Captain Birger Lunde’s War Memoir Part Three: Once more into the water

In the June 3 and July 1 issues of this newspaper, we ran parts one and two of Captain Birger Lunde’s 1993 letter detailing his WWII experiences, and this week we bring you the third and final installment. All together, Captain Lunde survived three sinkings and dedicated much of his later life to fighting for the rights of war sailors like himself.

Photo Robin Elliot / courtesy of John Lunde Still a sailor, despite it all: in his later life, Birger Lunde enjoyed many happy hours on his sailboat, Narwhal. His enthusiasm for life was perhaps most evident when he was with family, as here with his granddaughter Emily.

Photo Robin Elliot / courtesy of John Lunde
Still a sailor, despite it all: in his later life, Birger Lunde enjoyed many happy hours on his sailboat, Narwhal. His enthusiasm for life was perhaps most evident when he was with family, as here with his granddaughter Emily.

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 ship’s 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.

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, 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 than there were places in the ship’s lifeboats. As a precaution, wounded like myself were placed on the ship’s 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.

I was transferred to a British Frigate that had a doctor. Then I returned with almost 1,000 other survivors to Nova Scotia. All 1,000 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 my wounds, the need for experienced officers was so great at this point that I was put on the SS Polarland as first mate, 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 replaced me 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, but 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 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, the pride of our nation, was being destroyed. More than a few seaman after a horrible voyage would suffer 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 that 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. She denied my request because the 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 back surgery and working at Nortraship. We got married in 1946 and had a good life until her passing two years ago.

The war was an incredible time in history, and I was fortunate enough to have survived it. My story and the stories of the other sailors deserve 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’d gone through. Benefits were available for the Norwegian Navy gunners, but not the sailors. Interestingly, most of the real fighting, including the shooting, had been done by the sailors.

I have left out a lot of things from this account. 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. 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.

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 traumatic stress.” Many of the returning seamen were understandably physically and mentally exhausted. They did not have access to the military veteran hospital system and were expected to deal with their problems on their own. Families had been apart for years, and the returning seaman 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.

It was not until the early 1970s 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.

This article originally appeared in the July 15, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.