This Navy officer’s hat was part of Cmdr. Howard Nestingen’s World War II Navy dress uniform.
Nestingen, born in Westby in 1921, was an officer in the Navy for 38 years. During his time in the military, he survived four trips across the Pacific Ocean on the USS Rankin, an ammunition ship, and he served in occupied Japan after World War II.
When he returned home to La Crosse, he joined the Naval Reserve and was appointed commander for the Navy Reserve Officers School at the Naval Reserve Center along Green Bay Street.
Although the building no longer stands, the center trained thousands of men from the area from 1949 to 2006. In the first 20 years alone, more than 3,200 men attended the Naval Reserve Center.
The reserve unit stationed in La Crosse was so successful in its training that in 1961 the unit, commanded by Nestingen, was ranked No. 1 in the 14 states of the 9th Naval District; it also was ranked eighth in the nation.
Outside of his position at the Naval Reserve Center, Nestingen continued to play an active role in the La Crosse community. He was the public affairs coordinator for Dairyland Power Cooperative for many years, and he was influential in the creation of the nuclear power plant near Genoa.
In a 1963 article from the La Crosse Tribune, he was quoted as saying, “While the cost of nuclear fuel is still considerably higher than conventional organic fossil fuels, the expected shortage of conventional fuels in the future makes the development of atomic power necessary.”
Nestingen also was a member of the United Way board of directors, a member of the board of trustees of La Crosse Lutheran Hospital, was a founder of the Heritage Society of Gundersen Health System in the 1960s, was President of the Congregation of the English Lutheran Church, and was past president of the La Crosse Optimist Club.
Nestingen’s Navy officer’s hat is an important tangible link that helps us remember the brave people in La Crosse’s military history. Perhaps Nestingen’s service to La Crosse can be best summed up in his address at a 1972 Memorial Day observance in Oak Grove Cemetery. According to a story in the La Crosse Tribune, Nestingen said of those who had died in military service: “They were just plain men who felt freedom in their very being. Freedom cannot be taken for granted as a permanent factor in our lives.”
In the process of researching Howard Nestingen's life, I've found myself more invested in his story than I first thought. Although I initially saw him only as a stranger, I now see him as something much stronger: family. It turns out that Howard Nestingen's wife, Opal, had a mother named Josie Clark from Dell, WI. This piece of information set bells off in my head when I first saw it because my great-grandmother, Cecilia Clark, was also from Dell, WI. Since Dell is a tiny town far into the rural country of Vernon County, I knew that another Clark from Dell meant that there must be some sort of family relationship. After speaking with my mother on the subject, I came to find out that Josie Clark was my great-grandmother's sister, and therefore Opal Nestingen was my grandmother's cousin. This would make Howard Nestingen, Opal's husband, my relative by marriage. You truly never know what you might find when you start looking into the lives of some of these soldiers, and it's amazing the connections you can find simply through something as small as a hat.