A luncheon for the Krigsseilere
On Sunday, May 31, a stellar luncheon was held in honor of two exceptional men, Krigsseilere (Norwegian War Sailors) Karl Aksel Andresen and another man who prefers to remain anonymous. It was hosted by the Consul General of Norway, Elin Bergithe Rognlie, in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, and held in her beautiful home.
I was one of the lucky 12 who attended. Even though most of the conversation was in Norwegian, which I barely understand, one could not misunderstand what was being said due to the reaction of the guests—engaged, silent, surprised, and sympathetic—as the men’s stories unfolded to recount what can only be described as an extraordinary time.
Karl Aksel (or Aksel as he is known in Brooklyn) recollected, “I was in Yokohama, Japan, when they took Norway, and I was about 18. When they bombed Pearl Harbor, I was in Bombay, India. One time during the war, I had to transport four people to New York. They went back and forth without the convoy.” His better half Sylvia Kristiansen clarified, “All by themselves.”
You see, the convoys sailed alongside the merchant vessels, providing armed protection. But often the Norwegian seamen sailed unprotected, carrying food to starving civilians, flammable oil to provide fuel, and all other products necessary to run the world, some benign and some dangerous. These ships were also as a target of German u-boats, especially in the Atlantic. All trips could spell disaster. And if you had the unfortunate fate of being torpedoed, which happened often, your destiny was precarious at best. Aksel explained, “If anybody got torpedoed, you had to keep going. Few were allowed to pick up those stranded from torpedoed boats.” More than half the Norwegian fleet was lost during WWII (at the time it was one of the largest fleets in the world), and 4,000 men were lost. During WWII, the Krigsseileres suffered the most casualties per capita of any of the armed forces. Aksel emphasized, “getting torpedoed is an experience you never forget.”
Of course, there were also some lighter moments. Aksel spoke about an incident that happened about 10 years ago when the sailors were having a ceremony at their monument at Battery Park in Manhattan, or as they call it, the Stone. King Harald of Norway was in attendance. After the formal ceremony, the war sailors gathered around the king in an informal semicircle, fondly remembering his father and letting him know how much respect they had for what he had done during the war. And of course, many chuckles could be heard. When things were winding down, Aksel invited the king to come back to the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn with them, so he could join them for a little lapskaus—and snaps.
Aksel encountered King Harald once again, in 2011: “In 2011, the king invited all the WWII Norwegian War Sailors to an all-expense paid trip to Norway, which included a reception with the king. Two other sailors living in New York and I went. One of them was seat number 10 and I was seat number 7. 240 war sailors came. The king shook hands with every one of us. I asked him if he remembered me from Battery Park. And he said yes.”
I asked Aksel what he thought about the luncheon. He said, “The luncheon was very nice, with such a nice Consul General and priest (Margareth Glad from the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in New York). I was so surprised the Consul General invited us over.” And Sylvia added, “It was so cozy and informal, with excellent food.” The delectable menu was catered by Smorgas Chef: a spring salad with fresh peas, salmon with a light buttery sauce, and a lovely cream cake with marzipan icing for dessert.
Vibele O’Toole was one of the guests. “I have been working at the Consulate General for almost 18 years—since July 1998—and actively with the war pensioners since 2001, so that will be 14 years. It has been (and still is) an honor to be able to help all of those remarkable men—both the seamen and the other war pensioners.”
I asked her what the experience was like at the luncheon. “As for myself, I had a very nice time with all of you and it was wonderful to see Karl Aksel and the other seaman again since we don’t get to see each other much even though we talk on the phone quite a bit. They are two remarkable men and it is always nice to talk to them and to listen to their stories.”
Aksel ended with, “It couldn’t have been nicer. I hope we can meet together next year at the Stone.”
This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.