped his friends the Lindells, Edvard and wife Elin Gerda. Desperately, he held Gerda's hand for half an hour while she bobbed in the frigid sea. But unable to hold her any longer, he watched her drift away. He turned then and saw that Edvard, too had died. Each death gave the survivors  a little more space and relieved the straining boat of a little more weight. Of the dozens of men and women who clung to the ring of cork, only 13 survived the six hours or so until they were rescued by a sailboat sent from the rescue ship Carpathian. The iceberg had broken social barriers. One of the survivors in August's party was a first-class passenger, Richard Norris Williams II. Williams nearly lost his legs to frostbite but recovered and won the gentlemen's doubles tennis championship at Wimbledon eight years later. August eventually moved to Chicago and met the women who would become his wife, Naomi. Then they moved to Culver, where he became superintendent of buildings and grounds at Culver Military Academy. August and Naomi raised six sons and a daughter. They named the youngest son after their town of Culver. He now lives in the Mishawaka area north of Penn High School. "I would hear those stories when I was young," Culver Said. "When you're small you don't pay too much attention. But now I seem to remember a lot of it. Culver was only 17 when his father died. He's 66 years old now, the same age his father was when he died. Because his mother lived with him in her later years, Culver takes car of the tattered newspapers and notebooks. Next to his father's notebook, he has a framed story from the Culver newspaper about his five brothers, Leo, Clarence, August Jr., Knight and Billy, all of whom were serving in World War II. Until his death in 1950, August gave presentations to clubs locally and in Sweden about the sinking of the Titanic. He filled his little notebook with his remembrances in the year before he died. Culver served in the Air Force during the Korean War and moved To Mishawaka to work at Ball Band. He's worked other places since and is retired now. He said he really doesn't know what to think about his father's fight for life in 1912. He and his wife, Deloris, haven't seen the movie yet. "My boy has seen it," Culver said. "I'll probably watch it when it shows up on TV." He doesn't have the answer to the big question: Why was his father's life spared? Why did he and Richard Norris Williams and 703 others go on to live full, productive lives when 1,522 men. Woman and children, including the Astor's and Guggenheims, did not?  "I just don't know," Culver said, "I think if it was me, I wouldn't have made it. I think I would have died." But his dad has some of the answers in his little book. "In the evening of April 18th, we passed the Liberty statue and soon thereafter we were on the dry land, with a richer experience of life than most people will ever get." August wrote. "We had learned what our own WILL POWER could do. We knew that when a man had lost his hope, no life preserver in the world could hold him up. We had learned that no one was going to help you, except yourself , and do your duty. "And in the common, everyday life, you will find it just the same. "No one other has ever made anybody else great, and that no progress ever has been made, except by someone's hard work connected with the magic words: I WILL, I SHALL. "Above the doors of Thorwaldsen Museum in Copenhagen, you will read in big letters: Help yourself and God will help you, This is one of the biggest truths that has ever been written." And those are the words in the notebook that Culver Wennerstrom holds in his hands.

This was taken from The South Bend Tribune dated Sunday, April 19, 1998

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