SWEDE SURVIVED LINER'S SINKING DURING SEARCH FOR HIS AMERICAN DREAM

There's another love story connected to the Titanic.

Burlington Hawk Eye

   Hide Ads

   The fictional romance is playing on the big screen at Westland Mall.
   The real-life one began when Gunnar Tenglin stepped from he deck of the sinking ocean liner on the night of April 12, 1912 (sic), onto a collapsible life raft.
   Signed with the White Star Line as passenger No. 350033, Tenglin was en route from Denmark to Burlington. It cost him around $2.25.
   Ninety percent of the steerage passengers died, but Tenglin survived. His wife, Anna, and 16-month-old son, Gunnar, were staying with his parents in Stockholm, Sweden waiting for him to send for them to join him in Iowa.
   Last week, Gunnar's daughter-in-law, Mildred, sat with her son and his family to watch James Cameron's movie, "Titanic." She was able to mentally insert her late husband's father into scenes of the movie, knowing that he would have been at a party, much like the one movie characters Jack and Rose attended below deck the night the ship sank.
   She'd heard him tell stories of how a steward slammed down the gates to keep third-class passengers below deck while the life boats were loaded, just like in the movie. But unlike anyone in the movie, Tenglin, a brave, outspoken man, protested.
   She'd heard the stories since she was a child, because her husband, also named Gunnar, had been the boy next door. And while the Tenglin family saga, as she calls it, is a fascinating adventure tale, her favorite part begins with Gunnar, Anna and baby Gunnar settling in their new hometown.
   "My tender joke with my husband was, if his dad had not been saved in that tragedy, his mother would not have come to America. Fate planned it so he wold come halfway around the world and find me," the 82 year-old Burlington woman said.

Fate put Tenglin in that lifeboat.

Actually, Tenglin wasn't even supposed to be on the Titanic at all. In fact, his family was unaware he was aboard when news spread that the Atlantic had claimed the mighty ocean liner.
   A coal strike in Southampton, England, had forced several ships to stay in port. Tenglin left when the opportunity arose. He left port aboard the most luxurious ship ever built.
   Tenglin, in a 1962 interview with the Keokuk Daily Gate City--on the 50th anniversary of the sinking--said he remembered where he was on that last night.
   "We had just come back from a party," he said. " I was sharing a third-class compartment with a newsman and had just taken off my shoes to get to the bed when we felt the thud."
   That thud was the infamous iceberg that gave Titanic its place in history.
   "I put on my jacket, leaving my shoes by my bunk and my life jacket under my pillow. I never returned for either."
   He and another passenger went to the deck, where an officer ordered them back to bed. But upon returning to the third-class cabins, the pair found the gangway was filling with rushing water, crates, coal and ice. A steward was trying to get passengers on deck to enter lifeboats, but mothers wouldn't take their children into the freezing night air. Husbands refused to leave their families.
   Tenglin returned to the deck, where an officer grabbed him to act as an interpreter. The young Swede had already made one trip to America, arriving in 1903 and returning in 1908 because his mother had made him promise he would come home after five years.
   Because he was on deck translating the officer's commands to his fellow passengers, Tenglin believes he was saved.
   "I would likely have been below decks when the ship went down, otherwise," he said.

The scene on deck was horrific.

Gunnar Tenglin told of tuxedoed men leaping over the side of the ship to jump into lifeboats. There were only enough lifeboats to hold about half the 2,226 passengers and crew. Many were launched less than half full.
   As it became clear that the ship was sinking, panic ensued. A young mother dropped her child over the railing to a lifeboat below. The child fell into the frigid ocean.
   "When she saw that, she just screamed and jumped in after it," Tenglin recalled in the interview. "It was a very sad thing to see."
   At one point, Tenglin had a seat in a lifeboat, but left it for a woman and two children to take his place. He helped set up four collapsible life rafts, stepping into the last one as the deck of the great ship reached th ocean surface.
   "We were only two or three hundred yards from her when she started going down," he said. "We were sure we would be sucked under when she sank, but suddenly there were three great explosions.
   "Instead of being sucked under, we were pushed out by a 10-foot wave."
   The explosion, he later theorized, was caused by he cold water striking the ship's boilers.
   On the scene, he remembered the brightly lit portholes sinking below the surface. And he remembered the dark night filled with the desperate cries of those in the 28-degree water as they died from hypothermia.

The cries haunted Tenglin's dreams.

An hour and 20 minutes later, the Cunard liner Carpathia arrived in answer to the Titanic's distress calls. Tenglin and other survivors were plucked from the sea.
   In New York, the first reports were that all 2,226 aboard had been saved. They were wrong. More than 1,500 died that night, prompting changes in maritime law and ship building.
   But one who survived was a young Swede who wanted a better life in America.
   He was headed to Burlington, where a cousin lived.
   When the Carpathia arrived in New York, the American Red Cross and the Swedish-American Society took pictures of the immigrants and turned them into post cards that the survivors could send home to family. Gunnar Tenglin originally was listed as missing, but his family apparently had not thought to check the passenger lists because they were unaware he had sailed on that ship.
   Four days after his safe arrival in New York, they learned that he had been on the Titanic.
   Tenglin sent his picture postcard to his mother in Sweden. The card, which Mildred Tenglin now has, is written in Swedish. Although she's never had it translated, the words "Titanic" and "America" are clear. He mailed it on April 29, 1912, from Burlington.
   Somehow, he convinced his Anna to take their young son aboard another ship and join him in America. He got a job at J.I. Case--the company's first Burlington employee--and worked there until he was 72. He helped his son, Gunnar, get a job there too. He was Case's fifth local employee.
   He had grandchildren and passed along his good Nordic looks. And on a night last week, his daughter-in-law sat with those grandchildren and great-grandchildren near their home in Detroit and thought about how the Titanic changed their family's history.
   "It occurred to me that we sat there, three generations of people whose lives had been touched by that tragedy," she said. "It's quite a saga. I call it the Tenglin saga."
   "I sat there in that movie house and my mind went back and back and back to my father-in-law talking about it."

Share on FaceBook Twitter

Related Biographies:

Gunnar Isidor Tenglin

Citation

Encyclopedia Titanica (2011) SWEDE SURVIVED LINER'S SINKING DURING SEARCH FOR HIS AMERICAN DREAM (Burlington Hawk Eye, ref: #13881, published 12 October 2011, generated 4th August 2021 02:28:19 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/swede-survived-liners-sinking-during-search-for-his-american-dream.html