Captain Birger Lunde’s War Memoir Part Two: Blink and the power of hope
In the June 3 issue of this newspaper we ran part one of Captain Birger Lunde’s war memoir, “The sinking of the Taranger.” He wrote passionately but plainly about the harrowing experience of being torpedoed during World War II. The following is the second installment in a three-part series. Captain Lunde’s final log of the Norwegian ship Blink would become one the most referenced and cited Norwegian documents of WWII. It was featured as recently as this February by NRK (www.nrk.no/hordaland/xl/styrmann-lundes-logg-1.12783048).
For a while after my first sinking, 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 attacks by torpedo boats, and submarines, the seaman’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 lifeboat 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 three 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 north wind 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 blackout 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.” Of the 23 sailors who 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.
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 churches had parishes and 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 second mate and wireless operator. I had lost most of my clothes and money on the Blink and living in New York 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 New York 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 lifeboat drill we conducted with the nurses. For the sake of “realistic training” one sunny warm day while in harbor, we actually launched the lifeboats with the nurses on board. We hadn’t actually cleared this with the captain; however once the nurses began to sing “row, 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. I told the crew to ignore it 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 lookout 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 lifeboat, but during the night they had lost sight of each other. We searched for two hours and finally our excellent lookout 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 journalists did not document.
Interestingly, years later I forgot the name of the ship. I wrote the British Ministry of Defence and 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.
This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.