William Conrad Ostlund - Lieutenant
In 2006, Mike Ostlund published the first edition of Find ‘Em, Chase ‘Em, Sink ‘Em, an expansive research monograph on the service and disappearance of the USS Gudgeon during the Second World War. The Tambor-class submarine, commissioned in April 1941, conducted the first patrols of the Second World War and scored fourteen confirmed kills before disappearing in April, 1944. While Mike was, by his own admission, interested in war history and researched the true fate of the Gudgeon for years, the roots of that interest were deeply personal. His uncle, William Conrad Ostlund, a hero of the war from Webster City, Iowa, served on the final three patrols aboard the ship and went down with her. Bill’s sacrifice inspired Mike to tell his story and that of his crewmates, just as it inspires us to gather today in his memory and retell some of that story.
William Ostlund was born on July 22, 1918 in Duncombe, Iowa, the oldest of three children of Newet and Mary Ostlund. By the time Bill was seven the Ostlunds had moved to Webster City, where they opened the first farm implement business in Hamilton County. Like most of the generation that served in the Second World War, Bill and his brothers came of age in the Great Depression. The general poverty that gripped all rural Americans during this period was amplified all the more in the Ostlund home by the unfortunate passing of his father, Newet, from pneumonia in 1930. As the oldest of three, Bill early on had to take on responsibilities to help his mother, Mary. This often meant, from the time he learned to drive, making regular trips to nearby Fort Dodge to pick up and drop off parts and equipment. Bill likewise helped to raise his younger brothers, Robert and John, who developed a close camaraderie that “eventually won out over anything else.” As boys, their childhood was filled with “Boy Scouts, church events, family get-togethers, and sports.” There was perhaps no better example of their adventurous nature than in the “ingenious fort” they constructed by the creek near their home, which “had underground rooms and a tree house annex.”
Bill attended Webster City’s Lincoln High School, where he was, according to his nephew and biographer Mike Ostlund, “very well liked.” In his senior yearbook, Bill’s classmates described him by writing that “His excellent characteristics make him outstanding.” It was in high school that he first became a standout in academics and athletics, helping to cultivate the values of hard work and dedication that carried through to his military service. Bill belonged to the local chapter of the National Honor Society and participated in the class play his senior year. It was sports, though, that were “his love.” “By all accounts a good athlete,” Bill was a four-sport threat who was captain of the baseball team and a standout on the basketball, football, and track teams. His best sport, though, was basketball.
After graduating from Lincoln High School in 1936, Bill enrolled at Iowa State College and earned a place on the Cyclone basketball team his freshman year. Working in the family implement business had clearly left an imprint on Bill, who declared a major in Agricultural Business. Although he excelled at basketball and pledged Phi Delta Theta that September, unfortunate circumstances cut his time in Ames short. After contracting a “severe case of poison ivy,” Bill missed classes and fell behind as he tried to recover. Although he did, in fact, get better, according to his nephew the incident caused him to “sour on the school.” After the end of his freshman year, Bill decided to transfer to Butler College in Indianapolis, Indiana. According to Ostlund family lore, Cyclone head coach Louise Menze personally visited Webster City to try to convince him to return, promising “a starting position as a sophomore.” Nevertheless, he transferred to Butler.
Ultimately, this proved a good decision for Bill, who found his stride in Indianapolis and excelled in just about everything he tried. He carried his membership in Phi Delta Theta to Butler, where he was initiated and ultimately served as president of the fraternity. He was, in addition, elected class president by his peers, served as the editor of the Butler yearbook The Drift, and continued to play sports, of which he played four and lettered in two. He was, according to those who knew him at Butler, “an extremely bright, handsome young man” who had “unlimited potential for success.” His classmates twice voted him a “Big Man on Campus,” and, as a senior, bestowed upon Bill the honor of being one of the “ten most outstanding men on campus.” Perhaps most importantly, though, Bill met his future wife, Peggy Burnell, during his time at Butler. Peggy was an Indianapolis native, and, unfortunately, circumstance pulled them apart not long after they met.
Bill graduated with a degree in Business Administration in 1941, and left Peggy behind to return home to help his mother run the family business, hoping that it would not be long before they could reunite. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December, though, changed Bill’s plans. The following February, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve and was called up that October as a midshipman. January 5, 1943, proved to be a milestone in Bill’s life for two reasons. In the morning, he received his commission as an Ensign. That afternoon, Bill and Peggy married at a small chapel in Annapolis, with a small group of family members present. At some point in his training, Bill had developed an interest in the submarine service, which he believed was “very prestigious” and, knowing that he wanted to run for political office, would “impress people after the war.” After completing submarine training in New London, Connecticut, Bill was assigned to the USS Gudgeon and reported for duty on October 22, 1943. By this point, all three of the Ostlund boys were in the service – John was a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force, flying missions over Europe, while Robert was lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps and deployed to Europe after D-Day.
Aboard the Gudgeon, Bill participated in three patrols, including missions to Johnston Atoll, the Ryukyu Islands, and Iwo Jima. Gudgeon commander Bill Post commended Bill for exceptional service after the first patrol, noting his “natural and excellent” training and his qualification for “top watches” shortly after embarking had made him a “real [asset] to the ship.” This dedication paid off as, in the midst of his second patrol, Bill received word that he had been promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade. Not long after, though, the Gudgeon and its crew of eighty-one men departed from Pearl Harbor on its twelfth patrol. After stopping at Johnston Island on April 7 for fuel, they departed to their assigned patrol area northwest of the Marianas Islands. While the details of what happened next have remained shrouded in mystery, unfortunately, the ship and its crew were never seen again. After nearly two months of radio silence, they were declared overdue and presumed lost on June 7, 1944.
In 2012, Mike Ostlund published a revised copy of his book. This edition included a new section, incorporating extensive research into the true fate of the Gudgeon and his uncle Bill. Mike fixated on a story long dismissed by the Navy, that a Japanese pilot had sunk an American submarine on April 18, 1944, off the coast of “Yuoh Island.” The Navy had not taken the story seriously, though, because they had no record of any island with that name. On a hunch, relying on Japanese-English dictionaries and transcribed Japanese military sources, Mike determined that the “Yuoh Island” was in fact Iwo Jima, and the area the Japanese pilot documented the sinking fell well within the Gudgeon’s patrol area. This long-discounted story had weight, after all.
Nearly two years after being declared missing, Bill’s family and friends celebrated his life in a memorial at the Webster City English Lutheran Church. The service, like Mike’s discoveries over six decades later, helped bring closure to the Ostlund family. Although to this day the Gudgeon has not been found, Mike’s research into the fate of his uncle and shipmates has revived this long-disregarded story, offered a probable explanation for what happened to the ship, and honored the courage, sacrifice, and dedication of the men who gave their lives aboard the Gudgeon in service of their nation.