Titanic talk refloats tale of Onida's old Doc

Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

The buzz about James Cameron's new big-screen epic, "Titanic," is generating more than just entertainment talk on the streets of Onida.
Suddenly, young people in this Sully County farm town are asking questions again about a longtime local chiropractor who's been dead 36 years.
His name was Oscar Hedman- Doc to most people who knew him. A short Swede of medium build and a Jimmy Durante face, he manipulated backs and bones for almost four decades in central South Dakota. He also jumped off the Titanic moments before the supposedly unsinkable ocean liner struck and iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank April 15, 1912. And he survived to tell about it. "You know, now that this movie is playing, we're starting to get a lot more interest from the young people here," farmer Elton Eller said. "They're asking guys like me about old Doc. They want to know the story." In April 1912, 27-year-old Oscar Hedman was a real-estate agent in Bowman, N.D. He had gone to Sweden to visit his parents and was escorting a group of Swedish immigrants back to America when the Titanic went down. What happened to him that night is spelled out in two interviews Hedman later gave to South Dakota newspapers.
The first appeared in the weekly Argus-Leader three weeks after the ship sank. Hedman was in Sioux Falls visiting Tillie Anderson, the woman he would marry a short time later. He gave the second interview to the American News-Service on the 27th anniversary of the Titanic's demise. A passenger in steerage, or third class, Hedman was in bed sleeping when the Titanic rammed an iceberg. "The jar was not severe, and I probably would have remained in my berth and paid no attention to it had it not for the commotion which I heard a few minutes afterwards," he told the Argus Leader. He and his companion in his berth, Seaman Carl Johnson, went on deck to investigate, but were ordered back to their compartment. Women were crying as they passed; the hubbub was growing more intense. The two men retrieved life preservers from their berth. Then Johnson suggested that they head for the front of the ship. Water spilled into the hallways as they trudged ahead. At one point, Hedman said he was up to his armpits in ocean. "In the front part of the ship, we found great heaps of ice. My pal said he thought the boat would sink as he had seen a couple other such jams." Hedman told the American-News. "By this time the life boats were being lowered, and we started back to try and get in one. But they were already roped off, and officers with guns ordered us to stand back for the women and children."
According to news reports of the tragedy, women jumped half-crazed into the freezing water, while men tried to make rafts of chairs of anything else on deck. It was reported that John Jacob Astor placed his wife in a lifeboat, stepped back, stood at attention and saluted the boat as it was lowered. He did not survive. Nor did millionaire New York merchant Isador Strauss, who calmly stood arm-in-arm with his wife on the deck as the ocean liner went under. "Husband and wife were obliged to part; sister and brother, father and daughter were forced to leave each other, each realizing that it was doubtful they would ever again see each other," Hedman told the Argus-Leader. "It was a sight that no man will care to witness a second time."

AN OMINOUS SIGNAL

As he and Jognson waited outside the lowering lifeboats, flares suddenly shot into the sky. It was a distress signal, Johnson told his friend. It meant the ship was about to sink. Hedman quickly peeled off his coat and handed it to a woman who had come on deck partly dressed. By then, the water was up to their knees and the electric lights had gone off. The two men leaped as far away from the ship as possible. Both were expert swimmers, but Hedman quickly became chilled in the calm but icy water.

FLOATING WITH A CORPSE

"My friend grabbed something that floated by and told me to hold onto it," Hedman said. "It proved to be a dead man inside a life preserver. I climbed on and rode like I was on horseback." They drew near a lifeboat that had overturned, and Johnson tried to grab on to it. As he did, those already clinging to the craft pushed him away, and he disappeared beneath the water. By then, Hedman had been clinging to the dead body for about 30 minutes. But now he was nearing another lifeboat. Someone yelled out to him, asking whether he could row. Though relatives today say they doubt he had ever touched an oar in his life, he assured those in the boat that he was an expert rower. So they pulled him in among some 40 women and three men, and his life was saved.

HIS STORY LIVES ON

They've been gone more than a generation now. Yet the story of the Titanic survivor who worked for decades in central South Dakota remains very much alive. People who doubted Doc Hedman's story are starting to look at it again, Eller said. And those who never knew the colorful little man who spoke broken English in a heavy Swedish brogue are beginning to ask a few more questions. That's good for Onida and for all of South Dakota, said Mike Owens, executive vice president of the Onida Bank. The town needs to be reminded of it with this movie coming out. It was a big deal for Onida. It shouldn't be forgotten.

by columnist Steve Young [Page A-1]

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Oskar Arvid Hedman

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