University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Diary from the Diamond Princess

A U of M alumni couple share their day-by-day notes after a cruise during the early days of COVID-19 left them in quarantine for nearly a month.

Hildeen and Ellefson would spend 12 days quarantined inside their cruise stateroom, and then 14 more at Travis Air Force Base, initially unaware of the gravity of the situation unfolding around them.
Photo Credit: Ron Hildeen

Editor’s note: On January 18, Ron Hildeen (B.A., ’71) and Amy Liljegren Ellefson (B.A., ’69) flew from Minneapolis to Tokyo to take a 15-day Asian cruise on the Diamond Princess. They were traveling with Amy’s cousin, Arnie Hopland, and his wife, Jeanie, and enjoyed ports of call not just in Japan but also Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

The duo enjoying the sights before the COVID-19 pandemic exploded.
Photo Credit: Ron Hildeen

At the tail end of the voyage, the crew announced that a new sort of disease, then called the novel coronavirus, had just been detected in several of the countries the cruise ship had visited. Passengers had their temperatures taken and then enjoyed a normal day on board, eating, and mingling with their fellow travelers.

On the last night of the cruise, Hildeen and Ellefson packed their suitcases and put them outside their cabin to be picked up for disembarkation. Later that evening, there was a knock on the door. They were told they wouldn’t be getting off the boat in Japan and that they needed to bring the suitcases back inside. A day later, they were confined to their rooms.

Hildeen used Facebook to communicate with friends about what happened from that point forward. Sometimes funny, sometimes sobering in hindsight, his posts create a compelling chronicle of the early days of a pandemic that was still not widely understood by the overwhelming majority of Americans. The couple would spend 12 days in their room on the ship. After they were allowed to return to the U.S., the couple spent a further 14 days in mandatory quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in California.

“As members of a generation that have weathered many memorable events, we never thought this 15-day Asian cruise would turn out to be one of international importance,” Hildeen says today. “As the cruise date neared, I joked about my visiting Vietnam 50 years after almost being sent there while I was in the Army. I joked about Gilligan’s Island and the resulting long-term nature of the short cruise. Both pale in comparison to what lay ahead of us.”

Hildeen gave Minnesota Alumni permission to reprint excerpts of his posts. We’ve edited these lightly for space, but otherwise, the posts appear as Hildeen shared them. They help provide a glimpse of how what is now known as COVID-19 evolved from an unknown entity into the pandemic it has become today.


First time on internet for a while.

Except for the inability to post my adventures in Asia with friends and family, I can’t say I have missed it much.


End of the trip should be simple, right? NOPE.

Have you seen news of the virus in Asia? Well some guy on the cruise got it and Japanese health folks are taking no chances. So here we sit, quarantined, at least until all passengers and crew have their temperatures taken. Waiting our turn. Good news is that we don’t seem to have it. Missed our tours of Okinawa and Tokyo, bummer. Glad we have a later flight back home.


Greetings from the Diamond Princess (aka HMS FLUBUG).

As they keep transferring people to off-ship medical facilities, we remain cloistered in our 20 x 25 cabin. Not all hardship: We do have internet, TV, movies, hot water, and three meals per day. They are letting select groups of cabins out on the open decks for fresh air. This all reminds me of a mashup and updating of ’30s prison movies and World War II Japanese POW movies. Haven’t started making shivs or planning an escape yet, but we are only three days into our sentence. There are some folks here with multiple small kids, one family of two 80+-year-old grandparents with 20+-year-old grandsons in an inner (no window) cabin. Could be much worse.


News from the front, day four of the quarantine.

We got to leave our rooms and go outside to walk. Must be masked and rubber gloved. Met up with Arnie and Jeanie to liberate their game of Scrabble. Yet another game to lose. All going well.


News from the front—day five. Nine days left for quarantine. Not much happening today. Still cloistered in our rooms hoping the flu bug doesn’t get us. They took a few more off ship today for unrelated medical issues. The captain says mental health counselors are available should there be repercussions about being confined. My thoughts go to those with young children in inner cabins.

Every couple of days the ship goes back out to sea to perform necessary deep-water chores, then back to dock. I am thinking reloading desalination tanks and other obscure things. I would like to volunteer our window for a good cleaning, taking pictures through it gives the impression of looking through waxed paper. We are able to see Mt. Fuji on the return trip.

Good food, lots and lots of rice. Still have to pay for beer though. FaceTiming with the kids, playing games, and watching movies occupy our time.

Good news, no snow and blue skies.


News from the front, day seven—halfway there.

So what’s new here on the Diamond Princess?

Yesterday we got snazzy new masks. These masks replace the Dollar Store ones. Plastic gloves gone, replaced by a glop of hand sanitizer—nasty stuff. The piano bar guy said that it would be ironic if the hand sanitizer was the stuff spreading the virus.

The inmates are getting restless, some suggesting a desolate island setting for quarantine—perhaps Hawaii. 

They are feeding us well. Food coma a possibility.

Internet is up and down, maybe the resident computer guy got sick or something. 

Seven days done, seven to go. This life certainly takes some of the glow off the tiny house craze. Although it’s sorta like having a cabin in the Tokyo bay. 

Good food, lots of movies, and comfy bed.

More to come, stay tuned.


News from the front—day eight, six to go (I hope).

Being on the other side of the world has its disadvantages. Trying to figure date and time back home is one. Now for instance, 8:51 p.m. here is 5:51 a.m. there [in Minnesota] with day confusion on top of it. That explains the post about watching Sunday night Academy Awards on Monday morning here. Very confusing.

We took a cruise out to sea again to do some technical stuff that requires the ship to leave port, cruise around a bit, and return. This time we were docked with our room facing shore. And on shore were a bunch of ambulances waiting to pick up more sick folk, not us—we seem fever-free.

Even during their quarantine, the couple reported that food was plentiful, although rice appeared at nearly every meal.
Photo Credit: Ron Hildeen

We keep getting fed well. Lots of meat, veggies, and tons of rice. During the cruise there was a whole buffet to choose from. During quarantine, not so much. During the cruise there is a great burger, hot dog, and pizza counter. After eight days I would really like a good burger or hot dog and/or a nice slice or two of pizza—no rice please.

One thing the food service folk don’t seem to grasp is the American NEED for coffee. Call room service, they say. The line is always busy. I started calling the front desk—oddly not too busy these days. End result was about one hour later someone showed up with a couple cups full. I think the repeated calls from the wild-eyed Americans finally got to them since this evening a cart with a bunch of coffee cups and two air pots showed up after dinner. Always works to look just a little crazy. 

Watched a bunch of movies, played some card games, and had a nice nap. A nice day here in our all-inclusive free tiny house floating in Tokyo Bay.


[Editor’s Note: Hildeen and Ellefson’s travel companion, Jeanie Hopland, tests positive for the virus. She is hospitalized in Japan and then returns to the U.S. on March 1. Her husband, Arnie, is placed in quarantine in Japan and returns to the U.S. a week after his wife arrived back home. Hopland says she felt like she had a cold—no shortness of breath or high fever.]

On that same day, after a 12-day quarantine, Hildeen and Ellefson were notified that all American passengers could choose to take a bus from the ship and a chartered airplane at the airport for transport to either Travis Air Force Base in California or a base in San Antonio, Texas. Their other option was to wait out the quarantine on the Diamond Princess and be transported later. They chose to leave the Diamond Princess to fly back to the U.S., where they had to undergo a second 14-day quarantine.


We are back in the USA. More when I wake up.


News from the Western Front. Day two of 14.

Having made a daring late-night escape from the mysterious East, we are now in an encampment in Travis AFB in California. Traveling to this wonderful place we used bus and air transport. Five-hour trip to the airport from the Diamond Princess, usually a 20-minute trip. A salute to Japanese precision, we couldn’t leave until all nine buses were filled and the military escort assembled. Then another 2 1/2-hour wait at the airport so passports could be matched with people. Hard on the nerves and bladder. The plane was a 747 converted to a cargo plane. The conversion turns an elegant air liner into a flying barn. A pallet containing possibly 300 seats, in case you wonder where plane seats go when jets are refurbished. Mounted with about 6 inches of leg room. Two pallets containing porta potties, four in all, of which two were duct-taped shut. The two working toilets brought to mind the worst of any outhouse ever experienced. Ten hours in this thing.

We landed and were “processed” at the Air Force base, assigned quarters and literally fell over, sound asleep. The processing was well-run and very efficient; the overall move, not so much. Note to those needing case studies: This would be a great study on how not to do this.

Travis AFB is a nice military post. We were assigned a suite with chairs, couch, kitchenette, etc. However, there were no dishes, no silverware, a one-cup coffee thingy. (With no coffee.)

The first thing we saw the next day was a guy setting up a chain link fence around the place. Not your parents’ motel.

Food is good, weather sunny and mild. “Guards” are very nice and helpful. We are able to go outside for walks and have a picnic table for Scrabble or cards. 

I think we made the right decision to make a break from the ship. They are finding more sick passengers and crew daily. Rumor has it that additional quarantine time may be forthcoming for those who stayed. 


Photo Credit: Ron Hildeen

Live from the front, day seven of 14—halfway there.

A couple of people turned up positive for the virus, immediately sent off to hospital somewhere. 

Another incentive to stay healthy: a conference call informed us that our insurance will be a factor in any hospital stay. Co-pays, deductibles, etc., will most likely be on our dime. Great!

Still testing bug-free. No fever.

In the morning at 7 a.m., over loudspeakers, there is Reveille. I had forgotten that from 50 years ago when I was stationed at Ft. Knox.

The weather here is great: 70s and sunny. Still the chain link fence and guards at the four corners. Asked one of the guards if there have been any breakout attempts. Not yet. Took a picture of the sign saying no photos allowed. Not a good pic—had visions of the guard getting twitchy about my efforts. But by being a child of the ’60s, when you confront something saying prohibited, you have to try it.

They opened a “free store” with coffee (yay), pop, munchies.

They had a conference call yesterday. People asked questions about our getting out of here. One asked if coffee mugs were available. Another wanted to know about commemorative T-shirts. Still another wondered if some diversity of food was possible.

Right now, I would kill for a good cheeseburger.

Upon completion of quarantine, we will get a paper saying we are bug-free and free to travel again. I found out that our passports have been flagged that we are one of those who have been quarantined. The official on the other side of the call said that would be removed when we get our official been-there-done-that form.


News from the western front.

Day eight. We were told that either Sunday (yesterday) or today folks would come to take us away, ha ha. That is, those who had tested positive to the nose and throat swabs. Instant paranoia. No one wants to go to the hospital, and no one wants to be Typhoid Mary, either.

Someone tripped a fire alarm on the other side of the fence. Heads popped out of their doors. Is it for me?

Today the results came. A guy in full hazmat regalia showed up at our door with two envelopes. He asked how we were. I replied—“you tell us.”

He did. Me—negative on all tests, Amy—negative on all tests. Woo hoo, like a great weight removed from our shoulders! 

If we remain free from fever, we are outta here during the first week of March.

Fingers remain crossed.

Watch this space for more as things develop.

I can almost smell that cheeseburger.


Report from the other side of the lines.

We survived the 15-day Asia cruise, which, unlike the doomed boat of Gilligan’s Island, ended after 45 days. While being away from Minnesota for half of January and all of February is usually a good thing, this version left a little to be desired.

We were bused to the airport, given our “get out of jail papers” and were free to go on our merry way.

Arrival at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport was interesting, with reporters and cameras from the local TV stations waiting for us. As they interviewed us, I watched onlookers wondering who we were and what all the commotion was. Between that and a couple of onboard FaceTime interviews, we have pretty much used up our 15 minutes of fame.

Back to home, facing normal routines and the like. Being an old school kinda guy I am slowly going through 45 days of newspapers (18 inches deep).

Closing comments. An interesting way of spending a month and a half. Would we go again? Yup. Will we take another cruise? Yup, again. Where to? Anyplace warm.

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