Honored for service
Christening of D/S Hestmanden brought together 240 krigsseilere from World War II
Special to the Norwegian American Weekly
On Nov. 22, 2011, Olav D. Vedvik, 90, and Alfred Ulversoy, 88, long-time residents of Rockaway Township, N.J., met His Majesty King Harald!
Olav, Alfred, and approximately 240 other krigsseilere, or war sailors, were invited to Kristiansand, Norway, to be part of the christening of the D/S Hestmanden. This ship survived World War I and World War II and has been refurbished as a floating museum. The King was part of the celebration and personally honored each war sailor with a shake of the hand and a smile. The event included a special luncheon with the King, as well as musical entertainment and various speeches.
Traveling with Olav were his three daughters Ellen, Lori and Kim. Attending with Alfred were his wife Harriet and two of their sons, Dennis and Allan.
Olav and Alfred sailed together as Merchant Marines and became great friends. Olav, who immigrated to America first, helped to find Alfred’s first apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. They bought property in Rockaway Township, N.J., in the early 1950s when there was very little development. They were familiar with the area as a result of the Norwegian BUL Cabin in Lake Telemark, a great getaway for many Scandinavians. As best friends, they built houses next door to each other and have been neighbors until just this past year when the Ulversoys moved to Denville, N.J.
On the eve prior to the event in Kristiansand, pictures and interviews took place with the sailors in the hope of documenting their unique stories for future educational purposes and securing their rightful place in history. Many Norwegian men, some as young as 16, left their small villages and families and joined the Merchant Marines. It was a chance to see the world. They had to grow up fast as World War II broke out and they became war sailors. It is estimated that 1,100 sailors are still living. The organizers expected 40 or 50 to accept the invitation, however, 240 proudly attended. Approximately 10 of them came from America for the event.
HM The King arrived the next morning at the Kilden Performing Arts Center for the christening of the Hestmanden. Afterwards, he proceeded to shake hands with each of the 240 sailors. It was well organized with 245 numbered chairs lined up in the area outside the theater. Sailors stood 10 at a time waiting their turn. Lunch, speeches, music and tours of the Hestmanden followed.
During his interview, Olav described that fateful night in the North Atlantic, when his ship, the steamship “Keret” was torpedoed in the middle of the night by a German submarine. Within minutes the ship sunk and 13 lives were lost. Olav was lucky as he had just come on deck, the crewmen below had no chance to survive. There was no time to drop the lifeboat and they jumped into the ocean. They managed to right a lifeboat and secure a raft. As the raft pitched in the waves, the U-boat appeared, came close to the survivors, and called out: “Which vessel did we sink?” “Keret of Bergen,” answered the crew. “Thank you and goodbye,” called the German officer, and the submarine disappeared in the dark. The survivors were left in the dark rough sea.
Miraculously, the next day they were rescued by a British ship and taken to Nova Scotia. They had one chance to catch the rope thrown to them, as the British ship could not take the risk of stopping. Olav spoke of the friends he lost, and that afterward he just got back out on another ship and carried on. When the interviewer asked, “Did anything good come out of the war?” he responded with, “Yes, I met a girl in Brooklyn!” That girl was his beloved wife of 64 years, Elvy, who passed away in March 2010.
Alfred Ulversoy reminisced about the war years he spent as a Norwegian sailor. One of the days that stand out more than any other was Sept. 8, 1943. Alfred, who had just turned 20 the month before, had been sailing since the Germans invaded and occupied Norway in 1939. Alfred’s ship, the Toronto, had just finished off loading more war supplies to help the Allied effort during the invasion of Italy. They were docked in the port of Syracuse, Sicily and lunch was ten minutes away as they readied the ship for the next port of call.
Out of nowhere three German bombers came over the mountains and unloaded their bombs on a Liberty Ship that was anchored less than 1,000 feet away from Alfred’s ship. One bomb landed less than 200 feet away from the Toronto with no damage done. Even though the Toronto was empty of cargo, it did have on board over 200 Italian POWs and a general as well. Alfred could not believe how quickly the Liberty Ship was lost as this horrific event unfolded right in front of his eyes.
Alfred considered himself to be very lucky during the war as he discovered that every ship he had been on – all seven of them – were still floating at war’s end.
The D/S Hestmanden had its own tale to tell. While in World War I, it was in a convoy of about 20 ships. For reasons unknown, it stayed back in the night and was separated from the others. The Germans succeeded in destroying the entire convoy… all except the lucky Hestmanden.
In World War II, it was again part of a convoy. This time more than half of the ships were lost, while again the Hestmanden survived. On a separate occasion, a German plane flew so close that it broke its mast. Yet, even after hitting her and dropping five bombs, she still remained floating proudly.
The Hestmanden, Olav, Alfred, and all the other war sailors deserve our thanks and honor for the heroic and unselfish actions of that time. This event in Kristiansand has helped ensure they will always be remembered!
This article originally appeared in the Jan 27, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.