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Last Surviving Crew Member of Kon-Tiki Expedition Passes Away


Knut Magne Haugland of Norway, passed away on December 25. He was 92. Haugland was one of six men, who with Thor Heyerdahl in 1947, successfully crossed the Pacific Ocean in a 45 foot raft made of balsa wood and bamboo -- named Kon-Tiki -- to prove that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.

Called the "most unusual expedition ever to place reliance on Amateur Radio for communication" in the December 1947 issue of QST, Kon-Tiki departed Peru for Polynesia on April 28, 1947. "It was the theory of Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian ethnologist and leader of the venture, that the settlement of the Pacific Islands resulted from a migration of American peoples who had sailed there many of years ago, rather than a trek from Asia as claimed by other scientists," the article explained. "To prove that such a migration was possible, Mr Heyerdahl decided to attempt the trip in a raft of the type preserved in Incan legends and early Spanish historical accounts. He named the expedition on honor of the pre-Incan Sun god. The Kon-Tiki raft was fashioned out of logs of the lightest wood in existence and lashed together with native-made hemp rope. Its only sources of locomotion would be the Pacific trade winds and the Humboldt Current which sweeps northward along the west coast of South America and thence in the direction of the Tuamotu Archipelago."

Haugland and World War II

During World War II, Haugland was a member of the Norwegian Resistance where he was instrumental in the destruction of the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant. When the Nazis took over Norway, they wanted to use the plant -- which produced "heavy water" -- in their quest to produce nuclear weapons. Between 1940 and 1944, a sequence of sabotage actions by the Norwegian resistance movement, as well as Allied bombing, ensured the destruction of the plant and the loss of the heavy water produced. These operations -- codenamed Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside -- finally managed to knock the plant out of production in early 1943. The Norwegian Resistance Operation Grouse successfully placed four Norwegian nationals -- Haugland, Arne Kjelstrup, Jens-Anton Poulsson and Claus Helberg -- who became Operation Grouse. The four men were parachuted over Hardangervidda on October 18, 1942, to rendezvous with the British Operation Freshman and proceed to Vemork. Once on the ground, the Norwegians began to send back intelligence about the plant, including the composition of its defenses. Operation Freshman failed when the British military gliders crashed short of their destination. All 41 participants were killed in the crash or captured, interrogated and executed by the Nazis. Members of Operation Grouse were then ordered to wait for another team, Operation Gunnerside. In 1943, this team of British-trained Norwegian commandos succeeded at destroying the production facility. In 1965, this feat was made into a movie, The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas;

After the destruction of the plant, Haugland stayed in Hardangervidda for two months and then went to Oslo to train marine telegraphers. After a trip to the United Kingdom for radio supplies, he returned to Norway in November, being parachuted at Skrimfjella. The Nazis arrested him in Kongsberg, but he escaped and commenced his training duties. On April 1, 1944, he narrowly escaped another capture by the Gestapo when one of his transmitters -- hidden in the Oslo Maternity Hospital -- was located by the Nazis using direction finding. Haugland fled to the United Kingdom and did not return to Norway until after the war. For his bravery, Haugland was twice awarded Norway's highest decoration for military gallantry, the War Cross with sword, in 1943 and 1944. In addition, Haugland was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Medal by the British. He also received the French Croix de guerre and L├ęgion d'honneur and the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav

Haugland and the Kon-Tiki

Haugland first met Thor Heyerdahl in 1944 at a paramilitary training camp in England. It was here that Haugland first heard of Heyerdahl's theories about Polynesian migration patterns and his plans to cross the Pacific on a balsa wood raft. In 1947, Heyerdahl invited Haugland and Torstein Raaby, another former resistance member, to join the Kon-Tiki expedition as radio operators.

Heyerdahl and his five companions sailed the raft for 101 days more than 4300 miles across the Pacific Ocean before smashing into a reef in the Tuamotu Islands on August 7, 1947. The Kon-Tiki carried 250 liters of water in bamboo tubes. For food, they took 200 coconuts, sweet potatoes, bottle gourds and other assorted fruit and roots. The US Army Quartermaster Corps provided field rations, tinned food and survival equipment. In return, the Kon-Tiki explorers reported on the quality and utility of the provisions. They also caught plentiful numbers of fish, particularly flying fish, mahi-mahi, yellow fin tuna, bonito and shark.

The expedition used call sign LI2B and carried three watertight radio transmitters. The first operated on the 40 and 20 meters, the second on 10 meters and the third on 6 meters. Each unit was made up entirely of 2E30 vacuum tubes providing 10 W of RF input. As an emergency backup, they also carried a German Mark V transceiver originally re-created by Britain's Special Operations Executive in 1942. Other equipment included a hand-cranked emergency set of the Gibson Girl type for use on the maritime bands, a special VHF set for contacting aircraft and two British Mark II transmitters. The Kon-Tiki also carried a National Radio Company NC-173 receiver. Dry batteries and a hand-cranked generator supplied the power.

The December 1947 QST article stated that "the conditions under which the radio equipment aboard the raft was to operate presented many unusual problems. Proximity of the craft's deck to the sea and the relatively small protection afforded by the thatched bamboo cabin meant that the gear would have to withstand the effects of moisture. It was desired to have transmitter units light and tight enough so that if they should fall overboard they could be fished out and put to work again immediately. Operation was required on maritime and amateur frequencies. Both 'phone and c.w. were specified. The transmitters were to be tuned, closed up and remain watertight unless something went wrong. It must be possible to load them up on antennas of whatever length could be erected on available supports. With these requirements in mind, [C. F. Haddock] W1CTW and [H. A. Gardner] W1EHT of the National [Radio] Company's engineering staff designed and constructed the needed rigs. One transmitter was built to operate on 7 and 14 Mc., another for 28 Mc. and a third for 50 Mc."

For the first 22 days following their departure from Peru, the only radio contact Kon-Tiki had was with OBE, the station of the Peruvian Naval School. LI2B kept to its schedule, trying to contact key amateur stations on specified frequencies without success. Finally, on May 20 at 9:44 PST, Harold Kempel, W6EVM, heard and worked LI2B on 14.142 kHz, providing the raft with its first North American contact. By mid-June, LI2B had worked numerous amateur stations.

As the trip progressed, a long-haul network of amateur stations developed. Stations in North America, the Canal Zone and Norway cooperated in handling the Kon-Tiki's traffic. [Gene Melton] W3FNG, in Washington, DC, relayed messages to and from the Norwegian Embassy. "On at least two occasions, urgent traffic was exchanged between the Embassy and the raft via this circuit," the QST article explained. "In one instance, a message was relayed from the raft to W3FNG, delivered by telephone to the Embassy, an answer procured and relayed in the reverse direction to Kon-Tiki -- all in a matter of 35 minutes elapsed time!"

Kon-Tiki's mission ended on August 7, 1947 -- just 101 days after departure from Peru -- when waves deposited the raft on a reef off Raiora Island. "But the safety of the courageous crew which had made the venture a success was still at stake," the QST article said. "Half an hour after being stranded, LI2B was fortunate in making contact with [G. W. Hitch] ZK1AB on Raratonga, who was asked to stand a listening watch and communicate with the Norwegian Embassy in Washington if LI2B was not heard at the end of a 36 hour period. Just before the specified period ended, contact was established with [P. Fuller], W0MNU, and word of the landing passed along, thus avoiding the necessity of sending out any rescue parties."

In his book Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl described the rush to make contact after landing on the reef, including the crew's despair as the NC-173 slowly dried after getting soaked in a shipwreck, gradually receiving at higher and higher frequencies until eventually settling on the 13.990 MHz frequency needed to make contact:

"Coils and radio parts lay drying in the tropical sun on slabs of coral. The whole day passed, and the atmosphere grew more and more hectic. The rest of us abandoned all other jobs and crowded round the radio in the hope of being able to give assistance. We must be on the air before 10 PM. Then the thirty-six hours' time limit would be up, and the radio amateur on Rarotonga would send out appeals for airplane and relief expeditions.

"Noon came, afternoon came, and the sun set. If only the man on Rarotonga would contain himself! Seven o'clock, eight, nine. The tension was at breaking point. Not a sign of life in the transmitter, but the receiver, an NC-I73, began to liven up somewhere at the bottom of the scale and we heard faint music. But not on the amateur wavelength. It was eating its way up, however; perhaps it was a wet coil which was drying inward from one end. The transmitter was still stone-dead short circuits and sparks everywhere.

"There was less than an hour left. This would never do. The regular transmitter was given up, and a little sabotage transmitter from wartime was tried again. We had tested it several times before in the course of the day, but without result. Now perhaps it had become a little drier. All the batteries were completely ruined, and we got power by cranking a tiny hand generator. It was heavy, and we four who were laymen in radio matters took turns all day long sitting and turning the infernal thing.

"The thirty-six hours would soon be up. I remember someone whispering 'Seven minutes more,' 'Five minutes more,' and then no one would look at his watch again. The transmitter was as dumb as ever, but the receiver was sputtering upward toward the right wavelength. Suddenly it crackled on the Rarotonga man's frequency, and we gathered that he was in full contact with the telegraph station in Tahiti. Soon afterward we picked up the following fragment of a message sent out from Rarotonga: ' plane this side of Samoa. I am quite sure..."

"Then it died away again. The tension was unbearable. What was brewing out there? Had they already begun to send out plane and rescue expeditions? Now, no doubt, messages concerning us were going over the air in every direction. The two operators worked feverishly. The sweat trickled from their faces as freely as it did from ours who sat turning the handle. Power began slowly to come into the transmitter's aerial, and Torstein pointed ecstatically to an arrow which swung slowly up over a scale when he held the Morse key down. Now it was coming!

"We turned the handle madly while Torstein called Rarotonga. No one heard us. Once more. Now the receiver was working again, but Rarotonga did not hear us. We called Hal and Frank at Los Angeles and the Naval School at Lima, but no one heard us. Then Torstein sent out a CQ message, that is to say, he called all the stations in the world which could hear us on our special amateur wavelength. That was of some use. Now a faint voice out in the ether began to call us slowly. We called again and said that we heard him. Then the slow voice out in the ether said 'My name is Paul. I live in Colorado. What is your name and where do you live?'

"This was a radio amateur. Torstein seized the key, while we turned the handle, and replied, 'This is the Kon-Tiki. We are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific.' Paul did not believe the message. He thought it was a radio amateur in the next street pulling his leg, and he did not come on the air again. We tore our hair in desperation. Here were we, sitting under the palm tops on a starry night on a desert island, and no one even believed what we said.

"Torstein did not give up; he was at the key again sending 'All well, all well, all well' unceasingly. We must at all costs stop all this rescue machinery from starting out across the Pacific. Then we heard, rather faintly, in the receiver, 'If all's well, why worry?' Then all was quiet in the ether. That was all. We could have leaped into the air and shaken down all the coconuts for sheer desperation, and heaven knows what we should have done if both Rarotonga and good old Hal had not suddenly heard us. Hal wept for delight, he said, at hearing LI2B again. All the tension stopped immediately; we were once more alone and undisturbed on our South Sea island and turned in, worn out, on our beds of palm leaves."

After Kon-Tiki

In 1951, Haugland married librarian Ingeborg Prestholdt. He participated in the Independent Norwegian Brigade Group in Germany from 1948-1949, continued in the Forsvarsstaben until 1952, when he was transferred to the Royal Norwegian Air Force. He headed the electronic intelligence service in Northern Norway during the Cold War. He held the ranks of Major from 1954 and Lieutenant Colonel from 1977. In 1963, Haugland left the Air Force to become acting director of the Norway's Resistance Museum; he was later made its permanent director and retired from this position in 1983. He was also the director of the Kon-Tiki Museum from its start in 1947, continuing until 1990.

All black and white photos courtesy of the Kon-Tiki Museum.