GRAND ISLAND — A few weeks ago, Roland Nyquist went to the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles to renew his driver’s license and breezed through a driving test. Nyquist, who turns 100 Wednesday, is now licensed to drive until he’s 105.
Just like his driving skills, his mind is razor sharp as he approaches his centennial mark, especially when he talks about serving on a U.S. Navy reconnaissance ship in the Pacific during World War II.
“Ask a Nebraska farm boy what he thinks about the Pacific and he’ll tell you it’s a hell of a lot of water,” he said.
In August 1944, Nyquist, then 23, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in San Francisco. After basic training for Naval officers, the newly commissioned ensign spent two years on a 1,500-ton moderately large destroyer that served as a reconnaissance ship.
It rescued military personnel from Iwo Jima and neighboring Japanese islands where there was active bombing, and it used underwater sonar technology to hunt for mines. It could drop depth charges if it suspected a submarine was lurking far below. Nyquist was an assistant communications officer who monitored the sonar underwater sound. He and two corpsmen rotated shifts of “pinging” 24 hours a day.
“We were sitting ducks as far as the Kamikaze was concerned, but fortunately, we never encountered any of that,” he said. By the time he served, most of the above-sea fighting had subsided in that area of the Pacific, but Japanese submarines were known to be throughout the region.
Among his most terrifying memories was a violent storm in the North China Sea.
“How long did the storm last? To me, forever,” he said. Officers in charge, including Nyquist, took turns in charge of the deck or in the tower. Because Japanese were in the area, they were ordered to keep the radio silent, so as the storm bore down, the crew could not radio for help.
“They knew the Japanese could locate us if we had radios on,” Nyquist said. Besides, the ship’s communication system was “very antiquated and unreliable.”
The storm was so severe Nyquist feared the ship would capsize and he “would end up buried in the North China Sea.” The captain ordered everyone to stay at his station until the captain released them, so Nyquist remained at that post for 20 hours.
“One of my cohorts asked me, ‘Were you sick?’ Everybody was sick, even the old salts, the old enlisted men who’d been in the Navy for quite a number of years. It was violent. How we survived I’ll never know,” he said.
While the ship was at San Francisco in July 1946, the war ended, “so we decommissioned that ship right there in the harbor,” he said. He had risen to the rank of lieutenant junior grade.
Nyquist was the third of Charles and Hanna Broman Nyquist’s four children. Born on their Axtell farm on June 2, 1921, he went to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade.
“I have a lot of memories growing up in the ‘Dirty 30s,’ a term for dust storms,” he said, particularly the years 1928-1933. “I lived that economic disaster.
“At about 10 a.m. I’d look to the south and not see a cloud in the sky, Then we’d see this haze coming up, and pretty soon it would obscure the sun. It was primarily red dust coming up from Oklahoma. That dust would move in right through the window frames,” he said. “My uncle had 80 acres next to ours and it blew two to three inches of topsoil off his farm.”
Nyquist graduated from Axtell High School in 1938 and enrolled at Kearney State Teachers College.
“Since I grew up in very hard times, that was a logical first step,” he said, but two years later, he transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1943.
He worked for a year for Shell Research and Development, a division of Shell Oil, at Oakland, Calif., but then went off to fight in World War II.
When he returned to Shell Oil in Wood River, Ill., he “became intrigued” by a young secretary named Betty Boeker from Edwardsville, Ill. He asked her out.
“I didn’t have a car because cars weren’t available after the war, so we’d use her dad’s car,” he said, adding, “there were no seat belts.”
He had put his name on a list for a car, and in the spring 1948, a dealer in Alton, Ill., called him. That dealer showed Nyquist a red, two-door Chevy. “I fell in love with the car as well as my wife,” he said.
“Betty was the first girl I ever felt serious about. When I met her parents, I knew she was the girl I wanted for my wife. She grew up with same sense of values I had.”
Her mother was a good cook, too. “I thought, ‘if this girl can cook like her mother, I want to get real well-acquainted,’” he said.
The two were married in Betty’s Lutheran church on Aug. 28, 1948, at Edwardsville.
Life in an old schoolhouse
In 1952, Nyquist, Betty and their first child, Jane, moved back to his family’s Axtell farm. “I wanted to bring my kids up in the rural area like I grew up,” he said.
Many rural school districts were combining to support Axtell High School, so he purchased the old Keene School, just 36 feet by 24 feet, in Mirage Township, moved it to his father’s farm and converted it into a home.
“With the help of my father, I remodeled that into a story-and-a-half, six-room house where we raised our four children,” he said.
“At that time, irrigation was just getting started. We were learning how to irrigate the row crops. We made a ditch. We used plastic siphon tubes to put water down the rows. It was very labor-intensive, but it was exciting and challenging,” he said.
His father’s 400 acres included five, 80-acre fields. “It was dry land. When I first moved back, my dad and brother were irrigating 40 acres, and we added about 20 acres to that every year,” he said.
In returning to the farm, Nyquist remembered his grandfathers, both Swedish immigrants who followed earlier Swedish pioneers to Axtell. His maternal grandfather arrived at age 20. His paternal grandfather worked for the railroad and farmers all the way from New York to Nebraska.
“Most settlers came by horse and wagon. Even if the railroad ran, most couldn’t afford to take it,” he said. The two sent for their wives once they were settled.
Move to Phillipsburg
In 1968, with farm income too erratic to send their children to college, Nyquist rented out the farm and took a job as a chemical engineer at the cooperative refinery in Phillipsburg, Kan. He drove from Axtell daily until he built a house in Phillipsburg and moved the family there in 1972.
In 1982, the refinery closed, so he retired. He was 61.
In 1985, he and Betty built a house in Kearney.
“She said, ‘We are not going back to the farm because you will go to the sale barn and buy cattle and we won’t be able to leave home. We’re going to enjoy retirement.”
He added, “When my wife spoke like that, I paid attention.”
They lived in Kearney for 28 years. They were active in Golden K Kiwanis. They attended University of Nebraska at Kearney football games and shows at Kearney Community Theater. Nyquist sang in the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church in Axtell. He sang in the Axtell Oratorio Society’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” for more than 40 years.
He played golf, too. One day, Betty called his father to report that Roland had hit a hole-in-one. “There was dead silence, and finally Dad said, ‘Well, accidents will happen,’” Nyquist chuckled.
In 2017, with Betty suffering from dementia, they moved to Riverside, a Grand Island retirement facility close to their daughter Cindy Hahn. Two years ago, “after 71 happy years,” Betty died.
Nyquist’s other children are Jane Fisher of Greeley, Colo., Mark Nyquist of suburban Fort Worth, Texas, and Jim Nyquist of Austin, Texas. Nyquist also has 14 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren with three more due this summer.
“I highly treasure my family and my ‘farm boy’ experience,” he said. “I am very thankful for my Scandinavian ancestors. I have always admired how they adapted not knowing anything about the country or the language. I’m a product of that.”