By Art Cohn, Director Emeritus, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum
Top image: Ensign Phil Lundeberg aboard the USS Frederick C. Davis just two weeks before it was struck by a German torpedo and sunk in the North Atlantic during WWII.
On October 3, 2019 the world lost a great humanitarian and scholar and I lost a mentor and friend. Dr. Philip Karl Lundeberg was 96 years old when he died, but his narrow escape from death during WWII gave him a special perspective about life. In 1945, he was a 22-year old Naval officer and the end of the war was in sight when his ship, the USS Frederick C. Davis, was torpedoed by a German U-boat. Only 27 of the ship’s crew of 192 men survived.
Phil lived the rest of his life with the belief that he had a responsibility to his shipmates to get the most out of life. After the war, he married Eleanor Berntson, the love of his life for the next 66 years, earned a doctorate from Harvard University, taught at the US Naval Academy, and enjoyed a career as a Curator of Armed Forces History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was in this capacity that Phil became a key member of the team that brought to Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia from Lake Champlain to its privileged place of honor at the newly created National Museum of History and Technology (now known as the National Museum of American History).
Phil became one of the Philadelphia’s most devoted champions and was tireless in his efforts to share its story with the public. Working with a team of dedicated colleagues, the group recognized the importance of the Philadelphia’s story and the need to preserve it. In 1962, thirty years after Lorenzo Hagglund recovered the diminutive warship, the Philadelphia was packed up and shipped to the new National Museum of History and Technology under construction in Washington DC.
For the past six decades, the Philadelphia has been sharing the story of the 1776 naval contest to control strategic Lake Champlain with millions of visitors from around the nation and the world. Dr. Lundeberg was one of her most enthusiastic caretakers, authored the original interpretive booklet, The Continental Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776, and helped create a devoted corps of docents to interpret the boat to the public.
Another of Phil’s important contributions was to help secure the original “Pay Roll of Captain Benjamin Rue’s Crew belonging to the Gondola Philadelphia” dated October 16, 1776. It had been discovered in Texas and Phil worked with the National Archives, the Fort Concho Museum in Texas, and Captain Rue’s descendants to bring the document into the public domain. Phil realized that “with the payroll’s discovery, the human dimension of the Philadelphia’s story began to take shape” and he became a devoted advocate in this new area of research.
I met Phil at the beginning of my own research into this Lake Champlain story and I can’t imagine having a more supportive coach. Phil guided me in my research and when he learned we were considering establishing a new maritime museum on Lake Champlain he was very encouraging. Phil and Eleanor had strong ties to Vermont where their son Karl graduated from Middlebury College. Phil journeyed to Vermont in 1988 to add his credibility to our efforts by giving a lecture on the gunboat Philadelphia. By then, we had already successfully built a 36-foot replica of a colonial-era bateau from plans derived from an original. Phil became one of the most enthusiastic early supporters of our bold idea to consider building a full-size, operational replica of the original Philadelphia.
Dr. Lundeberg, then Curator Emeritus, used his credibility to arrange for the Smithsonian to give the project its rare endorsement, secured several sets of Howard Hoffman’s boat-building plans and provided sage advice every step of the way. I can still remember the conversation I had with him after our Board of Directors approved the project. I was relating the strategy I was developing to see how quickly I could complete the replica and get it launched. I remember explaining to Phil all the steps that were needed to get the project going and while pondering my long list of needs Phil could tell I was a bit overwhelmed. He politely listened to my “get it done” list and politely suggested that it was not necessarily the best strategy. Phil countered that the secret was to “build it slowly…not quickly, and use the seasonal construction effort to build community support and interest.” This proved to be some of the best advice I ever received and Phil’s counsel on how to build the boat proved to be the foundation of the project.
Following Phil’s advice it took three years to get the replica ready to launch. By that time, the project guided thousands of people to our museum and allowed us to integrate them into the construction process. Our new exhibit, Key to Liberty engaged visitors and added to their experience, and a new curriculum drew visiting school groups into the story of the American Revolution. When we were finally ready for the Philadelphia II’s launching, Phil made the observation that his original publication about The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776 was out-of-print. He wondered if perhaps Lake Champlain Maritime Museum might be willing to publish a new edition which would include a new section about the building and launching of the Philadelphia II. With Phil’s encouragement we did just that and The Gunboat Philadelphia was born and Phil, ever vigilant, made sure the Smithsonian bookstore always had a supply of the books.
In 1997, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum was in its second year of surveying the whole of Lake Champlain when we located a significant target in deep water. The target proved to be the missing gunboat Spitfire, a sister ship to the Philadelphia, sitting intact and upright in the deep waters of Lake Champlain. Phil was one of the first people I called with the news and his joy at hearing about the discovery was spontaneous and Phil remained a trusted advisor for the Spitfire Management Project until his passing.
History sometimes repeats itself, and by 2012, Phil called me with the news that our second edition of the Gunboat Philadelphia was now out-of-print. He proposed that we consider putting out a new edition with a contribution by Jennifer Jones, Curator of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History, who would update the Philadelphia section, and a new third section that would present the discovery and management recommendations for the Spitfire. Phil’s idea was so timely and compelling that we committed, with Jennifer, to work together to bring the new publication into print by June 2017, the 20th anniversary of the Spitfire’s discovery. With Phil and Jennifer’s participation, the new book, entitled A Tale of Three Gunboats; Lake Champlain’s Revolutionary War Heritage, was co-published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The book helps us keep the Philadelphia’s story alive, and reminds us of the legacy of shipwrecks that require our stewardship to continue to provide a window into the times when Lake Champlain was the key to liberty. Phil’s contribution and dedication to this effort cannot be overstated.
Dr. Philip Lundeberg was the embodiment of the high values, integrity, and character we have ascribed to our “greatest generation.” He was a tireless champion of United States Naval history and for more than six decades helped preserve the gunboat Philadelphia and share its important story with the public. Phil received numerous acknowledgments for his many achievements in this area and in 2013 was selected to receive the Dudley W. Knox Naval History Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naval Historical Foundation. Beyond Phil’s professional accomplishments, his warmth, wisdom, humor and gentle manner will be long remembered by his family and his many friends. His devotion to his family, friends and country will serve as an inspiration to all who knew him.