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Warsailor Stories - Page 12

Ole Johan Sundby's Maritime Experience
Transcribed from letters from Ole and a typed version by Dick Nordahl edited by Ole
Received from a friend, Paul Kelley.


I was born in the village of Skjee in Stokke, Vestford County in Norway on January 7, 1916. My home and property was called Moa named after the forest (Boke Moa) that was near us in Stokke.

I attended the Ramsum School in Skjee (approx. a one hour walk from Moa) from the age of five to the age of thirteen. I attended church in Skjee and was confirmed by Pastor Holstkog who was in his first year as minister in a Lutheran church.

I worked on a few farms for a while until my uncle Kristian ask me to help aunt Karen with their farm while he was whale hunting. I worked their farm from the fall of 1931 to the spring of 1932. I then went to work for another uncle whose name was Arnt. Uncle Arnt had both a trucking business and a store. Arthur, his son, and I drove one of the trucks. Neither of us had a license! Uncle Arnt said that if we got into trouble to say we stole the truck with a full load of bricks on it! Luckily, all went well.

In 1933 Uncle Arnt was able to get Arthur and me out whale hunting on the Whaler Kosmos II of Sandefjord. I fished for two seasons until 1935 then I joined the Norwegian Merchant Marines.

Maritime Experience:

My first ship as a Merchant Marine was the M/S Temeraire of Tønsberg and my first trip was to Australia.

In 1936 I was required to do my six-month compulsory duty with the Norwegian Navy Reserve. I then went to sea again with the Norwegian Merchant Marines and this time traveling mostly to the Far East and the U.S.A.

In 1939 I spent some time in Norway on vacation. I then shipped out on the M/S Tai Ping before the German occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940. I sailed on Tai Ping to New York and in June 1940 I signed onto the M/S Nyhorn of Haugesund headed for Lisbon Portugal and Casablanca Morocco.

We sailed on June 10th and arrived in Lisbon on June 22nd. While in Lisbon another ship accidentally hit the Nyhorn in the bow causing us to spend another six days in dock until repairs to the bow were complete. We then sailed on June 28th for Casablanca arriving on June 30th.

Two days after arriving in Casablanca word reached us that France had surrendered to Germany and the French in Morocco had allied with the Germans. We were now under Vichy French control. (Had we not had the bow accident in Lisbon we would have sailed before the Vichy came into power)

When we arrived in Casablanca there were ten Norwegian ships, two Danish ships, and one Finnish ship in port. There was also an Italian ship that had been there for a while but did not dare to leave because a British warship knew it was there and were waiting for it to leave to attack it.

After several weeks in port we were ordered to move out with a Vichy escort north to Port Lyautey. On the first night out eight men from the M/S Batavia (one of the ten Norwegian ships) took a lifeboat and escaped. A British ship picked them up. The following afternoon we arrived in Port Lyautey. Our ship the M/S Nyhorn like the others in the convoy was too big to navigate up the Sebou River to the town so we had to anchor it into the embankment a short distance inland from the coast. We built a gangway from some old lumber that we had in the hold in order to go ashore.

Escapes & Attempted Escapes:

The first or second night in Port Lyautey eight men escaped in a lifeboat from one of the ships in the convoy. The skipper of that ship had to report this and, as a result, the Vichy came and took away the rest of the lifeboats. The skipper complained that if any of the men fell overboard they would need at least the 12-foot long pram rowboats for rescue. The Vichy accepted this and left the rowboats.

The next night three men took one of the pram rowboats and escaped. We expected to hear that their escape was successful because they had orders to let us know by sending back a post card. We never heard from any of them. The Vichy then came and took away the other pram rowboat.

Our next attempt at escaping was to steal some Arabian fishing boats. Some of the crew managed to steal two or three and successfully escaped. Karl Kolstø and I were the last to try before the Vichy put guards on them. We were successful in stealing the boat but we had to go back to our ship for clothes, water and biscuits before we could make our escape. Unfortunately, a patrol boat came so we had to beach the boat and hurry back to our ship. A short time later a Vichy patrol boarded every ship asking if anyone had been ashore. The answer they got was No! What puzzled the patrol was the fact that the boat came up the river instead of out to sea - the normal route if someone were trying to escape.

The only option the crew had now was to make a boat. The crew built an 18-foot boat from old lumber we had in the hold of the M/S Nyhorn. It was covered with canvas and coated with linseed oil to make it waterproof. It was then lowered over the side and submerged to keep it out of sight until it was time to escape. 

One night eight men took the boat and escaped. (This boat I believe is the one currently on display in the Oslo museum). The Skipper waited a few days before reporting them missing. This gave them more time to navigate to the open sea. The Vichy couldn’t understand where the men went because in order to visit other cities it was necessary to have permission from the Vichy. They also knew that all the lifeboats and rowboats had been taken so they didn’t think they left by sea. They got their answer later when a second boat made in the hold of the M/S Nyhorn attempted to escape. This one wasn’t so lucky.

This second boat tried to escape before total darkness and they were spotted from the tower at the French fortress. The Vichy fired with machine guns over their heads so the crew jumped overboard and swam to shore where they were immediately arrested and put in jail. The boat was destroyed by the Vichy. The crew and officers were given a week jail sentence but the officers were ordered to “serve their time” on board ship because of the overcrowding at the prisons.

Various parts for a third boat were made and hidden. It was to be assembled when the time was right. (Before this one was used in yet another successful escape, Karl and I had made our escape and were in England).

Our Escape:

One day a French sailor came on-board our ship. His own ship was moored behind us. We had a mate on board who spoke French so we learned from the Frenchman that he wanted to get to England but didn’t trust telling his shipmates. He told us he could get a 14-foot rowboat so I went down to the engine room to tell my buddy Karl. We set a date and time for our escape with the Frenchman. (We later had to set a new time and date with the Frenchman to be at our ship with the rowboat because his ship had moved up to the town. It was a smaller ship that was able to navigate the river to the town).

We were expecting the Frenchman to be at our ship at midnight on the night of our escape but he didn’t make it until 2:00 AM. Because of this, Karl and I discussed whether or not to go ahead with the escape. Karl said that if we didn’t go through with it the Frenchman would not make it back to his ship in time and would be discovered. So we put another set of oars in the rowboat along with some water, biscuits and a suitcase with clothes and off we went.

When we reached the “Molo” (Pier) an Arabian guard was there. It turned out he was friendly to our side. In a low voice he said something like “Ala-Ba” and let us go.

I was controlling the steering oar of the rowboat but in all the excitement I was holding the oar to one side veering us off course so we put the French sailor at the oar to steer. Before we knew it he had fallen asleep. We found out that he had not slept for two days prior to leaving! We pulled the steering oar in, put the compass in between us and rowed. That worked well. Because I worked as a deck hand and Karl worked in the engine room, and we discovered that the Frenchman was not really a sailor, they trusted me with the navigation to Gibraltar.

When we got to the open sea we set our course due North. In the afternoon a fishing boat came by and took us in tow for a few hours until they headed for shore. Next morning we noticed that we had made little headway because the current was against us (south). All we had was a land map because all the charts aboard ship were gone. I did mark the lighthouses as points of reference. I wanted to go further out away from the current but the others feared we would get lost so we stayed close to the shore - close enough in fact that people on shore actually waved to us. (They probably thought we were fishermen). Karl and I took a dip over the side every day but the Frenchman did not because he couldn’t swim!

On the sixth day out we were abreast of Tangier and the weather got so bad that we had to set course for land. A Spanish fishing boat heading for Cadiz came along and took us on board. The next day we passed Gibraltar and wanted the Skipper to let us row in with the rowboat. The Skipper told us that we had already been noticed from the Spanish shore. It turned out he was right because the police were waiting for us when we docked.

The Spanish police took us to an office where they interrogated us. They wanted to know where we had come from. Because Karl and I didn’t speak Spanish we couldn’t give them any information. However, the Frenchman was able to because they asked him in French and he told them the whole story. We were then put in the brig (a big room made of stone with a large window with no glass just bars). There were no bunks to sleep on so Karl and I took the door off of the latrine and slept on it. The Frenchman was OK because he had Navy wool clothes on. With some money they gave us we were able to buy some food (mostly fruit and chestnuts).

After a few days we were able to get word of our situation over to the British Consul in Gibraltar. (There wasn’t a Norwegian Consul there). The Consul came but only made the Frenchman a British subject so he wouldn’t be transported back to France.

After about a week in the brig the police took all three of us in handcuffs to a bus going to Sevilla. On the bus a few old ladies asked the police about us and asked them to take the handcuffs off so they did!

We stopped a few times before arriving in Sevilla in the afternoon. It was November and very cold. The police took us to a camp where there were prisoners from the Spanish Civil War. The camp had a barbwire fence with guards stationed about every 100 feet. There weren’t any bunks to sleep on but Kolstø found a rusty old camp bed that we both slept on. The Spanish prisoners were more fortunate because they had mattresses that their families brought in.

The Spanish called us Ice-Bears because we were able to take a dip each morning after Reveille in a pool located in the back of the prison. We did this to keep the lice away. The Frenchman did not. We were also allowed to have a small fire so we were able to boil our underwear. This also helped keep the lice away.

For breakfast we were fed one hard roll and a cup of coffee (dishwater!) For lunch we were fed boiled sardines with dandelions for a salad. Dinner was the same except they gave us some boiled lima beans too.

We got a note to the Secretary of Norwegian Consulate in Sevilla asking for blankets. They came and said it was good that we contacted them to let them know where we were. They knew we were in Spain but didn’t know where. They visited us several times. We had asked them if they would get us out, as we were willing to go back to Norway. (Since Norway was under German occupation at the time we thought we would try to escape on the way back). The Consul told us to “keep your shirt on – we’ll let you know”.

One day they took about 300 prisoners, including us, to a train station to take a special train to the North of Spain to an International camp. They stopped each night and we were put like sardines into brigs in order to keep warm. The brigs had big windows but no glass just bars.

After seven days of traveling we arrived in Madrid and were put into an old hospital that they had set up as a prison. Again, no bunks! This time we were able to contact the Consul in Madrid who came with some blankets and talked to us. The next day we received a box with some home cooked food that the ladies at the Consulate made for us. We shared this with the Frenchman. (In all the hustle I believe we forgot to say “thank you” so in 2007 I wrote to the Consul in Madrid but never heard back. It was probably due to the fact that there were no people from my time still there).

A few weeks later they took us to an office where the Consul came and got us out. It was the last time we saw the Frenchman. The Consul then took us to a boarding house where the lady of the house had some food ready. We asked if we could take a bath first. She was surprised that we wanted a bath before eating but she took us to a public bath anyway. Boy did that feel good! As I mentioned before we had a suitcase with us with some clean clothes in it so we put them on. The old dirty clothes we gave to the lady because she asked for them.

We stayed at the boarding house for a few weeks before the Consul got us train tickets to Sevilla. The Sevilla Consul met us at the train and put us up with a private family. This was 1940 and we had a very nice Christmas with them.

The Consul had been unable to obtain a permit for us to leave Spain so; after a few more weeks with the family; he took us at night to a British freighter that was heading for Gibraltar with a load of oranges. (The Consul got the permit a month later).

We arrived in Gibraltar and got together with some fellows from Morocco. There was a French ship that the crew had taken over and needed additional hands to take it to England. Kolstø and I signed on. On route we stopped in Glasgow and a Health Department doctor came on board.  He noticed some scars from boils Kolstø and I got in Morocco and ordered us off the ship and to the hospital. We complained that the rest of the crew had them also but our complaining fell on deaf ears.

After a few weeks in the hospital they told us we were free to leave. We took a taxi to the Norwegian Consulate where we spoke to the Secretary. We told him where we had come from and that we had a taxi waiting for some money. The Secretary told us to “take a seat”. (To the workers at the Consulate seamen were looked down upon). Fortunately, the Consul himself came by and asked why we were there. We told him and he was upset with the Secretary and told him what to do. I’ll bet the Secretary wished he wasn’t there!

While we were at the Consulate and before we knew it the local police were there. (After the war broke out you had to have all your papers in order). The police understood our situation but had to take us in anyway. That night they took us out for a meal and then to the jail where we slept. This jail turned out to be our “hotel” for the rest of the time there. It was nice and clean and we were allowed to go into the city often with the police.

We were taken from the jail to London with an escort. In London the Norwegian Government had an old school that they partitioned into one side for the ladies and the other side for the men. It was here we had to wait for our papers to clear. It took about eight days.

After Prison:

Once our papers were in order we went to a Norwegian hotel. (Norway had two in London). About a month later I signed on to the M/S Katy. (Kolstø didn’t but he later joined the Norwegian Navy). The M/S Katy was a gas tanker that left England for the USA empty and returned full. I spent about a year on the M/S Katy and then took a few days vacation in NY where I then signed on to the M/S Washington-Express.

The M/S Washington-Express transported bacon and other meats to England and brought back Scotch whisky to NY. Because this ship was too slow for a fast convoy and too fast for a slow convoy we had to go it alone. The trip took about a month and all went well.

In 1943, after taking a vacation and working as a handyman in a Brooklyn N.Y. housing complex, I joined the US Navy and served on the DD808 Dennis J. Buckley Destroyer until the war was over.

Post War:

In 1946, after the war, I went to Boston MA and worked as a carpenter. Then in 1947 I signed on for one year as a carpenter with the Brown-Pacific-Maxon Company working on Guam, Marshall Islands. In the fall of 1948 I returned to Boston. I joined the LU40 Carpenter’s Union and was a 50-year member.

In 1992 I joined the Norwegian Seaman’s War Veterans Club in Brooklyn NY. Their main office was in Oslo Norway. The President of the club at that time was a Mr. Lunde. He, Mrs. Signe Lambak, and Live Aune did a great job helping the seamen get their pensions from Norway (this was probably Birger Lunde - see D/S Blink). This organization was disbanded in December of 2005 because the members were getting too old to attend meetings. The club gave its entire memorabilia to the East Coast Museum in Brooklyn.

I have lived in Boston MA most of my life since leaving the Navy in 1946. I did spend 20 years in Florida returning to Boston in 2001. I believe I will be here for the rest of my life as I am now 93 years old.

I was asked to write down my “life” story but that would have taken too long so instead I highlighted primarily my time at sea and during the war.

Ole Johan Sundby


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