Stories hold a force that can transcend life.
Few have the power of the tale of Robert Rosendahl, World War II vet who survived the Bataan Death March, and his boat.
Rosendahl died at age 98 on Feb. 2. The love of his life, Bettie, had died 40 days prior on Christmas Day 2019.
But that is not the end of this story.
Six men in their 60s, including Rosendahl’s son Eirik, plan to fulfill Rosendahl’s dream of finishing the boat — that he first started to build in the early 1980s — and sail it to Tahiti in the South Pacific.
For decades, the boat has sat unfinished on the lawn of the Rosendahl home near Golden Avenue and Republic Road.
Rosendahl once dreamed of making the sail himself.
The six men are bound by friendship. They want to honor a man they consider a hero.
“We are doing this in memory of him,” says Kirk Murrell, 65.
“This is a labor of love,” says Bill Killian, 66.
Martha Gaska, one of Rosendahl’s daughters, supports the effort.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” she tells me.
The 8,000-pound steel-hulled sailboat is 38 feet long and has never been on water.
Back in 1921, Rosendahl was born in Saint Hilaire, Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes — and just as many sailboats.
When he went off to war he carried with him instructions on how to build a boat; the boat you see today.
In World War II he served in the Army Air Corps and was deployed to the Southwest Pacific.
He and other American and Filipino soldiers fought valiantly in the Philippines for three months without adequate support.
I interviewed him in July 2015. Fighting was fierce, he said.
They ran out of artillery shells and surrendered.
Many of the same Japanese soldiers he had been fighting — who had seen their comrades fall in battle at the hands of the Americans — were then given the task of leading the prisoners on the 60-mile march.
Rosendahl was one of an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 prisoners marched in groups of 100.
“On the second day there was no water and no food,” he told me.
He witnessed prisoners killed by bayonet because they could no longer keep up. He saw other prisoners become hysterical due to lack of water. They were shot and killed.
At times, the prisoners had to clear the road and wait for hours as trucks carrying Japanese troops headed in the opposite directions drove by. Soldiers in the trucks bashed prisoners in the head with rifle butts as they passed.
More: Pokin Around: Bob Rosendahl, an American war hero, and the love of his life
He left a journal in the cabin
Rosendahl was a POW for 3½ years. The first 6 months were in the Philippines, where he saw hundreds of prisoners die daily from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition.
He was one of 1,500 men — machinists and mechanics — taken to Manchuria, China, which was occupied by Japan.
He spent his nights imagining the sailboat he would someday build, should he live. Somehow, even as a POW he had managed to keep the plans for the boat.
In part, he told me, he survived because of the boat he built in his head. He imagined how he would construct it. He imagined the sails snapping to attention. He imagined the breeze in his face.
“That boat gave me hope,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Murrell entered the boat’s cabin, where he found a notebook journal kept by Rosendahl. The final entry was either in 1981 or 1982, he says.
In that journal, Rosendahl wrote that his original intention was to build the boat in the Philippines and sail it from there to Tahiti, which is 3,000 miles from Hawaii.
But something happened, and her name was Bettie Hefti.
In that journal, he called her the love of his life.
Tahiti no longer seemed that important.
They married Aug. 15, 1946, a year to the day from when he was liberated from the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in China.
They were husband-and-wife for 73 years and had six children. One of them has died.
The cabin of the boat, Murrell tells me, is in remarkably good shape.
In fact, he estimates that Rosendahl completed 90 percent of the boat when he seemed to lose interest later in life.
Eirik Rosendahl tells me that the first time his father ever talked to him about being a POW was when he started to build the boat. Eirik was a teenager.
“He had to tell the story to explain why he was building a boat,” he says.
He says his mother joked that they should cut out images of animals — two of each species — to place around the boat, as if it were Noah’s Ark.
And then place a sign nearby that pronounced: “Repent you sinners!”
Only in the past month were the sails rediscovered.
They were in a shed on the family property with the paperwork from the purchase. Rosendahl bought the material in 1998 and then, of course, sewed the sails himself.
Just about everything in this boat was made by Rosendahl. And whatever he touched was made far beyond the minimum specs.
The steel hull, for example, is thicker and stronger than specs. The engine, built by Rosendahl, is 65 horsepower, instead of 35.
He made this boat to survive just about anything — the same way God made him.
Stockton Lake, then Tahiti
After my story ran in July 2015, well-intentioned people throughout the Ozarks offered to help fund finishing the boat to make it seaworthy.
That included local businessman Doug Pitt, who founded the nonprofit Care to Learn.
Pitt said back then that he had wondered about the boat since his days at Kickapoo High School. He graduated in 1985.
But Robert and Bettie declined the assistance in 2015.
Bettie told me then: “Your story, in a way, helped me understand the boat a little better. It gives it closure. Let’s be honest, there were times when I thought the boat was competing with me and the kids for his time.”
Robert told me in 2015: “I haven’t done a lick of work on that boat since 2000.”
The effort underway today is different, says Eirik, their son.
His parents are gone. This is to honor his father. And he can’t say no.
I called Pitt on Thursday.
“I will definitely make a donation,” he tells me. “That boat is what got him through those times.”
The six men involved thus far are Rosendahl, Murrell, Killian, Kevin Doolittle, Steve Eidson and Neal Wood.
They’ve known each other most of their lives. All live in Springfield except Doolittle, who moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
They created a Facebook page for the project called Rosendahl Quan II Sailboat Restoration. They are in the process of establishing a GoFundMe account and plan to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The general timeline is to move the boat from its current location to a storage facility in Greene County within three weeks. The house and property are for sale.
Then, it will make its maiden voyage on Stockton Lake.
Ultimately, they plan to hire a captain to sail it to Tahiti.
The boat can sleep six.
I ask how many of them are willing to make that trip. All six.
The boat will be painted in the colors of our flag; an American flag will be on the mainsail; and the stern will carry the words: “In Memory of Bob Rosendahl.”
I’m hoping there is a heaven but I don’t know how that works.
Somehow, I believe Robert Rosendahl will hear those sails snap in the tropical wind and he will feel the breeze in his face.
These are the views of News-Leader columnist Steve Pokin, who has been at the paper eight years, and over his career has covered everything from courts and cops to features and fitness. He can be reached at 417-836-1253, [email protected], on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail at 651 N. Boonville, Springfield, MO 65806.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Pokin Around: Story of Robert Rosendahl’s boat has a new chapter: Destination Tahiti