Johan Vilhelm Henrik Törnqvist was born 25 March 1886, either in Hedvig Eleonora parish, Stockholm, or in Nikolai parish, Örebro, as Johan Vilhelm Henry Björklund.
He was the son of Karl Johan Gabrielsson, a land owner and bricklayer (b. 5 October 1829 in Amnehärad, Skaraborg) and Vilhelmina Larsson Björklund (13 October 1844 – 21 August 1900). His parents had married 22 April 1878. Karl Johan had been married before but his first wife, Stina Maja, née Larsdotter, had died 24 August 1877.
Törnqvist's known brothers and sisters were his half-siblings Anna Wilhelmina (b. 22 December 1858), Karl Alfred (b. 5 September 1863) and Maximiliana Jenny Katarina (b. 7 November 1875). He also had a full brother, Julius who died as an infant (24 July 1880-24 May 1881).
Törnqvist had been living in Örebro where he had been working in the construction business but had later emigrated with his sister Jenny to the USA around 1904, settling in Dorchester, Massachusetts (152 Spencer Street in 1912) where he had attended navigation school and received a certification as a ship's officer, fulfilling a childhood dream before he became a naturalised US citizen in Massachusetts on 28 June 1909. In his new home he became known as William Henry Turnquist whilst back in Sweden his nearest living relative was a J. Malmström, Örebro, Närke, Sweden. In 1911 (date unspecified) he was a member of crew aboard ther SS Currier.
An employee of the American Line, he had completed a voyage to Britain aboard the New York (the ship that nearly collided with the Titanic in Southampton) and was supposed to have sailed as quartermaster aboard the Philadelphia on the return to the USA. However, the coal strikes in Britain were playing havoc with trains and shipping and Philadelphia's westbound voyage was cancelled, her fuel needed elsewhere for a certain maiden voyage. He and his fellow American Line employees (William Cahoone Johnson Jr., August (Alfred) Johnson, Lionel Leonard (Andrew Shannon), Alfred Carver and Thomas Storey) were given third class accommodation aboard ther Titanic to make the trip back to New York (ticket number 370160) where they could resume work. A snippet from an unidentified 1912 article embellishes the facts a little, seemingly artistic license on the journalist's part:
Turnquist was a member of the crew of the steamship New York, plying between New York and Southampton. He decided to give up seafaring life. So when New York reached Southampton on its last trip he resigned. Since he had shipped originally from New York, the steamship company sent him back to that port, and he was highly pleased over the prospect of a trip in the newest steamship Titanic. - Unidentified newspaper, 1912
The same paper stated that on the night of the sinking he claimed there was no room for him in any lifeboat and that he had swum in the water for 30 minutes and been rescued on collapsible A. However, he was probably rescued in lifeboat 15 which he freely admitted to in another newspaper interview:
I knew (William) Johnson well when I was on the Philadelphia and when he shipped for home on the Titanic… When the ship struck Billy was sleeping, but arose with the rest of us and went on deck. When the lifeboats were being lowered one of the officers recognized Billy and told him to do duty on that boat, I and another steward were detailed to row in that lifeboat….Just as the boat I was in was about to be lowered, I called to Billy and told him to climb in, as I thought there was room…. Our boat was lowered and then rowed off I kept watching Johnson…. - The Paterson Morning Call, 3 May 1912
With his citizenship papers lost in the disaster, Törnqvist was re-naturalised on 6 May 1912 and quickly returned to working at sea. By February 1917, at the time of his US seaman's certificate issue, his address was 564 Lexington Avenue, New York and he went on to serve his adopted homeland when the USA became involved in the hostilities of WWI, he served aboard a number of vessels, including the Vulcan, with the US Navy as Lieutenant.
Whilst in New York his path crossed with that of two attractive Australian sisters and he ended up marrying both, although not at the same time. Törnqvist became engaged in 1919 and first married to Lottie Almira Freeman (b. 1887), a Sydney-born woman of Canadian and American parentage.
San Francisco Examiner, 2 March 1919
Husband and wife appear on the 1920 census as residents of 1538 East 34th Street, Oakland, California, the former described as an officer on a ferry. The couple went on to have a son, William Harvey (b. 28 August 1925) who was born in Manhattan, New York. Although frequently absent from his son's life due to work commitments, in 1941 he completed an impressive model as a gift to the boy:
The Honolulu Advertiser, 12 January 1941
The 1930 census shows William and his family living at 48 Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles, his profession at the time given as that of a captain of a steamship.
Ambitious as a boy to go to sea, W. H. Turnquist (above) suffered a setback when he was caught in the Titanic disaster on almost his first voyage. Apparently, however, his resolve was too great to be hindered by the mere fact that he was fished from the Atlantic more dead than alive, for he persevered and has just been made a fully-fledged captain, running between the West Coast and the Hawaiian Islands. - The Evening News, 13 July 1931
He was to become a widower when Lottie died in San Francisco on 25 May 1939 aged 51.
Turquist – In this city, May 25, 1938, Lottie A., dearly beloved wife of Captain William H. Turnquist, loving mother of Harvey T. Turnquist, devoted sister of Mrs. Novell Do Pen.
Services will be held today (Sunday) at 3 o’clock p.m. from the mortuary of Halstead & Co., 1123 Sutterst. Near Polk. Entombment, Long Beach, California. - San Francisco Examiner, 28 May 1939
The following year, and at the time of the 1940 census, William was shown at 311 Ashton Avenue, San Mateo, California and still described as a ship's captain. Living with him was his sister-in-law Henrietta "Novelle" Fidelia Freeman DuPen (b. 9 March 1892), a divorced light opera singer. He and Novelle were later married and she brought into the family her son from her first marriage, Everett George DuPen (1912-2005)
At the time of his 1942 US draft registration, Törnqvist was living at 1990 Green Street, San Francisco and was described as a retired Naval commander. He stood at 5' 9", weighed 185 lbs, had blue eyes, grey hair and a light complexion whilst each arm bore tattoos. He became a well-known face in the various ports around the world that he visited, including India, Japan, Yemen, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries. His frequent trips to Hawaii made him popular there, first visiting in 1926 as chief officer aboard the maiden voyage of the City of Honolulu (previously SS Kiautschou) which he would later be a skipper of at the time of her scrapping in Japan in 1933. He later rose to the rank of Captain and from June 1931 commanded the Calawai on the "pineapple run" and latterly the Diamond Head and Makawao. He was with the Los Angeles Steamship Company before that firm was merged with the Matson Navigation Company in 1927, he becoming first officer and subsequently master of a number of its freighters. In 1942 he accepted a naval commission and travelled the dangerous waters of WWII. Speaking not long before his death in 1946, and shortly after a return to the USA from Australia as relief Captain aboard the Mariposa, Törnqvist stated:
"For the past four years I carried ammunition and high explosives," the captain told us with a twinkle in his eye. "Now I'm carrying war brides and babies. It's hard to say which is the more rugged assignment" - The Honolulu Advertiser, 10 June 1946
Törnqvist's last command was of the White Squall, a Matson-chartered freighter. A survivor of the Titanic and both World Wars, he died on 13 September 1946 at the Seaside Memorial hospital in Long Beach, California following coronary thrombosis and was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Mateo, California.
San Francisco Examiner, 17 September 1946
His widow Novelle resided in Redlands, California until the 1960s before moving to Sun City. She died in King, Washington on 10 February 1988, just shy of her 96th birthday.
His son William followed in his father's footsteps and also went to sea and served during WWII in the merchant service before serving in the Navy during the Korean War in the 1950s. He married that same decade on 27 May 1951 to Elizabeth Ryland. He was still alive as of June 2016.