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Warsailor Stories - Page 10

Birger Lunde's letter to BBC, in connection with the BBC documentary "Forgotten Heroes", for which he was interviewed.
Added with permission from the estate of Captain Birger Lunde - all rights reserved.
(Received from his son, John Lunde).

Birger Lunde was the 1st mate of D/S Blink, when sunk on Febr. 11-1942. Follow the link for his harrowing account of the days spent in the lifeboat after the sinking.

May 5, 1993

Dear ......

I enjoyed speaking to you on the phone about my wartime sailing experiences. I am very glad to hear that the BBC intends to prepare a documentary on Convoys. I feel it is an important story that has never been told well. The efforts extended by myself and my fellow sailors to bring food to England and supply the Allied War efforts required incredible energies and sacrifices. The enemy we faced was determined, highly skilled and ruthless.

My personal experiences between 1939 and 1945 would forever deeply affect and change my life. I am still, 50 years later unfortunately haunted by nightmares that make me wake the whole house. I would survive three sinkings by U-boats and see many good friends perish. I also signed off of two good ships that were soon after sunk with great loss of life. In ports and in Convoys, I experienced many air attacks. Once, when traveling outside of a Convoy, our ship was chased for a full day by a surfaced U-Boat. We were able to evade it during the night. I also participated in several rescue operations and on one occasion had to perform surgery on a wounded English crew member (see my page about Taranger). This was done at night in life boat using a large sheath knife. The crewmember survived and later praised my skill in an interview on the BBC.

Norway, as you know is a small but important country. I come from a small town called Fana which is located just outside Bergen. Fortunately for me I received preparation and training as a young person that was to serve me well for some really hard sailing. I spent a lot of time in small boats, which later came in handy when I was to spend a fair amount of time in lifeboats. I also had good training in the boy scouts and was lucky enough as a teenager to win a scholarship for six months cadet seamanship training on the Tall Ship Statsraad Lemkhul. This training in basic sailing and seamanship on an old square rigger in the North Sea seemed hard and harsh at the time. The training was designed to prepare future sailors for anything they might encounter. Little did I know then what that might be.

I worked my way up through the ranks as did all our officers, then did a two year course at the mates and wireless operators school in Bergen. When the war broke out I was a 2nd Mate/Radio Operator on the M/S Hosanger. I was forced to leave the ship, when it appeared that I was going to be drafted in the Norwegian Navy. The ship was torpedoed shortly after I signed off and most of my friends and colleagues were lost. This had been my first real assignment as an officer and the captain and crew had done their best to train a young new officer. Their loss was very hard for me to bear and unfortunately it was just the beginning of such experiences.

In those days it was a requirement that all ships carry a wireless operator. I had also been able to study and pass the radio operator's exam. As the world was coming out of the depression, berths for mates were somewhat hard to get. However, because I had a radio operator's license I was always able to get an assignment and serve as a combination officer/ radio operator.

When Norway was invaded I was at Sea on the M/S Taranger again as a second Mate/Radio Operator. Suddenly, Norwegian Sailors had no way to get home. Norway at that time had the 4th largest Merchant fleet in the world. Because Norway has minimal amounts of farm land generations of families turned to the sea. At the time of the invasion, there were over 1000 ships, manned by well trained professional seamen. Despite their training, about 20 percent of these sailors would perish and never see home again. I don't believe any branch of the other services suffered anywhere near that casualty rate. Interestingly, it was not until the early 1970's when Norwegian war sailor veteran groups formed that any recognition or benefits would be extended to the survivors. Today I am the President of one of the largest veteran chapters.

As we discussed in our telephone conversation the Norwegian Merchant Marine contribution to the Allied victory was far more than significant. During the war the Norwegian Merchant Marine was organized under a company called Nortraship and the 1000 or so Norwegian ships were chartered by the English. This was arranged after our King went into exile. Winston Churchill would later write, "that getting the Norwegian ships during the darkest days of the war was equivalent to getting in England a trained and equipped army of one million men."

Despite incredible financial offers from the Germans, not one Norwegian ship returned home. The Norwegian ships kept England afloat. We carried over 40 percent of the oil, tremendous amounts of food and munitions and other vital supplies. This we did throughout the war, but our contribution and place in history came during the dark of the war when England stood alone. I myself would be sunk twice by 1942. Without the Norwegian ships, England would most certainly have sued for peace. Just imagine if the RAF was missing 4 our of 10 gallons of gas during the battle of Britain! Again we paid a dear price but for a small country and ally we made the difference. I once heard that because of the contributions of the Norwegian seamen and ships, Russia was told to keep out of Norway. I can imagine that our ship owners would have insisted on that one. But, it was the sailors who wanted to see our homeland free that would make the sacrifice and who really insisted that we fight with England.

The M/S Taranger was overhauled in Liverpool during the early spring of 1941. During this time Liverpool was subject to 14 consecutive nights of heavy bombing. The bombing was focused on the dock areas. We often went ashore during the evenings and I can remember coming back through the subway system at night. We had to step carefully to avoid stepping on families that were sleeping on the subway platform. During these days we began to form a great respect and liking for the English people. We were all very homesick by this time.

The M/S Taranger led a charmed life until May 2 1941. She not only escaped damage during the severe Liverpool blitz but had also seen us through the fall of France when we were subject to couple of dive bombing and strafing attacks in Leharve and several rough Atlantic crossings.We were traveling to America to get a 5 inch gun installed when a U-Boat surfaced at night and shelled us until the ship literally fell apart. My job was to get the distress call out. Despite continued shelling and strafing we were able to get the boats launched. I was in charge of the port side life boat, which was the side that the submarine was firing from. The starboard life boat had been able to launch quickly and get away. We were so busy ducking and picking up wounded that our boat cleared last. The captain was still on the bridge with the chief engineer when we lowered the lifeboat. We hung close to the ship waiting for the captain and chief engineer to come down.

During this time the submarine drew closer and the firing became more intense. The wait ended when the chief engineer, a very close friend of mine, dove into the sea near our boat. We picked him up, he was badly wounded. He said that just as he and the captain were clearing the bridge a shell struck. The captain was killed instantly. The chief engineer was so badly wounded that he could not hold onto the ladder leading down from the bridge, so he dove off the bridge.

The chief engineer would spend a year in an Icelandic hospital only to perish on another ship bound for America. He died, after being repeatedly frozen in a life boat. Interestingly, I would learn this from a doctor who treated me for wounds I received later in the war when the Oregon Express was sunk. The doctor had been in the lifeboat with my friend (this was Chief Engineer Knut Mæland, who died when Nyholt was sunk).

We pushed away from the ship and the submarine came closer. It was suddenly obvious that the submarine was going to ram us. We quickly put every able man to rowing. With strong pulling and the incentive of survival we pulled clear from the bow of the submarine. It passed so close we could here the crew talking. The submarine then positioned itself and fired two torpedoes into the Taranger. The ship sank quickly. Many of the crew and passengers were wounded. One of the crew an Englishman had a large piece of shrapnel about the size of a man's fist lodged in his foot. Officers were expected to be medically knowledgeable and that night, in the crowded, rolling lifeboat, with three men holding him down, I operated on the seamen's foot. Using a large Norwegian sheath knife which we sterilized over a flame I successfully cut the shrapnel out. The British seamen was incredibly stoic and thanked me when the job was done! Later I am proud to say the crewman was interviewed on the BBC and told his experiences. He said that the Norwegian mate had done "a proper professional job of it."

When we were sunk the ship was about 250 miles off of Iceland. After sailing for two days, we were picked up by a British Corvette. Because we had so many wounded people it was decided that we should be transferred to the British Destroyer Wolverine. That ship had become a famous  U-Boat hunter. It was on patrol and after several days took us to Reykjavik. During the patrol we went after several U-boats with depth charges, this in itself was an incredible experience. While on the ship we would gather every evening in the officers club for a drink and to hear the BBC world service. Throughout the war in fact, the BBC would prove to be good friend and somehow always transmit the news and a positive feeling to the ships.

For a while I took a job on an English Coastal vessel called the Lysaker 4. I did this to be close to a girl I had become fond of named Elizabeth who lived in Glasgow. England, in 1940 was thought to be in imminent danger of invasion. Although protected by the Royal Navy and Airforce, the coastal shipping was under almost constant attack. Between air attacks, surface attack by torpedo boats and submarines the seamen's life on an English Coastal vessel was far too stressful for me. Almost every coastal trip saw several ships picked off. I took a position as chief mate on the ocean traveling S/S Blink.

As Chief Mate on the S/S Blink I found myself during the winter of February 1942 off Cape Hatteras in a bad storm. Things got worse and in the middle of the night the ship was torpedoed. We were able to launch one life boat and spent the remainder of the night hove to. In the morning, we searched for some of the crew who had been seen during the night on a life raft. We never found them again. While trying to make sail in the bad weather we were unable to handle the boat and it turned over on us. We lost all our provisions. For the next 3 days we struggled to keep the boat upright. It turned over three times and each time we were able to swim around it and set it right. Under the conditions this was an incredible accomplishment and really is a tribute to the skills of men I sailed with. In the end we decided to leave the boat flooded and sat in the cold and windy water. A very cold and strong northwind kept the boat almost constantly awash.

Despite our best efforts to help one another, slowly one by one the men lost hope and died. Heavy seas ran almost constantly through the flooded lifeboat. Each wave seemed to take away more of our strength. At one point on the second day a man died every hour. All of us had trouble focusing our minds and we all experienced periods of black out and total despair. It was so sad to see them go, one by one. Something I was never able to get over or put behind me. All my life they would follow me especially when I slept. Our Captain spoke at length to me of his family just before he died. When he died, I became the last officer and the remaining men turned to me. Such feelings are difficult to describe and will always be with me.

When they died we did what we could and then cast them into the sea. At some point in our ordeal the sharks discovered us. They followed the bodies and now hungry for more began to try to pull us out of the flooded lifeboat. Tired and beyond exhaustion we now found ourselves hitting at the sharks with our last boat hook. Yelling, screaming through swollen lips and tongues and pounding at the sides of the lifeboat, doing anything to make them go away. In an ordeal like this, hope is the great life force and when a man lost it he quickly perished. Hope was the only thing that sustained any of us and only someone who comes through an ordeal like this knows its real value. At some point I realized this and knew I must focus my mind on surviving or be lost.

Late on the end of the third day the SS Monroe spotted myself and one other crewman waving. The lookout reported to his captain that "I see two man standing in the water, waving".

There were five British Seamen in the lifeboat, four perished during our ordeal. Of the 23 sailors that got into the lifeboat only six in total survived the punishment. I was the only officer to survive and my report to the U.S. Navy was later included in the book Track of the Gray Wolf. I have enclosed a copy of 2 pages out of that book.

Because of the hopelessness and hardship the Blink sinking became known as one of Norway's worst wartime disasters. At first the Norwegian press in America wrote articles wondering what we had done wrong. Later I would meet some of the journalists and when they found out the true story they did their best to tell of our suffering.

For my part I was presented during the war by King Haakon, in London with Norway's highest decoration the St. Olav Medal with oak leaves. I also received a kind letter of condolence from the British Minister Lord Beaverbrook.

I spent some time in hospital and later a Norwegian family in Brooklyn took me in. This was arranged through the Norwegian Seaman's Church. In those days the Seaman's Church was our main source of support in foreign lands. The church's had parishes/sanctuaries in every major port of the world. They provided us with a place to go when we were in trouble and could help us through family and personal problems. They even took care of our banking. Although they did their best the war simply overwhelmed the resources of the Seaman's Church and they wisely turned to the Norwegian American community. Brooklyn was then the largest Norwegian city in the world. The family that took me in had a little girl. I spent many days just sitting in their back yard watching their little girl play. The sunshine and her simple natural questions sustained and restored me.

After physically recovering from the ordeal of the Blink, I signed on the S/S Oregon Express as 2nd Mate and wireless operator. I had lost most of my clothes, and money on the Blink and living in N.Y. was very expensive so I had to get back to the sea as quickly as possible.

This ship was a refrigerated vessel and designed to carry perishable cargoes. She was fast and could do 15 knots. For over a year we made fast trips from N.Y. to England carrying meat. Because of our speed we did not travel in convoys. The ship also carried passengers and on one enjoyable voyage carried 12 Canadian Nurses to England. One of my fondest memories is a life boat drill we conducted with the nurses. For the sake of "realistic training" one sunny warm day while in harbor we actually launched the life boats with the nurses on board. We hadn't actually cleared this with the captain, however once the nurses began to sing "row, row, your boat" it seemed the natural thing to do. What followed was even more interesting when the captain began to blow the whistle for us to return, something I told the crew to ignore and we went on to have a really nice sail. Back on board I was chewed out, but things calmed down when the head nurse thanked the captain for the wonderful outing. He was mainly mad that he had not been included.

It was on the Oregon Express that I experienced a "sea chase". For one whole day a surfaced submarine followed close on our heels. The sea was rough and we could see the submarine several miles behind us, cresting and crashing through waves. The Oregon Express maintained her speed and when darkness came we changed course. As radio operator I wired a message that we were being chased by a submarine.  That night while on watch I heard a large plane passing overhead. It was searching for the submarine. We never heard if it found it. All we knew was that in the morning the submarine was no longer chasing us.

On one voyage to New York our look out spotted a lifeboat. We stopped and were able to rescue 48 crew and passengers from the British ship Waiwera. They told us that they had been torpedoed the day before and that there was another life boat but during the night they had loss sight of each other. We searched for 2 hours and finally our excellent look out spotted the other lifeboat. We picked up another 48 passengers and headed on to New York. We were able to make them fairly comfortable and they were incredibly grateful to us. Among the passengers were several Australian Air Force pilots who gave us their sheep skin coats. This is one incident that Norwegian historians or journalist did not document.

Interestingly, years later I forgot the name of the ship. I wrote the British Ministry of Defense. I got a wonderful letter back from the Naval Staff Duties Historical Section. Because all I could remember was that the ship carried butter they searched the files for a cross reference. They were able to find a small note from the Admiralty that the Oregon Express had picked up survivors from the Waiwera. Actually the note was a letter complaining that we should have informed the Admiralty immediately of the rescue. All I can say is that the last thing we would have done with all those people on board and a submarine in the area was to break radio silence.

On another occasion we were invited to a party ashore in Liverpool. The first mate suggested we raid the Oregon Express's refrigerated hold and bring a side of beef to the party. The mate who was a good friend of mine and very strong threw the whole side of beef on his shoulder and started up the pier. As we approached the roadway a couple of policeman quickly grabbed us and pulled us back inside the pier. They told us that so starved was the city that simply seeing the meat could spark a riot. It put things in perspective, someone was trying to starve England and I realized then what each voyage meant.

The Oregon Express met her fate ironically in a convoy trip. In 1943 the U-Boats had a new weapon to try out. This new weapon was an "acoustic torpedo". It was designed to be guided to a ship by the sound of the ships propellers. While in Convoy we were always given instructions to never stop, no matter what happened. On one voyage as we entered the area of the atlantic outside the range of shore aircraft the convoy was attacked. On the first night one of the escort vessels was torpedoed, a second escort went to its aid and was also sunk. The remaining escorts somehow drove the submarines off, putting an end to an ugly night. (See my page about Convoy ON 202 / ONS 18 as well as Oregon Express).

On the second night a U-Boat got close enough to fire four of these acoustic torpedoes. We were stationed on the outside of the Convoy. Suddenly the third ship in front of us exploded, this was followed by the second and then the ship directly in front of us. I was on the bridge with the Captain and we had to steer to avoid the wreckage of the ship in front of us. As we turned the Oregon Express got it. The bridge which was heavily weighted with protective sand bags collapsed. I came to and helped the captain off the bridge. Things were happening so fast that we actually stepped off the bridge directly into the sea.

I found myself hurt and in the sea surrounded by wreckage.  All around us vessels were shooting star shells, and there was a general chaos. All of us had life belts equipped with red lights. In the water around me almost a hundred small lights were bobbing. The chances of rescue were not good as the Convoy had lost two escort vessels. Suddenly, a Danish ship stopped dead in the water and turned on search lights! The Captain put down nets and proceeded to rescue all of us who were in the water. He picked up more survivors then there were places in the ship's life boats. As a precaution wounded like myself were placed on the ships hatch covers so that if the ship sank we would float off. Later, I would learn that the Danish ship was an ammunition ship. When I tell people about the Danish ship stopping against orders to save us they are always amazed. But they don't understand the strong feelings of community and friendship among sailors. The night before the attack two of our escort ships were torpedoed and sunk. There were no rescue ships available.

I was transferred to a British Frigate that had a doctor. Then I returned with almost 1000 other survivors to Nova Scotia. All 1000 boarded a special train for New York. This was quite a trip as the train had only a small dining area. Once you got fed you lined up for your next meal. I was a walking mess of bandages and strapping material. In New York I would learn that in addition to several broken ribs, my collarbone was broken, my knee severely dislocated and my back severely injured.

Despite the wounds the need for experienced officers was so great at this point that I was put on the SS Polarland as first mate. This was done to give the mate leave to get married. I sailed on the Polarland for three months and then signed off to have my scheduled back surgery. The Polarland was sunk on the very next voyage and only three men survived after a long ordeal in a lifeboat. The mate that I replaced was killed. I met his young widow and gave her my sympathy. I remember the great hurt in her eyes and I could see she was thinking that it might have been me that was lost and not her husband.

My ribs, knees and collarbone healed during the three months on the Polarland, my back was another matter. It would require extensive surgery. Today, when I go through an airport security system, I always get beeped. The reason is that they placed special stainless steel pins in my back, which are obviously still there.

After recovering successfully from the surgery the Union insisted that I stay ashore and allow my wounds to heal. The job I was given was working in the NORTRASHIP office. This was perhaps the most frustrating and depressing job I ever had. When a ship was sunk, I had to arrange for the notifications of next of kin and close out its expense books. I also finalized each lost seaman's file and made payment to his family. There would also be a memorial service to arrange and sometimes when a seaman perished on land or in hospital a funeral.

It was in this job that I realized the true scope and carnage of our losses. The human toll was beyond staggering and our fleet which was the pride of our nation, was being destroyed. More than a few seaman after a horrible voyage would suffer complete breakdowns. The odds at times were so stacked against them that they simply could not stand it anymore. Some really racked with pain would end it rather than return to the sea. All of this passed across my desk and I knew I had to get to the sea for my own sake. Finally after some heated arguments I was allowed to go back to sea. For the rest of the war I sailed in successfully protected convoys. I would experience war again as an American ship Captain during the Korean conflict. However, in that conflict although we often brought ships in very close to the fighting there was no submarine menace.

My wounds by the way were not in vain, for it was during my recovery I fell in love with my future wife Mildred. She was the secretary to the President of NORTRASHIP. We met first when I came in to request a copy of the report on the sinking of the S/S Blink (this report has been included on my page about Blink). She denied my request because she said those reports were confidential. I told her that I had written it and she said I still couldn't have a copy. I came back later to apologize and ask her out. We were seeing each other when I was sunk on the Oregon Express. Her family kindly took me in when I was recuperating from the back surgery and working at NORTRASHIP. We got married in 1946 and had a good life until her passing two years ago.

I apologize for such a long letter but, I wanted to share some of these experiences with you. It was simply an incredible time in history and I was fortunate enough to have survived it. My story and the stories of the other sailors deserves to be told. The Merchant Marine contribution, especially the Norwegian contribution to the war effort has largely been forgotten by history. We were unlikely heroes and somehow our own nation was never able to accept us as the heroes we were. The time after the war was especially hard for the returning sailors. No one at home seemed to understand what we went through. Benefits were available for the Norwegian Navy gunners, but not the sailors. Interesting, most of the real fighting including the shooting had been done by the sailors.

I have left out a lot things from this letter. I could tell you many stories of the kind people we met ashore in England and America and also of the misadventures that can befall sailors on land. Also the many individual actions that we were involved in during the convoys and unloading of the ships. The ports we worked in were almost always under air attack. In Liverpool, for example, I stayed aboard the Taranger as she was overhauled. During this period Liverpool was pounded for 14 nights straight. The ship fortunately was never hit, but it was in dry dock and would vibrate in an unnerving manner with each bomb burst.

What I really left out were the feelings. The constant stress, fear and tension were an ongoing problem for us all. You get very close to one another on a ship. It becomes an extended, close family. You develop a fondness for the ship. To see so many close friends die in such a short period while we were all away from home is more than I can describe. I can still see the faces and the ships in my sleep. Some things you can never really get over.

Several times in Convoys, I got to see a U-boat sunk. On one occasion a submarine was forced to the surface within the convoy. Everyone opened up and we could see the men leaping off. Although at that point the men on the U-boat were the hated enemy, they were still men. The submarine was boarded by men from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter East Wind. During the boarding a young officer from the East Wind was shot by the Captain of the U-boat.

The period after the war was also very difficult for the surviving seamen. No one really knew anything about what I believe is now called "post trauma stress". I was asked, along with all other officers to continue sailing to help liberated Norway build up some international currency credits. I did not actually get home until late 1946.

Many of the returning seamen were understandably physically and mentally exhausted. They did not have access to the military veteran hospital system and were really expected to deal with their problems on their own. Families had been apart for years and the returning seamen was often viewed not as a hero but as a problem. There were real problems and more than a few ended up in jail. Divorces and the related family break up were very common.

As I indicated earlier it was not until the early 1970's that the veterans organized and began to campaign for recognition of our service and access to benefits. We were moderately successful and today I spend a good deal of my retirement time as a volunteer helping veterans and their families apply for benefits from Norway. I have files at home of over 700 cases. My advice is still often sought, on family matters, as I am one of the last surviving officers.

One thing that may be worth noting is that the British seamen who served on Norwegian Ships during the war or their surviving families may be entitled to benefits from Norway. I still have the names of the British Seamen who perished in the Blink's Life Boat and have wondered if it would be worth contacting their families. Perhaps you can give me a suggestion on how I might do that. As I was the only officer to survive I did manage to visit almost all the families during the war but I have since of course lost contact.

I look forward to meeting your colleague in N.Y. on May 10th and discussing these things further. Your colleague may be interested in knowing that the Norwegian Seamen's War Veterans will be holding a small memorial service on May 8 with the Norwegian Consulate and other veterans organizations in Battery Park Manhattan. We have a memorial stone there that comes from the sea battered coast (like us) of Northern Norway. It has a plaque telling about the Norwegian Sailors, our losses and our thanks to the people of New York for sheltering us during the War. (Webmistress' note: I took a picture of this stone when visiting New York a few years ago, and it has been included on my Memorials page).


Captain Birger Lunde


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