The Search for Thor

A clue in the form of sunken wine


Photo: Randi Millman-Brown
Ship manifest record from the MS Vesteraalen.

by Randi Millman-Brown

Thor Jensen, 36, moves from Oslo to Hammerfest. He is promoted to bank manager, becomes engaged, and takes a one-month hiking trip through occupied Finnmark in 1941. By the end of the year, he is dead, leaving behind a mystery, a diary, and many questions. This column chronicles his great niece’s attempt to solve that mystery.

The search for the cause of my great-uncle’s death and insight into his short life has taken me on a crazy journey these past two years. I’ve gotten snippets of information from multiple archives (both online and in person), personal letters and documents from my own family history collection, as well as interesting information from a variety of people I’ve corresponded with online, via Facebook and other social media applications.

Most recently, I received an email from one of the most fruitful connections I’ve made, the prolific Norwegian author Alf R. Jacobsen. He emailed me at the beginning of February to let me know he found a document in a war insurance archive for the cargo ship MS Vesteraalen (a Hurtigruten ship) that shows that Thor had ordered a case of wine—presumably for his wedding—but that the ship was sunk between Tromsø and Hammerfest by a Soviet submarine on Oct. 17, 1941 (see photo). According to the WWII Norwegian ship website, the ship departed Tromsø for Hammerfest with general cargo in the morning of Oct. 17 and was torpedoed that same day off Nuvsvåg—38 passengers and 21 crew died.

If you recall from my previous articles, Thor died on the Oct. 6, 1941. Obviously, during the war, ordering anything took a long time, so I am assuming he ordered the wine when the wedding date was decided upon (Nov. 1, 1941, was to be his wedding date). The last communication we have from Thor is a letter from him to his brother (my grandfather Sverre), dated Sept. 29, talking about the wedding and wishing Sverre could be there. He was happy and says that she (Ruth) “is full of feminine charm and besides she has the great qualification that she would love to have me…” Six days later he was dead—after ordering a case of wine and sending this letter. My mother only recalls the family theory that Thor committed suicide—but his actions do not seem to be the ones of someone who is about to kill himself, but instead someone looking forward to getting married.

In addition, there is also the possibility that he had already gotten married on Sept. 21 in Alta, Norway. He also writes in the above letter that, “I wish you two could have been present and had some schnapps with us after we finished with the magistrate [in Alta].” Additionally, in this letter he asks Sverre to have rings made in Drammen and to have them engraved with the date 21/9/1941, and states, “the wedding will take place on Saturday 1 November, 1941—if nothing gets in the way.” So it’s clear something happened between Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, but I am convinced, now more than ever, that committing suicide was not the method of his death.

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Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at

This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Randi Millman-Brown

Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at