A Tribute to the Swedish American Line
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19 Years on the Internet

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Carl-Otto Claesson
From Prisoners of War to War Brides

By Göran C-O Claesson ©

 


Waiting, even during hard winters, was the main duty
while the exchange negotiations dragged out.

 

The exchange traffic with POWs and detainees

During World War II the Red Cross gained knowledge of hard conditions for civilian internees, such as persons from the Channel Islands being held in France, and for prisoners of war. The organization started sending necessities to their camps. The packages could contain items such as food and soap, as well as notebooks and pencils, intended to boost the prisoners' moral by making studying possible. At the same time, the Swedish Red Cross made constant efforts to establish negotiations between the war faring nations to exchange wounded prisoners of war offering to take care of the necessary technical arrangements.

Negotiations started for the European front, administered by the Swiss department of Foreign Affairs. Simultaneously negotiations were held concerning exchange of wounded and sick prisoners in the Pacific theatre.

The first task of the Swedish Red Cross was to negotiate with the British and German legations in Stockholm in order to establish a plan for the exchanges. Count Bernadotte af Wisborg, soon to be popularly known as Folke Bernadotte, was appointed leader of the negotiations. On October 14, 1943 a plan was set, stating that allied soldiers were to be transported from Germany to Göteborg on German ships, or by ferry to Trelleborg , Sweden , and continue by special train. German soldiers were to travel to Göteborg on British ships. Allied soldiers were transported on the S/S Drottningholm from Göteborg to Liverpool . To make this possible, cooperation was established between the affected Red Cross district ogranizations, military authorities, the harbor and police authorities in Gothenburg, and the Swedish American Line. In 1943, the Gripsholm sailed for New York to exchange Japanese and Americans.

All ships were ready to sail on October 21. 4,159 allied soldiers were exchanged via Göteborg to Great Britain , and 831 German soldiers to Germany . In Göteborg, every soldier received a gift package from the Red Cross containing cigarettes, matches, fruit, and chocolate. Another exchange in Gothenburg was carried out in September 1944. That time both the Drottningholm and the Gripsholm were used and the gift package contained chocolate, fruit, Läkerol, matches, postcards and razor blades. 2 636 allied and 2 136 German soldiers were brought back to their homelands. In addition 583 civil internees on each side were exchanged.

That it was the same number of civil internees was no coincidence. It proved more difficult to reach an agreement on them than on the soldiers. Finally new negotiations were successful. A letter from the Ministry of Economic Warfare on January 31, 1945 to the British Embassy in Ankara shows that a new exchange voyage was agreed upon and arranged in a different way than the earlier ones. This time the Drottningholm was chartered by the German government for a voyage from Goteborg to "Constantinopel". This was only three months before the collapse of the German Reich!

The German government wanted to repatriate German diplomats and civilians interned in Lebanon and Turkey in return for Argentine and Turkish citizens in Germany. The British government accepted on condition that British and German civilians were exchanged at the same time.


On March 15, 1945, the Drottningholm departed from Gothenburg. The largest group of passengers was 350 Britons, among them around sixty severely ill. The Britons on their way home had got 200 Swedish crowns each to equip themselves in Gothenburg, i.e. nearly 3 500 crowns at today's worth. The next largest group was 325 Turks, including around eighty from the Turkish embassy in Berlin . In addition there were among the passengers 115 Argentine diplomats, around thirty Portuguese and Peruans, 130 Swedes — diplomats, businessmen and missionaries — and a doctor, a nurse and six Red Cross Samaritans to care for wounded Britons onboard.

The voyage went to Liverpool and Istanbul . It turned out successful, and the Drottningholm was later engaged to repatriate stranded civilians as far away as to Bombay allowing the ship to begin transporting goods, which were in demand after the war.

Parallel with the exchange on the European front negotiations were going on in order to reach an agreement on the exchange of Americans and Japanese. It was reached after a very difficult and prolonged bargaining. The exchanges were carried through in two yet Portuguese ports, viz. Lourenço Marques, i.e. today's Maputo in today's Mozambique , and Gôa on the west coast of India . The Gripsholm took care of the transports between these two ports and New York.

 


The name of the ship as well as the words SVERIGE ( Sweden ) and DIPLOMAT or PROTECTED were painted in huge letters on the sides of both the Drottningholm and the Gripsholm, and they were floodlighted during night-time. This, of course, was no remedy against mines, and the danger of mines in certain waters forced the ship to go with paravanes set.

The Gripsholm exchanged or repatriated more than 29 000 persons and the voyages went up to more than 85 000 nautical miles. That is equivalent to the stretch Gothenburg- New York 25 times. The Gripsholm, too, went to destinations as far east as Bombay . In addition, the Gripsholm went to Rio de Janeiro , Montevideo and Buenos Aires , primarily in order to fetch Japanese and Germans. Among them were the crew of the Graf Spee that in 1939 had sunk their battleship when it had been heavily damaged by British cruisers.

During two days in September 1944 the Gripsholm and the Drottningholm stayed in Gothenburg at the same time. The ships and the passengers, particularly the wounded soldiers, were visited by the chairman of the Swedish Red Cross, prince Carl, the successor to the throne, prince Gustaf Adolf, and his wife, princess Sibylla. At that time the Gripsholm had been away from home since 1942. The ships disembarked German soldiers and embarked allied soldiers. The Gripsholm brought Britons to Belfast, Canadians to Halifax and Americans and Australians to New York.

Marks of honor

While exchanging prisoners of war and internees the Drottningholm was mostly chartered by the British, the Gripsholm always by the Americans. One difference was felt by every person serving onboard: The Americans demonstrated their appreciation. Each person onboard got a medal. In addition, the Gripsholm and her crew were honored by this statement:

Testimonial

The M.V. Gripsholm, while under charter to the United States Government from May 1942 to April 1946, anchored herself securely in the pages of the history of humanity by her eleven voyages across war-tossed seas to succor from prison and hospital the thousands of civilians, and sick and wounded combatants, whom she carried safely to their homes again.

For the gallant and self-sacrificing men and women of the Gripsholm, to whose services of mercy the return to happiness and health of these thousands of rescued are forever indebted, the assuring name "Gripsholm" will stand in the memory of mankind as the symbol of their deeds well done, and of their dauntless spirit.

On behalf of the Government of the United States I take pleasure in attesting the abiding gratitude of America to the Gripsholm and her complement.

Done at the City of Washington this twenty-seventh day of March in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-six and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundre and seventy-first.

[ Signed: ]
James F. Byrnes
Secretary of State

During the same day James F. Byrnes also sent a letter to "My dear Captain Nordenson" and thanked him for his "skillfull command". The letter contains this passage: "It is recalled that on the early morning of September 11, 1944 as the GRIPSHOLM, en route from Goteborg to Liverpool, was being escorted through enemy waters by a German minesweaper she was forcibly stopped and ordered into Kristiansand, Norway, were German officials boarded the vessel and made certain demands in violating of the safe-conduct. The safety of nearly a thousand seriously ill and wounded Allied prisoners of war as well at the ship and its crew depended upon your action. The soundness of your judgement and the maintenance of a firm attitute toward the German demands resulted in the prompt release of the vessel and her passengers."

The British did not express a similar appreciation when the commander of the Drottningholm, John Nordlander, had acted as firmly in an analogous situation. Neither he nor anybody else onboard received any British signs of appreciation. Maybe the American culture is more reward orientated. Maybe the difference is explained by the PR skill at the office of the Swedish American Line in New York. They were very good at forwarding the right news to the right persons in the Administration.

In any case it was the Americans who honored the senior mate Carl-Otto Claesson and all the others onboard the Drottningholm. Each of them was awarded ribbons, a medal and a uniform button when the Drottningholm had transported Americans. On the front side the medal shows a godess, like Neptune gripping a trident. A submarine can be seen in the background. WORLD WAR II is engraved to the left and right of her. On the back side there is an anchor partly covered by the engraving: FIRMITAS ADVERSARIA SUPERAT on three lines. It means that enduring firmness will overcome the adversaries. The anchor is encircled by UNITED STATES MERCHANT MARINE 1941-1945

United States Merchant Marine was an agency during World War II which organized the transportation by merchant vessels. It belonged to United States Maritime Commission which runs the site www.usmm.org where there is a compartment "Medals and Ribbons". There I recognize the medal my father had got and read this information: "Victory Medal - Awarded to members of the crews of ships who served 30 days or more during the period December 7, 1941 to September 3, 1945". The ribbons he had got were called "Atlantic War Zone Bar" and "Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar". There was also a "Pacific War Zone Bar". His button, finally, is called "Merchant Marine Service Emblem" and had to be worn while in service.

As far as I have been able to find out neither the Swedish Government nor any Swedish authority expressed their appreciation in a way that could be noticed by the men and women serving on the Drottningholm and the Gripsholm during the exchanges.

What about the Swedish Red Cross which cooperated so closely with the people onbord when the big exchanges in Gothenburg took place? This movement is stimulating its members and donors by several different marks of honor. The highest Red Cross "badge of merit", in gold or silver, is awarded by His Majesty the King. The next highest, in gold, silver or bronze, is awarded by the chairman of the movement, in 1943-1944 "His Royal Highness Prince Carl".

Among the 58 receivers of the bronze version in 1943 was the chairman of the Swedish American Line, Axel Jonsson. Among the 204 receivers of the same version in 1944 were the managing director Erik Wijk and his deputy, baron Göran von Essen. Not even the commanders of the Drottningholm and the Gripsholm were on the list. However, a special merit badge in bronze with the inscription KRIGSFÅNGEUTVÄXLINGEN (The Prisoners of War Exchange) was awarded a number of persons because of their "particular merit". Did any of them work on the exchange ships?

When this is written no answer can be given to that question. The collections of the Swedish Red Cross, including the medals and the decisions on them, are waiting to be unpacked and used in a planned "House of Humanity" in Malmš. Before that unpacking has taken place it is not possible to find out if anyone serving on the Drottningholm or Gripsholm was awarded this badge of merit.. Carl-Otto Claesson did not get it.

The love for a ship

A letter from Carl-Otto Claesson to his son Göran.

Christmas Day 1945, 14.00 hours.

Yes, it's Christmas. I am in my chair, my left knee raised against the bunk's drawer, and my right foot steady on the board beneath the sofa. The S/S Drottningholm, The Old Lady, is in the midst of the third round in her fight vs. Seaberg. Here, in the Bay of Biscay , some ships do well, some are up after a few counts, and others are knocked out, never to rise again.

In the first round, on the day before Christmas Eve, the Old Lady won by points. Seaberg threw some foul punches under the red ledded belt, without much progress. Still, the next day at 04.00, on Christmas Eve, he returned in a better fighting spirit. At around 1900 he threw a straight left, going for a knock. The Old Lady lost six teeth, sun awnings, but being the Swan of the Sea she is, she rose up again.

At 08.00 in the morning of Christmas Eve it is time for the final blow. Seaberg has called upon The Devil himself. He sputters and all the dark forces of Evil surround us. The roar is deafening. There are fierce winds, bolts of lightning, there are hail and rain. The Old Lady knows what is at stake. The Old Lady rears, moans and trembles, terrified of being knocked out. At around 19.00, after darkness has fallen, Seaberg hit violently under and over the belt. Now and then he did shadow boxing but for the most part he landed his punches.

There is no referee to control Seaberg. He deals out his punches as he sees fit. The only possible option is to fend off the punches. Around 20.00 the Old Lady rises, seemingly doomed to fall flat. A sea rises as a bolt lights up our small world. The sea looks like the jaws of a lion. It is moving closer, getting bigger and bigger. The Old Lady rushes straight on, burying herself in it, cutting the jaws into two, and thrusting them starboard and port in the form of hundreds of tons of water. The Old Lady is shaking. Water is whirling, we see nothing. Then slowly, you feel her rising. Seaberg repeats the attack with belly punches but the Old Lady wins a clear victory by points.

Entering my cabin, happy about her victory, I was startled by the shape of my quarters. The only thing that was in its rightful place was my laundry, hanging on three cloth lines over the sofa. A quick glance at the battlefield showed that, for the time, there was little to do. Instead I ventured to the mess hall, where I saw one of the waiters, feeling ill. The Old Lady made a violent lurch and out came a bucket sliding over the floor and filled with broken china. This, the boy said, are the dinner dishes. They fell to the floor before I could wipe them.

I continued my tour through the ship, wishing everyone Merry Christmas. Some passengers seemed frightened, others were having a drink. Some passengers seemed frightened, some were having drinks, some Greek women, married to English boys, were praying to their mighty God out of fear. Many girls and boys, aged 9 to 12, were rolling back and forth on the cover of the 3rd hatch, E-deck, surely having the fun of their lives. Children are usually not seasick before their sense of balance is fully developed.

One of the mothers, looked pale and worried. She asked me if we had heard a storm warning. When I replied in the negative, she smiled with relief and said, well in that case, we were not in danger.

At 2200 I am back, lying in my bunk. It is Christmas Eve 1945 on the open sea. My untidy cabin doesn't interest me. However, I am bothered by a large orange that keeps rolling back and forth over the floor. I get up and finish off Christmas Eve by eating this giant orange.

By 0400 today on Christmas Day I was back on duty, but that I will write about tomorrow.

Today is the day after Christmas. Yesterday, around 7.00, Seaberg ceased to hiss. He had suffered a severe defeat by points in the third round. The Old Lady is beginning to go in the right direction, she is speeding up from 2 to 6 to 12 to 14, she is spurting ( the marvellous Gunder would be in leeward). She increases the speed to 15 to 16 knots. She is feeling the scent of her homeland, where she was born and brought up during her first 15 years. She looks proud as she surges forwards. Actually, she pitches and rolls but that is just a sign of her upbringing. Like other old dignified English ladies she does not say much, but she but makes her contempt obvious to Seaberg. Proudly she has left the battle. Seaberg has not succeeded to inflicting so much as a scratch on her beautiful shape, only the 6 teeth which are easily replaceable upon arrival. Tomorrow she will pass the goal line at Bar Lightship in the Bay of Liverpool . No one has been hurt or killed. To the contrary, a grandchild was born to her on the day of the first round.

The mother of the newborn is Greek, the father English. He is waiting on the dock in Liverpool , soon to be surprised, if is possible to surprise an Englishman. The Old Lady has plunged her nose into the Irish Sea , spurting and in great shape. Gunder Wonderful would not have been able to keep up with her in her long hauls: Liverpool – St. Johns – Halifax – New York – Göteborg – Liverpool – Freetown – Cape Town – Liverpool – Port Said – Suez – Bombay – Suez – Port Said – Liverpool in four months.

The Old Lady is gaining speed, she is spurting, showing no signs of fatigue in spite of her enormous strains and long runs, she is absolutely in top form. The Old Lady will get a chance to feel dignified. We will place her in dry dock upon arrival, we will spoil her. At 20.00, still the Day after Christmas, we pass Holyhead. She is spurting, the wind is still a strong. We pass the goal line at 2354, six minutes before the Christmas Holidays are over. We anchor at Bar Lightship.

The Old Lady is not pleased by this. She would like to continue straight into the harbor. Not accepting any delays, she shakes off her anchors and shows her strength. We proceed, we arrive at Prince Landing Stage, we throw our passengers ashore. It is 1800, and my watch began at 0400. We are going to dock with two tugboats aft. The Old Lady feels ill treated and rips off one of the hawsers. It is cold. The Old Lady is freezing, I am freezing. At 2000 I am going to eat, 18 hours after starting my duty. We are in the dock. The Old Lady is proud and satisfied. The Captain offers a glass of whisky. I go to bed after having two well-done steaks. The Old Lady is no longer spurting. The Old Lady is tired, and so am I. Good Night, the end of this report.”

 

Childhood and World War I

A Mate in the White Fleet

From Prisoners of War to War Brides

The Drottningholm Turns Italian

The Stockholm - A Capricious Beauty

Serving under the Most Forcible Captain

The Fourth Stripe off and on.

From Roosevelt Hospital to a Building Site


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