70 years later: Remembering the Norwegian War Sailors
This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, and Friday, May 8, marked the 70th Anniversary of Norway’s liberation from the Nazis. To honor it, the Norwegian War Sailors Club in Brooklyn (the krigsseilerne) held their annual tradition of commemorating the day with a ceremony at their monument at Battery Park known by the Norwegian sailors as “the stone.”
In contrast to this simple “stone” is the powerful and dynamic American Merchant Marine Monument, placed in the water nearby. It depicts a man gone overboard and a frantic attempt to save him. The Norwegian monument seems underwhelming in comparison. A professor I had at City College called the Norwegian monument “The Forgotten Monument,” but after much research, I would say it is a perfect fit to represent the Norwegians of that generation.
The stone is subtle and natural, and was designed and donated by officers of the Norwegian Merchant Marine and Navy. It is composed of a boulder balanced on a rock slab that reads, “These boulders were brought here from the coast of Norway—where forces of nature have worn and shaped them for thousands of years.” Now encircled by trees and fauna, it serves as a respite of greenery in a very hectic and harried part of New York City, laying just feet away from the snaking lines of tourists heading to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The text on the stone, unlike most monuments, does not refer to brave deeds or fallen colleagues, but rather thanks the United States: “Dedicated in the year 1982, to the people of the United States of America, by War Veterans of the Norwegian Merchant Marines and the Royal Norwegian Navy. In Memory of the help and hospitality shown during our mutual struggle for freedom and peace in World War II.”
It was not until years later that Jenny Nilssen had another tablet laid thanking the men for their valor. It reads, “In World War II, 1,100 Norwegian ships served the allied cause by hauling supplies between U.S. ports and the war theaters abroad. A sizable part of the Allied Forces were supplied by ships flying the Norwegian flag. More than 30,000 sailors and naval gunners manned the ships. Many of them looked to New York, the principal port of call, as their home port during the war. The losses were heavy—570 ships and 4,000 sailors.”
Now, the Norwegian and American monuments face each other. This makes perfect sense, because the Norwegian sailors served on American ships as well. So both monuments are a tribute to their service.
The Norwegian War Sailors suffered the most casualties per capita of any of the armed forces that served during WWII. They lost more than half their fleet and 4,000 men, as they were tasked with the dangerous job of carrying supplies (including flammables), often across the U-boat-infested Atlantic where torpedoing was notorious. According to NBC News, in the battle in the Atlantic, “Hundreds of ships were sunk. Millions of tons of cargo shipments were intercepted. More than 5,000 lives were lost.”
The Norwegian War Sailors Club (NWSC) of Brooklyn disbanded about a decade ago. Today, there are fewer than a handful of the Norwegian War Sailors left in the area. However, Aksel Andresen, a Norwegian War Sailor Veteran, and the Scandinavian East Coast Museum (SECM), which has been documenting the stories of the members of the NWSC in Brooklyn, wished to bring back the May 8 commemoration tradition this year. When Andresen, his girlfriend Sylvia Kristiansen, and I arrived at the stone, we were delightfully surprised to be greeted by other members of the Norwegian-American community: Lois Hedlund, Berit Petersen, and Kai Petersen.
We were fortunate to have the Norwegian Consul General in New York, Elin Bergithe Rognlie, open the ceremony. She spoke (in Norwegian) about the importance of remembrance, that we should not forget the brave acts of these men. By fortunate coincidence, she tells us, at the very hour we were having a ceremony in New York, King Harald V was officiating at a ceremony at Akershus Castle in Oslo honoring veterans of liberation, in which of course the Norwegian War Veterans were included.
Andresen placed flowers on the stone and asked for a moment of silence. Pastor Margareth Glad, of the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, led us in singing, “Ja vi elsker dette landet,” the Norwegian National Anthem. She said that this should be a tradition and the Consul General agreed. The pastor ended with prayer.
I spoke on behalf of the SECM. “On Sept. 16, 1942, in the Washington Navy Yard, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at a handover ceremony of the Royal Norwegian Navy ship, King Haakon VII. Hear his powerful words: If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let them look to Norway. And, if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win; again I say, let them look to Norway. Today, these words still ring true as we stand at the stone that memorializes the contributions of the Norwegian war sailors. We thank and remember those who were lost during the war, those we have lost since the war and those who stand with us today. Thank you—Tusen takk!”
I asked Lois Hedlund what she thought about the day: “Having Aksel Andresen, one of the few remaining Norwegian War Veterans, attend the ceremony made this an extra special event. Most Norwegian Americans are not even aware of the monument, nor the sacrifices made by the ‘krigsseilere.’ I am glad I was able to attend this year.”
Berit Petersen added: “I think it was a wonderful day in NYC by the stone having Aksel there and remembering all the krigsseilers who fought and died for Norway. I hope visiting Battery Park on May 8 will be a tradition and the younger generation also will never forget.”
With Memorial Day quickly approaching, please include the Norwegian War Sailors in your thoughts. Let us not forget the deeds of these brave men, young men, and sometimes boys who hate the moniker heroes, but instead explain, “I was just doing my duty.” Theirs is a lesson in self-sacrifice that should be replicated and remembered.
• The Scandinavian East Coast Museum plans to continue organizing a commemoration ceremony yearly on May 8, so the story of these brave men will be remembered.
• If you would like to visit the stone, the following website gives more info and a map, which is helpful as the park has been under construction: www.nycgovparks.org/parks/battery-park/monuments/1123.
• A friend, Carl Hedlund, suggested that watching the PBS Nova Special about U-Boats, which aired on May 6, Nazi Attack on America, would help explain what the sailors experienced and how important they were to the war effort: www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/Nazi-Attack-America.html.
This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.