Postponed by not forgotten
A royal 75th anniversary celebration to honor Norwegian war sailors takes place in Oslo
Hobnobbing with the king of Norway is not something most of us can boast about. However, there is one man who did just that on Sept. 19 this year. That man is Karl Aksel Andresen. The reason for this honor? His service in Norway’s Merchant Marines during World War II. Yes, he is one of those extraordinary men who can call themselves krigsseiler, or war sailors.
The occasion was to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. If you do the math correctly, it should have been held last year, but like so many milestones, it was postponed a year because of COVID-19.
Andresen and his partner in life and crime, Sylvia Kristiansen, departed from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Oslo for the celebration on Aug. 19. When they landed in Norway, Andresen was surprised to see that a Norwegian television reporter from NRK was waiting for him. (This, however, was not the first time Andresen was featured on NRK. On May 8, 2021, the broadcaster also accompanied him from his home in Brooklyn to the annual commemoration ceremony at the Norwegian War Sailors and Royal Navy Monument in Battery Park, N.Y., sponsored by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum in partnership with the Norwegian Consulate in New York and local Sons of Norway lodges.)
Once in Oslo, the couple drove to the Bristol Hotel, where they were guests of the Norwegian government.
“Aksel’s sister came from Sweden to spend time with him,” Sylvia said.
The next day, the couple headed to Oslo’s famous Opera House for a luncheon reception. Andresen was greeted with an unexpected welcome. “Before I came into the room, they gave me a salute with about 15 to 20 guys with rifles—a gun salute. I shook hands a couple of times with [King Harald V of Norway].”
Sylvia added, “The king sat right across from Aksel …. the prime minister [Erna Solberg] was by his right side. Prince [Haakon] spoke about the war, and then the prime minister spoke.”
I told Sylvia that I had a very important question to ask her: “How was the food?”
“It was great but too fancy to remember,” she said with her usual humor.
As part of the program, Andresen recalled that they sang “We’ll Meet Again.”
“That was the song at that time [during the war] … which had a special meaning for the krigsseilerne,” Andresen recalled. “The last time we were [honored here, there were] 145 [sailors], and now only 10 or 11. The rest couldn’t come; either they were too ill or dead.” Andresen was only one month shy of his 99th birthday.
This was not the only time Andresen has been feted for his service to Norway during World War II.
“I was honored before in Oslo with the prime minister about four or five years ago. About 10 or 11 years ago, I was with the SS Hestmanden ship.” The Hestmanden is a restored Norwegian steamship that carried cargo during both world wars, the only remaining Nortraship vessel from the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission. It is now a moveable sailors memorial and museum.
On one trip to the area, Andresen met a writer who had created a photo-journal book about the krigsseilerne. He was one of the featured sailors.
I asked Andresen, after being honored in Norway many times over the last decade or so, if this year felt any different.
“Well, this time was 75 years since the war happened. Seventy-five is many years, you know. I felt like a special guest sitting right next to the prime minister and the king,” he said.
The next day, the couple went to Kristiansand to see Andresen’s family and stayed with his brother at their childhood hometown. They also visited the restored ship Sørlandet. Andresen had sailed on that ship before the war.
As this ship had a very significant role in his life, Andresen reminisced.
“Then the war came, and I was not able to go back to Norway until 1957. I cried to finally see my mother and father again. I now had two siblings who I had never met before.”
So, Andresen was thrilled to take a tour of the ship and a cruise. Joining him again was NRK.
“They went with me on the boat and interviewed me. When I sailed, we had five to six cooks [Andresen was one of them], so I asked the cook how many people there are now in the galley.
He said, “Well it’s only me, but I got a bunch of girls and boys who help me.”
Of course, there is a good reason for this. Sørlandet is now a training and cruise ship, not one carrying cargo.
It was actually this ship that first brought Andresen to the United States.
“I landed on 58th Street in Brooklyn on the Sørlandet,” he explained.
I went on to ask him about his sailing days and how long he served as a sailor.
“Seven or eight years. I started in 1938 and finished in 1945 after the war. I was in Yokohama, Japan, when the war began and in Italy when the war was over. When they bombed Pearl Harbor, I was in Mumbai [then Bombay]. We took four escaped Norwegian passengers on our ship. They had to sign on as crew. They went with us up to New York.
“They asked me to take the steward’s job, which was a really good opportunity for me, but I said no, I wanted time off. My boat went back to the Indian Ocean and got torpedoed,” he said.
Even after the catastrophe, he escaped by chance. He went back to sailing back and forth to England many times.
After the war, Andresen stayed in New York, got married at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church in 1947, and had two children. And it is in Brooklyn that he has remained to this day. This humble, funny, generous man, lives about a mile from where he first landed in this country, having sailed a full circle.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.