The weather was bad May 25, 1945, off the coast of Japan, with rain squalls reducing visibility to a mile.
And to U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate third class Gerald “Stork” Nordquist, the Japanese fighter pilots seemed to swarm like mosquitoes.
From his post at his two-barrel 40 millimeter port-side gun on the USS Stormes, Nordquist saw a kamikaze pilot heading straight for him, and, with no time to think, he and the other men fired off rounds as fast as they could.
“I can still see his teeth,” Nordquist, who is now 91, said of the Japanese pilot.
At the last minute, the pilot pulled up slightly, missing Nordquist but careening into the ship’s stern, directly into the aft torpedo mount. A 500-pound bomb still on the plane exploded, incinerating one of the ship’s five-inch gun mounts that housed six or seven men. The ship was on fire.
When he reached the rear of the ship, Nordquist saw a friend of his, Robert Lewis, lying face down on the deck. When Nordquist reached to turn his friend over he realized the man had been split in half by the blast. He would be one of 21 men killed that day, along with 15 others who were injured.
Nordquist, who was born in Underwood and now lives in Washburn, volunteered for the military in 1943 but asked to be allowed to finish high school before starting duty. They had already lost half of the boys in the senior class who dropped out to join the war effort.
In June 1944, he was picked up by a 12-passenger bus taking other McLean County soldiers to the train station, where they caught the train to Minneapolis. After bootcamp, Nordquist was sent to Naval Station Treasure Island off the coast of San Francisco.
Nordquist and his good friend, Oswald, had been in submarine training when they were told: “We don’t need subs; we need destroyers.” So they headed to Seattle, where they would board the USS Stormes with about 290 other crew members.
Admiral Holmer Wallin, a Washburn native, was in charge of the shipyard and commissioned the ship saying: “This is going to be a good ship, a real good ship.” When some yelled out, “Why?” he answered there were two North Dakotans on board, Nordquist being one of them.
Nordquist sailed first to Hawaii then to Guam to load up on ammunition before going to Japan, where the USS Stormes crew would help patrol the outer perimeter of a naval convoy, protecting the aircraft carriers and battleships from attack.
For defenses, Nordquist said they had bombs they called “ash cans” that could be dumped over the edge of the ship on top of submarines below. The USS Stormes crew had at least four good hits destroying enemy submarines, he said. They also had four torpedoes and five-inch guns, in addition to the 40-millimeter guns that Nordquist helped man.
“We had fire power,” he said.
But the kamikaze attack would take the USS Stormes out of the war for a long series of repairs.
When the ship was back in service, it was sent east. Nordquist would sail through the Panama Canal then spent three weeks training gunners at Guantanamo Bay before joining what was known as Operation Frostbite.
Nordquist said the U.S. was worried about threats from Russia, so he and his shipmates were sent for test operations off the coast of Iceland. Donning cold weather gear, they spent hours chipping ice off the sides of the ship. He said there were times the waves were high enough they couldn’t see the other ships over the crest of the next wave.
Nordquist would be discharged in mid-1946, returning to Washburn to join his brother, a fellow veteran who served in the Marines during the Great Depression, at the local Oliver tractor implement dealership. The brothers would also begin selling Ford cars, and Nordquist would spend a 56-year career there.
His parents ran a cafe and hotel in town, where the hotel doubled as a bus stop.
Nordquist was reading the paper at the hotel one day when a woman stepped off the bus and approached him. She was to be a new teacher at the school.
He only dropped the paper long enough to say hi, but lucky for him, she forgave his curt manner. Nordquist and Mildred married in 1949. They had two sons and two daughters and now have seven grandchildren and soon-to-be eight great-grandchildren.