From hunting big game in Alaska to shivering in a fox hole in South Korea, to an airplane crash, Vern Thorstad, of Spicer, has had quite a life.
Vern, 87, grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and never got a chance for much education. When Vern graduated from 8th-grade, his dad told him “Son, you have five more school years than I do. If you want any more, you get it when work is all done.” Vern got that work done because he wanted an education. They lived on a big farm and didn’t have electricity or running water. They milked 12 cows by hand twice a day, fed hogs, steers and everything else. They burned wood and coal to stay warm.
Vern loved basketball and did his best to get to basketball practice. They had to walk to school because the roads were never plowed. “I’d come home from school, get the chores done, have supper and run back to school to play basketball and the next morning get up to milk cows.” He said he walked a mile and a quarter to school.
When Vern became a senior in high school, his coach told him he really could use him, but Vern had already played four years of high school basketball and because of that he was blacklisted and couldn’t play. “They didn’t let you play any more than four years back then.” It was a law in North Dakota, he said, and he didn’t know about it and neither did his coach.
Vern said he then went to work for a farmer for the first year after high school, then that fall he purchased a restaurant in Clifford, N.D.
Vern proudly shows off some of his trophies from hunts he went on. Photo by Bev Ahlquist
“I had the best and only restaurant in that time,” Vern remembered. He’d open at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m. seven days a week. “When my buddies were out in neighboring towns chasing girls, I’m frying hamburgers. That lasted so long, until the Korean War broke out, then I joined the Marine Corp.”
Vern spend a year getting trained, then headed for Korea where he spent a year and slept in a lot of foxholes. “It was cold out there.” He spent four months on the front lines in Korea, then was pulled back and put in charge of construction. “For the next eight months I was in charge of 18 men and nine amphibian ducks, which is a motor vehicle that goes through land and water.”
He said they’d go ship to shore, that’s what they were there for. “We’d go out in the ocean and pick up those aircraft pilots that had crashed and couldn’t make it back to the bay.”
Since Vern was in charge of construction, he designed a building and was given the okay by his commanders to go ahead with that work.
“I had the general come almost every morning with the jeep and say “Hi Vern, what are you doing today.” He watched the mess hall go up and thought it was something. I built everything from shower stalls to shower buildings and a squad base for the men.” Vern designed hot showers, which they didn’t have until he came.
Vern said he doesn’t like talking about the war. “It was cold and miserable…and we took an oath not to talk about it.”
Once they were back in the states, Vern was transferred from San Francisco to Quantico Bay, Va. When they got to Virginia, being Vern was a sergeant, he was put in as instructor for “the 90-day wonders.” which is what he called the new officers coming up, the young lieutenants. “They were promoted like that because they had a college degree. That’s why I called them 90 day wonders, they really didn’t know much….I didn’t like instructing them.”
Vern was then asked to join a baseball team, and since he loves baseball, he immediately said yes. “I ran to the athletic department and who did I run into but the captain I served under in Korea. He said, “Do you like baseball?” and I said “sure.” He said “Get ready, we’re leaving for Florida for two weeks training. We want all Marine Corp chapters there.” Vern said they played 120 some games and came out with over 100 wins. “That was my last year in the Marine Corps. That was fun, we ate in special mess halls. When the troops were eating fish we were eating steak.”
Vern also was given a medal by the president of South Korea. “We fought for South Korea, and I got this medal quite a while after I was discharged. It was a nice token from him thanking us for our service to his country. I was surprised to get it.”
After Vern was honorably discharged, he headed toward Gluek. Cargill had a big station there, and he worked for Cargill for a while.
“I jumped in my car, drove straight to Washington, D.C., and I was told how much money I could make. I wanted to go to Texas for Civil Engineering College, but the offer they gave me I was starting at the top.” He went to work for $1.10 an hour and had to find his own room and board.
“I’m coming from the Marine Corps and making more money than the Marine Corps, and I slept better. If it hadn’t been 1,200 miles to Quantico I would have jumped in my car and drove right back because I turned down an officer’s rank if I re-enlisted.”
He stayed with them, and in four to five months, he had his boss’s job, and a little later, they were kicking him all over the country.
“I decided to go on my own,” he said.
Two days after turning in his two-week notice, the manager came into his shop to tell him he had been in touch with the Minneapolis office, and if Vern would stay, he could name his wages. “I said it was too late.”
Vern was on his own. He said Cargill ended up being his best customer. “They would do big, big jobs with just a phone call. I’d pick up a guy in Minneapolis, and we’d fly all over. We built all over the Midwest, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Delaware and Africa.”
His wife said when Vern started his business he had to buy a used pickup to go out on his own, and he needed to have two co-signers so he could buy this pickup. He didn’t know anybody in the area, and he finally found two people who would co-sign for the $3,500 loan to start the business, which included buying the pickup and tools. Vern retired in 1984. At that time, he had 150 employees. He had built all over the country so he did pretty well and what he’s most proud of is that people told him he was the best boss they ever had and thanked him for giving them a chance. When Vern retired, he sold the company to five employees. His employees have all retired too and sold to another group. But the name Thorstad Construction is still out there.
And of course, there’s his big game hunting and the polar bear he shot. His goal was to have one of every North American species. He has a photo of himself with his head in the wide-open mouth of a polar bear. “I shot that bear at 55 below zero on the ice 12 miles from Siberia. He was a trophy, and he weighed over 1,600 pounds, was over 10-feet six inches long. I shot him, got him back and made a nice big rug out of him and hung him on a 14-foot wall for a couple weeks, but someone broke in and stole it.” He said it was put on the wall with 26 screws, and they got it anyway.
Vern met a man who said he saw his story on the polar bear and how he had seen a polar bear rug in a bar in Wisconsin. The man said he would check it out to see if it was the one stolen from Vern, but they never heard from him again. “That was a real heartbreaker to lose that rug,” he said.
It was hard to get that bear, he said, and a little spooky. They had to land on rough ice and had to walk in after him. “I got about 70 yards from him, and he comes at me full blast, and they move pretty fast. I raised up my gun and shot and his head came up, but he never missed a beat, he just come on plowing through the ice and snow. With the second shot his head dropped, and he went end over end and never moved.”
Vern discovered both his shots were two inches apart and went straight through his heart, and the bear was coming at him in a dead run. “You don’t have time to get scared – you don’t run, you do what you have to do. The training in the Marine Corps and Korea helped me a lot.”
Skinning him out was a tough job on the rough ice. “We tried to turn him over, and when doing that, we heard a ka-boom. The pilot and I looked at each other. We both knew what it was. It was a crack in the ice that opens up leads that will go for miles.” They figured it could be between them and the airplane, so they hurriedly skinned him out and before they got to the plane, there was another crack, making the chasm 5 feet wide already. “We had a rope tied to the polar bear’s nose, and he’d hand me his rifle. He took a jump, and he made it. I threw his rifle, my rifle, his rope, and he drug the bear across. Now it was about 6 feet wide. I took a good run, and I made it. My feet were in the water, but my knees were on the ice.”
Now they had to get out of there with the plane. He said they stuffed the polar bear hide behind him. They were overweight by 300 pounds. Plus they were on a short piece of ice with heaves and big rough icebergs. “We couldn’t warm up the plane, and Billie, my pilot, swung the thing around and said ‘hang up Vern’ and took off with the throttle wide open. We’re heading straight for the icebergs. I’m looking over his shoulder and just before the icebergs he raised up and ‘wrommmm.’” The pilot told Vern it was the only way to get out of there, any other way and they would never have gotten out.
Vern also remembered, just before he jumped across the ice, how the pilot asked if he had grabbed the polar bear’s penis. “I said ‘What do I want with that?’” Vern did end up with it, and had an Eskimo carve the bear on the head of the penis, which he said is all ivory. “I use it for a stir stick. It’s quite a conversation piece.”
Back home he told all his friends about the hunt as he stirred his drink with the special stir stick. They asked what it was, and one woman pushed the drink off to the side when he told her. “We had more fun with that.”
Vern had many other hunts as well to Wyoming, Montana, Ohio, Colorado, Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and more places. He has 18 different species, and they are all trophies.
Vern said he loved hunting. “When you go hunting and when you pull that trigger, that’s when the work begins. If you’re a good shot and drop it right in its tracks that’s nice, but if you have to chase the animal, it’s another story.”
He had quite a few experiences on his hunts. He had a horse fall down a mountain, and that, he said was an “owie.” “We were tracking a big bull elk and snow built up on my horse’s hoofs, and he slipped, and we’re on a side hill and down he goes. I’m in the saddle and jumped to get away from him. He got up, and I kept sliding right on by. I busted three ribs, and here I am 25 miles away and very cold.” That happened in West Yellowstone.
While hunting in Alaska, he and a friend called Shorty, were at a little camp, and on a Saturday night, they planned to go back to base camp. “The pilot came to pick us up and had a hard time. He had too much water in the pontoons, so we emptied all the pontoons out, and he got off the ground.” After he got up in the air a little bit, one engine sputtered and stopped leaving one engine. “The last words he (the pilot) ever spoke was when he turned around and said ‘We’re out of gas.’” They found out he was suicidal. He ran the plane out of gas and got his wish; he died.” Vern and his friend laid at the crash site for 26 hours. Vern said it was his Marine training that saved his life because he was taught not to panic. “I laid out there. I came to and laid there, and my hunting buddy was laying up against the aircraft, and he hadn’t come to yet either. I said I’ve got to get a fire going. My arm was broke in two places, and my tailbone was broke, and my back was broke.” Vern came home in a full body cast except for one arm.
Vern said he has had two accidents and broken his neck twice. He has numbness from his knees on down, had to quit hunting, and lost his driver’s license.
Now he spends his time home with his wife or RVing. They can’t travel very far, but still enjoy it.