By Sophie Olson
This Navy officer’s hat was part of Commander Howard Nestingen’s WWII 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 Indian Ocean on ammunition ships, and served in occupyied Japan after the end of WWII. When he returned home to La Crosse, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and was appointed as the commander for the Navy Reserve Officers School at the Naval Reserve Center on Green Bay Street.
Although the building no longer stands, during its 57 years of operation from 1949 to 2006, the center trained thousands of local men. In the first 20 years alone, more than 3,200 La Crosse area men had attended the Naval Reserve Center. The reserve unit stationed in La Crosse was so successful in their training, that in 1961 the unit, commanded by Howard Nestingen, was ranked number one in the 14 states of the 9th Naval District, andwas also ranked eighth in the nation.
Outside of his position at the Naval Reserve Center, Howard Nestingen continued to play an active role in the community of La Crosse. Nestingen was the public affairs coordinator for Dairyland Power Cooperative for many years, and 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 was also a member of the United Way board of directors, a member of the board of trustees of La Crosse Lutheran Hospital, and a past president of the La Crosse Optimist Club.
Howard Nestingen’s Navy officer’s hat is an important tangible link that helps us to remember the brave individuals 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 an article 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.”
This summer La Crosse County Historical Society is conducting a survey of its military artifacts. In the process, stories like this one are researched and added to our data base. Watch for more stories of our region’s military contributions in weeks to come.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.