Remembering an icon

Norwegian Roald Amundsen still honored 80 years later

By Erik Sundholm
Norwegian American Weekly

The Amundsen memorial statue next to his ship Gjøa at the Fram museum in Oslo, Norway

How do you honor a national icon, when one day they just up and disappear?  Norwegians, from the government to immigrant communities all over the world, had to ask themselves this question when Roald Amundsen disappeared on an Arctic flight 80 years ago.

Amundsen boarded a Latham 47 float plane in Tromsø on June 18, 1928 destined for Spitsbergen, where he was going to assist in the search for survivors of an Italian dirigible expedition that had crashed onto the ice flows.  The leader of this expedition, Umberto Nobile, had been an antagonistic rival of Amundsen, after post expedition melt down of the joint Norwegian-American-Italian expedition that flew an airship from Spitsbergen to Alaska passing over the North Pole.  However, all of this Amundsen put aside when Nobile’s airship crashed.

Initially there was no alarm when Amundsen did not arrive in Spitsbergen. It was assumed that he secretly changed his plans and decided to fly directly to the downed Italian crew.  He had done this many times before in his career.  He stole away in the middle of the night to begin his GJOA expedition through the Northwest Passage.  Also, his expedition in the FRAM was originally intended to be a polar drift in the Arctic, but he secretly changed his plans and headed south, becoming first to reach the South Pole.  He had also escaped danger many times before.  He led an Arctic flight in 1925 that had disappeared for weeks before dramatically reappearing one day.  Consequently, the initial response to his disappearance was slow.  Eventually, wreckage from the plane was recovered, but the bodies of Amundsen and the others on the flight with him never were.

So how does one memorialize a national icon that has disappeared?  Without a body there cannot be a gravesite.  What about the captain’s ship?  Today there is the FRAM Museum in Oslo, but back then FRAM was a tired hulk that hadn’t moved for years, GJOA was in San Francisco and MAUD had been purchased by Hudson’s Bay Company.  If it is not known which day he died, then what day should one honor him?  It was decided to honor him on the anniversary of the day he reached the South Pole.  On Dec. 14, 1928 at midday two minutes of silence were observed throughout Norway in remembrance of Amundsen.  In Norwegian schools speeches were given and the national anthem was sung prior to the silence.  A ceremony was held at Akerhus attended by the King and other dignitaries like Fridtjof Nansen.  Memorial services were held all over the world.  In Seattle it was held at First Presbyterian Church, where Consul Thomas Kolderup presided and Dr. J. A. Aasgaard pronounced the eulogy.  For many in attendance, Amundsen was more than an icon; he was an acquaintance and friend who had spent months living in Seattle when his ship MAUD was undergoing repairs.

Shortly after his death, a movement led by Lars Christensen, Otto Sverdrup and Oscar Wisting to repair the FRAM and turn it into a museum gained momentum.  This was completed in 1935; eventually GJOA was moved from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to its current location on Bygdoy.  Many Norwegian towns associated with his career erected statues of Amundsen, such as Tromsø and Ny-Ålesund.  Amundsen’s home, named Uranienborg and located outside Oslo, is perhaps the most fitting and interesting memorial: it is a museum, but it has the feeling that Amundsen simply walked out the door one day and never returned, which is what happened.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on Dec. 5, 2008.  For more details and subscription information, call (800) 305-0217 or email

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