More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Despite hardships, Allentown woman always focuses on the silver lining

December 30, 2001
Of The Morning Call

Editor’s note: “Before the Colors Fade” is an occasional feature by Frank Whelan that celebrates and preserves snapshots of history.

Some people might call Aud Klaveness Cutshall a survivor.

The 81-year-old Allentown woman’s father, a civilian sea captain, died in World War II. For 30 years, she served as the primary care-giver for her husband, Richard Cutshall, who had polio. Currently, she is dealing with multiple sclerosis, a disease that struck her late in life, leaving her in a wheelchair.

But Cutshall wants neither pity nor praise. What she does want is to send a message to the country in this year of the terrorist attacks. Motivated by a deep Christian faith, she wants to try and reach out to the family and friends of those who had died by telling her own story.

“My message is that despite hardships, life is special and precious,’’ she says.

Cutshall and her twin sister, Gerd, were born in Trondheim, Norway, in 1920. She also had two brothers, Odd and Alf. Her childhood was spent far from that land of snow and fiords. When she was 4, her father, William Klaveness, a seafaring man since he was 17, took his family across the Atlantic to New Orleans

The Klaveness family owned a steamship line, founded by Cutshall’s grandfather and run by her two uncles. But her father wanted to branch out on his own. So he joined the Vaccaro Line, a fleet of one-funneled steamers registered in Honduras that carried bananas, coconuts and Palm Beach-suited planters for the American Fruit & Steamship Corp.

In a box of family mementos, Cutshall keeps her memories of that long-gone era. A worn-but-still-readable map from the late 1920s shows the routes of the Vaccaro Line in red. Its ports of call included most of Central and South America.

Another item in Cutshall’s box is a menu. It is from the Vaccaro Line’s S.S. Granada, then commanded by her father and dated Aug. 29, 1932. The menu, which featured roast prime rib of beef au jus, baked Virginia ham, roasted stuffed young turkey with cranberry sauce and plum pudding in brandy sauce, sounds a little heavy for the tropics.

Cutshall, with her mother and sister, often accompanied her father on these trips. She still has vivid memories of sailing into Nicaragua in the late 1920s when a revolution was raging and there was a particularly nasty hurricane that they were all sure the ship would not survive.

“It was terrible,’’ she recalls. “We were tied in our beds for days as the ship swirled in circles. My father was on the bridge the entire time. I don’t think he slept for four days.’’

In the 1930s Cutshall was going to school in Baton Rouge, La. Her father wrote her long letters on American Fruit & Steamship Corp. stationery, its letterhead complete with the shorthand cable address “Stanfruco” in the upper-right-hand corner. Mostly the letters are full of fatherly advice to pursue her education, listen to her mother and enjoy dancing, but not to get too serious with boys.

By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Klaveness family had already been touched by its tragedy. The family shipping line in Norway had been taken over by the Nazis when they invaded that country in 1940. “When they refused to cooperate with the Nazis, my uncles were taken to Germany and put in a concentration camp,’’ says Cutshall. “They were tortured. One was driven insane and the other’s hair turned white from fear.”

In early 1942, Cutshall’s father was a Merchant Marine captain in command of the Vaccaro Lines ship S.S. Ceiba. “It was his favorite ship,’’ says his daughter, who has a picture of the freighter. That March when family friends in Havana wanted to get to New York, Capt. Klaveness agreed. Cutshall’s pile of yellowing newspaper clippings give the details of her father’s last voyage.

On the evening of March 16, 1942, about 200 miles off the coast of New Jersey, a Nazi U-boat commander found the S.S. Ceiba in the crosshairs of his periscope. Survivors were later to recall the time as 8:45 p.m. when a single torpedo struck the ship’s port side, just below the bridge where Klaveness stood. The Ceiba sank in roughly three minutes. Crew members had no time to launch lifeboats but did unloose two life rafts.

There were 44 people, 32 crew and 12 passengers on the Ceiba. One of the rafts with eight aboard capsized and sank. The other with six survivors made it to New York two days later.

A survivor recalled how shortly after the sinking, the U-boat suddenly surfaced. Its captain emerged and, in perfect English, asked a crew member on the raft the name of the ship, its tonnage and cargo.

Although it is not in the articles, Cutshall learned from talking to the survivors after the war that the U-boat captain then plucked her father, who was injured, from the North Atlantic and took him aboard the submarine. “We had heard that the Germans would sometimes do this in order to get shipping information.’’

At war’s end Cutshall’s family tried to find out whether her father might be alive in Germany. Gerd, who had gone into the U.S. diplomatic service and was vice consul in the American embassy in Hamburg, did all she could. “But we could never find anything,’’ she says. The same newspaper that included the account of her father’s sinking might hold the answer to his fate. It told of beefed-up Navy patrols firing depth charges along the New Jersey coast to sink submarines.

If 1942 brought Cutshall tragedy, it also brought her love. It came in the form of Lt. Richard L. Cutshall. The Allentown native, a son of former Lehigh County District Attorney John L. Cutshall and his wife, Naomi, a real estate broker and saleswomen, had gone South to attend Louisiana State University. While at a church-sponsored social event, the couple met over hot dogs.

On Dec. 2, 1942, they were married in New Orleans. Her husband served in the Field Artillery in Europe, became a paratrooper and later was with counterintelligence. They returned to Allentown in 1946 where the Evening Chronicle announced their arrival as “a charming addition to the young married set.’’

Cutshall’s husband created an insurance and advertising business. They eventually would have a son and two daughters. But their comfortable life was shattered on Nov. 7, 1952, when Richard Cutshall was admitted to the hospital with polio.

The newspapers recorded Richard Cutshall’s creation of a special harness to help him attempt to walk and the need created by his 6-foot, 6-inch frame for a larger-than-normal iron lung.

But when the reporters and cameramen went home, the Cutshalls were left to cope as best they could with their problems. She remembers vividly the times her husband crashed to the ground and fractured his skull trying to walk. Once he fell and got his feet jammed under a radiator. “I tried but I just could not move him,’’ Cutshall recalls. It took the aid of the police to get her husband up again.

Cutshall says her husband’s sense of humor and religious faith got him over the really tough moments. “He conducted his business from his bed,’’ she says. It was the Rev. Paul Couch at Calvary Moravian Church in Allentown who helped her and her husband deal with some of the burdens of their difficult life.

“He came to visit my husband every day,’’ she says. “You don’t have any idea what that meant to him and me.”

Despite adversity, the insurance agency flourished. Richard Cutshall received six Oscars, a special award given by the Insurance Advertising Conference. He also was a staff writer for the “The Local Agent,” a trade publication. In 1970 Cutshall’s husband retired. He lived until 1982.

Despite the multiple sclerosis that put her in a wheelchair, Cutshall is far from depressed or inactive. She stays as active as she can at Bethlehem’s Central Moravian Church and counts its pastor, the Rev. Douglas Caldwell, as a friend.

“Adversity causes us to grow and develop,’’ she says. “I’ve always looked for the good and tried to look for something to laugh about.”

Reporter Frank Whelan

Copyright © 2001, The Morning Call