Leslie "Les" O AmundsonJune 16, 1920 ~ October 13, 2017 (age 97)
Leslie Otho Amundson, a solid son of Yakima Valley pioneers whose own dedication to community and country was forged in the heat of World War II, died October 13, 2017 in Sunnyside, WA. He was 97 years old.
Born June 16, 1920, in Sunnyside, Les was the youngest of Albert and Nettie Amundson's nine children. His was an idyllic boyhood. He hunted and fished. There were camping trips. There was school. There was the constant swirl of activity in the rambling Amundson home on the corner of 13th and Tacoma. The family's roots in the Valley went deep. His Norwegian immigrant grandfather, Ole" Amundson, had been a homestead orchardist in the early 1890s. His parents were community leaders, owners of Amundson's Hardware, established in 1909. His father was mayor during tough times, the Great Depression.
Life seemed secure. After graduating from Sunnyside High School in 1938, Les worked around town. He tried college, attending Ellensburg Normal School (CWU). Four quarters later, he came home, unsure of his path. He was doing grunt work at a local gravel bunker on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On Dec. 11, Germany declared war.
"I got my draft notice almost immediately," Les recalled years later.
War proved to be a defining experience. Les became an Army Air Corps B-17 pilot, but was shot down over Germany on his first mission on Nov. 26, 1943. Les crash-landed the plane, nicknamed "Ruthless," in northern Holland. He and the crew spent a month in the Dutch underground, but were captured by the Gestapo in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve. They spent 18 months, till war's end, in Stalag Luft I, a German prisoner-of-war camp near Barth, on the Baltic Sea. They froze. They starved. Some were shot. It was sheer survival.
Home never looked so good. The young man, now a decorated war veteran (Purple Heart), settled in, joining his older brother, Lloyd, in the family hardware business (their father, Albert, had died while Les was overseas). On May 24, 1946, he married Helen Marie Rogers, a union that lasted 71 years. In 1950, the couple bought a 10-acre farm on Wells Road south of Sunnyside where they raised four children, Paula, Gayle, Bunny and Max, plus a foster daughter, Geri Setter. The farm was purchased for $6,500, back pay that Les had received while a POW.
In addition to the hardware, farm and family, Les remained active in the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1973 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was also area service agent for the VFW, the DAV, and American Legion, as well as serving on the area Red Cross board. Les never forgot those Red Cross parcels the Germans would periodically allow into camp. He was on the board when the regional blood bank—just the second one on the West Coast—was established in Yakima.
He never forgot the Dutch people who had risked life and limb to rescue him and his crew. After the war, he and Helen sent clothes and care packages to help with the recovery. Later, he would connect with Wietze Eizenga, one of the Dutch resistence members who had saved his life. In 2002, he visited Wietze. The two men traveled to Wijnjewoude, the village in northern Holland near where Les had crashed. The villagers welcomed the pair like heroes.
In Sunnyside, Les and Helen remained active in the community. Finally, in 1984, after 75 years, Amundson Hardware closed its doors.
Les and Helen settled into retirement. They spent time with family. They tended the farm. They gardened and camped. They enjoyed a growing brood of grandchildren. They were honored by the community, chosen to be co-parade grand marshals for the Country Christmas Lighted Farm Implement Parade in 1997, and again for the Sunshine Days Parade in 2002.
And Les loved Sunnyside back. His son, Max, remarked: "The community has just been gold to Dad. He always had a great appreciation for its people."
That appreciation was tempered by war. Les had survived. It was a humbling, terrifying experience. But it gave him a sense of purpose.
"Sometimes I think the best thing that ever happened to me was the day I got drafted," he once said, adding in his typically self-deprecating way: "I may not be very smart, but I sure have been lucky!"
Les is survived by four daughters: Paula Culver and Gayle Pykonen, both of Sunnyside; Bunny Martinez (Mike), Moxee; and Geri Setter (Jon), Seattle; and one son, Max Amundson (Dixie), Prosser; 12 grandchildren: Damon Culver (Mechele), Prosser; Eric Pykonen (Stephanie), Wayne Pykonen (Shannon), and Tom Pykonen (Lindsey), all of the Portland area; Janet Pykonen-Minton of Prosser, Alyana Martinez, Moxee; Jannine Setter (Beren), Portland; Eric Setter (Alayna) of Rio Rancho New Mexico); Donny Allen (Stephanie) of Augusta, GA, Daniel Allen (Michelle) of Ridgefield, WA; and Devon Allen of Columbus, OH; 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.
Besides his parents and eight siblings, Les was preceded in death by his wife, Helen, who passed 3 weeks and 3 days prior to Les on September 19, 2017, and one granddaughter, Christy Setter.
Graveside Inurnment Service with Military honors for Les and Helen will be held November 18, 2017 at 1:00 pm, at Lower Valley Memorial Gardens in Sunnyside, followed by a Celebration of Life at the Sunnyside Eagles.
Memorials may be sent to Sunnyside Heartlinks; the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Sunnyside, WA; to the American Legion Post 73 Sunnyside WA, or to a charity of your choice. Those wishing to sign Les’s online memorial book may do so at www.funeralhomesmith.com Smith Funeral Homes in care of arrangements.