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


Robert Davis Neilson

Cruise Memories 1962 - 73

(Three Pages)

Robert Neilson of West Palm Beach, FL, sailed on SAL ships across the oceans for months at a time, 
continuously from 1962 -73, aged 9-20. He became a close friend of Captain Carl-Otto Wijkmark,
Captain Per-Erik Sjölin, and Mr Jack Fraser of the SAL Office in New York City.

Mr Neilson has kindly offered to share his personal memories of these cruises.
The texts have been compiled from several emails written in 2008.

Several letters from John M Fraser Jr have been added in 2023.

© Robert Neilson 2008

I was on board at least 20 SAL cruises, in whole or in part, over about an 11 year period. Captain Wijkmark, his officers and crew were my surrogate Father and Brothers for sure. They all helped to raise and educate me, just as my own U.S. Army colonel Father did. For that, I will always be grateful.


We do hereby certify that Bobby Neilson can well handle
the M.S. Gripsholm's tenders.
He knows how to lower and hoist them and,
how to run the engine.
He is excellent in radio - communication,
both in the English and Swedish languages.

Sometimes, he (Bobby) can also act as a passenger on a land tour.

M.S. Gripsholm, On the High Seas.

April 1963.

Signed by:

Carl Otto Wijkmark --  Chief Officer/ Supervisor/ Master/ Captain,
under Senior Capt. Per- Eric Sjolin, SAL.

Leif Vickberg -- Senior 3rd Officer.
M.S. Gripsholm/ SAL.  


Carl-Otto Wijkmark

Leif Vickberg

Robert Neilson and Leif Vickberg, now a
retired Sea Captain and retired
Captain in the Swedish Naval Reserve,
have been in touch in 2011, through this website.

Leif Vickberg was an officer's apprentice on the
MS Stockholm at the time of the collision
with Andrea Doria in 1956. Read more here.


Colonel A.M. Neilson
(See page 3)


John M Fraser, Jr
Head of SAL in the USA.

See correspondence between
Robert Neilson and Mr Fraser here.

Read more about John M Fraser Here.


28 JUN to 14 AUG 1962

In Kansas City, MO, just prior my first Swedish American Line/ Svenska Amerika Linien ("SAL") cruise, I watched a movie about the Titanic sinking. It kind of concerned me, as we were going to  Iceland and North Cape, Norway, which is 360 NM NORTH of the Arctic Circle.  My Daddy, United States Army Ret., Colonel Alexander Murray Neilson, USMA # 5921; O-9321; WWII ; SWPA; silver star (valor), informed me that I should not be concerned. At that time, ships had radar to identify icebergs. Wonderful? Daddy says so. OK.

Daddy was not a passenger on that cruise. My maternal Grandmother (Marie Prugh Davis Giffey and my Mother, Sara Ella Davis Neilson) took me.

Passport photos.
Robert's Grandmother,
Mrs Marie Prugh Davis Giffey
, in 1961.

(When she died, the Kansas City chapter of the "Around The World Club" stated that she was their "most traveled member".)
Robert's Mother,
Mrs Sara Ella Davis Neilson,
and Robert, in 1962

We boarded a Santa Fe "Chief" train from Kansas City to Chicago and changed stations there to board the "20th Century Limited", New York Central train to Grand Central Terminal in NYC. A very nice trip indeed. Stayed one night at the Waldorf, been there before for a minimal cost. NOT today!! I knew NYC, at that time, very well.

The next morning, we approached Pier 97 at the foot of W. 57th Street. I was truly amazed by my first sight of the gorgeous M.S. Gripsholm. About 25,000 gross tons and 750+ feet long. Tiny, by today's standards. This was a rare nighttime sailing. 11 PM/ 23:08 HRS. (Late June.) The glory of Manhattan was lit up in her lights. The band was on deck, playing "East Side/ West Side", "All Around the Town", etc., and I loved throwing the streamers.

The "Moran" tugboats were working and tooting their horns and whistles. We sounded the 3 LONG BLASTs of the ship's bellowing horn to warn the Hudson River traffic that we were coming out. I had never heard that before, so, I admit that I was a bit startled, but excited too. Then the Pier started to move, or, so I thought. It seemed that way. Kind of like an earthquake. No, it was the Gripsholm moving. And, so we backed out into the Hudson River and left New York City.

We all went to the lovely and bountiful Smorgasbord on the Veranda Deck forward. We passed abeam of the Nantucket Light Vessel and, onto Reykjavik, Iceland, 5 days at sea. 

Our cabin was M-61. Please do not ask me how I now remember that after so many years. Don't know. However, I do fondly remember our cabin stewardess; Saila from Helsinki. Knock down gorgeous and sweet as could be. Beautiful face, great figure, large breasts and did not wear a brassier!! Fascinating for a 9 year old healthy American male!!

The next morning, I, for the first time ever, met Mrs. Weather/ ocean. Nasty mean oceanic bitch. After breakfast, I went to exploring my new home. I went aft to the stairs on Main Deck and up to the Upper Deck door. I used all of my strength to get out and the door slammed behind me. Our tail was pitching violently in the severe seas. The aft flag staff was bent backwards and locked with the 2 double flag lines both stretced horizontally at right 90 degree angles and tied off on the rails to protect idiots like me.

I climbed forward to the Veranda Deck and got inside the "house". Enough for this midwestern kid on that first morning.

Reykjavik, 5 JUL 62
Forget Iceland. Interesting though it was, if you like seeing sheep sheared for wool. Oh, and, by the way, the sun was staying up later at that latitude. What was far more important, was that I had already met two wonderful gentlemen/officers. Jack Fraser, SVP SAL, and my lifelong Captain / Master Carl Otto Wijkmark, who took me into their very bosom and souls. I became a very close Friend w/ Jack Fraser and, later, over the years, the "adopted" Son of Captain Wijkmark. Outside the love that I hold for my own Father and Captain Wijkmark, there are only 2 other men that I love as much.

Fast Forward...

Geirangefjord, NORWAY 
(7 sisters falls) was truly spectacular/beautiful.

Jack Fraser took me in his private "Buick" sedan car one port south to see snow skiiers fly over the road in July. Jack told my Mother that I reminded him of his own son. We later became very fine friends.

Leningrad. USSR. Now, St. Petersburg.
It will always be Leningrad to me. For the very life of me, I will never understand why we wasted three days there. Depressing as depressing can be. No exaggeration. I do not "buy into" Putin, even a tiny bit. KGB all the way!! Anyone who does so today, is EXTREMELY naive. PUTIN is severe DANGER.

This was the height of the Cold War and only months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October. Prior to our departure, Daddy issued the order that we Neilsons were prohibited to go into the interior of the USSR, including going to Moscow, on the escorted land tour. SERIOUS MIL ORDER. Reason: Colonel Neilson still held classified WWII U.S. military secrets and his Family could not be at risk of capture from the Soviet KGB. Daddy was correct. I could write far more on what I saw in Leningrad. Extremely depressing !!!

We squeezed through the tiny Kiel Canal between Denmark and Germany beginning at 15:45 on 30 JUL and exited at 01:17 on 31 JUL/ 53 NM. The Danes loved us and we loved them, as well. It was a great big deal for them and us too. This was NOT the first time that I was ever proud to be an American. But, I was truly proud that day. We/ the USA freed Europe. I knew that much as a 9 year old kid, and so did those beautiful and appreciative Danes.

Had a great time in Hamburg, Antwerp and Rotterdam.

5 AUG 1962.
My 10th Birthday. I remember that one.

Went on to Ireland . Ports of Dun Laoghaire and Glegarriff. Dublin and Tipperary were gorgeous. 6 & 7 AUG.

Passed Cape Race. 14:00 HRS. 11 AUG 62.

Passed Nantucket Light Vessel. 09:00 AST. 13 AUG 62.

Docked at Pier 97, NYC.  08:35 EST. 14 AUG 62.

Distance:  12,187 NM.

As I left the M.S. Gripsholm that August morning, I was extremely depressed thinking that I would never see her or her wonderful people ever again. I was near tears all the way back to Kansas City on the trains. I remember coming into the Kansas City Union Station area and some worker waved at me with a smile, typical of mid-westerners. I did not even acknowledge him. Not like me to do that. Little that I knew that my SAL life was only beginning and that I would be back on the proud M.S. Gripsholm within just 9 months for another 52 days on a Med cruise in MAR 1963 under Captain Per- Erik Sjolin, who also loved me very much and got me started on my love for seafaring. Captain Sjolin never knew me as well, or for as long, as did Captain Wijkmark, but, I love him, as well. Erik was a "Captain's Captain" for certain. Zero doubt about that.

3 MAR to 27 APR 1963

This trip actually began for me in the Fall of 1962. The time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Aged 10.

My WWII / SWPA MIL Father was not afraid of the Soviet/ Russians. They had the range to Kansas City, but not accuracy, according to Colonel A.M. Neilson (U.S. Army WWII / SWPA combat Engineer RGT and BGE commander. (Later a Corps CO. ROK.) He built for us a radiological "fallout shelter" in our basement, converted to a hardened bunker. DONE.

The neighbors thought that Daddy was "nuts". Nope. Smart & brilliant United States MIL combat officer.

In October 1962, my Mother got seriously dressed up and confronted my Principal, Mr. William Snyder, at my elementary school, "Border Star", in K.C., MO. In any event, Mother ordered to Mr. Snyder that she was taking her Son/ Me for 2 months to the Med on the M.S. Gripsholm and, handed to him the SAL brochure. Mommy ordered Mr. Snyder that he had nothing to worry about. I had plenty of time to get advanced on my "social studies" classes, prior to departure. Mr. Snyder then asked a REALLY stupid question. "Well, Robert will be having to study fractions. I know that your husband, COL Neilson, is a combat war hero (WWII), but, Robert needs to learn his mathematical "fractions". My Mother clinched her teeth, looked him in the eye and educated him that my Father was a professor of Engineering, while as a Captain at West Point in the 1930s, and was highly capable of training me in "fractions". Mr Snyder surrendered to my Mother. Over the period of 52 days, I learned my fractions. And, a lot more, including some trigonometry. No kidding. A LOT of SERIOUS "sextant" based Navigation. How about that for mathematics?

At precisely 11:06 am, on 6 MAR 63, we sailed from Pier 97, NYC. Our first port/ landing was Cadiz, Spain on 14 MAR at 07:56 am /local time. From that point forward, we traversed the Mediterranean Sea for months. Most people think that this is a simple deep lake. Not easy. Very difficult navigable waters. Requires knowledge and skill, which our two Captains, Sjolin and Wijkmark had in extremis. Carl was designated as the "Chief Officer", not "First Officer". Per-Eric Sjolin was our Commander. Herb Colcord and Deane Dickinson were our "social" officers. Evert Eriksson was our Chief Purser, as usual.

Carl, who had come to love me the previous summer, when he was the Captain of the M.S. Gripsholm was pretty much our 2nd Captain on this cruise. Capt. Sjolin pretty much let Carl do what the wanted. Erik had a huge respect for Carl. I never saw Erik again, though, I did once or twice meet Capt. Sjolin's Son, Motts. A very fine young man. I remember Motts.

Sailing onwards.

My personal Master/ Captain, Carl Otto Wijkmark. We began together in the Summer of 1962 and sailed together for the next 11 years. Captain Wijkmark permitted me 24/7  "Freedom of the Bridge".  My favorite subordinate officer was 3rd officer/ senior, Leif Vickberg. A wonderful gentleman and officer. He chose his wife over the sea. Smart decision. As I grew older, we had a lot of fun together in many places, in many ports and hemispheres. E-W and, N - S. Thank you, Leif Vickberg.

For very many years, Captain Wijkmark, Colonel Neilson and Leif took very good care of me. They all taught me very many things.

I was placed into the M.S. Gripsholm's Tender # 5, under the Supervision of 3rd Officer/ Senior/ Leif Vickberg.

I was taught everything about sextant/ celestial navigation, including LORAN.

This continued through April 27, 1963.

After docking at Pier 97 in NYC, one night, Leif took/ climbed me up to our "Crows Nest", following me from behind/ below guarding me. I will never forget that sight of NYC. 

Then we walked together along the Pier to inspect the docking lines, as usual. Aft to bow. After we were about finished, a bow or spring-line steel cable snapped. It flew over both of our heads before we could react. It would have decapitated both of us. We were both very lucky that night.

Peanut Butter Sandwich in Alex*

Onboard the MS Gripsholm, 21 -25 MAR 1963, I was commanded by my Grandmother and both Parents to participate in an overland tour from Alexandria, EG to Luxor, Cairo and Port Said. 

HORRORS !!  I never wanted to depart my ship. But, they were correct, as always, they knew best for me. I was going to get educated in Ancient History, like it or not. That also included Israel, Istanbul, Greece and Italy. IMPORTANT for me to learn my lessons.
However, I was thinking ahead for my survival. No idiot Dummy. I knew well that I was not going to be eating any Egyptian food for 4 Days/ Nights.  SO, THEREFORE, I asked my SAL dining room steward to prepare for me a box full of simple peanut butter sandwiches to sustain me for 4 days. He did so, AND, had the chef carefully cut off the crusts and cut them into "quarters".  Big box. Today, we call that "MREs" in the U.S. MIL.  Thanks. That box, plus Coca-Cola in bottles sustained me.
Back to Egypt, we took a NOT air-conditioned train on a hot afternoon and long night from Alexandria to Luxor. We had 2 cabins. I was staying with Grandmother. Had to keep the windows open for air. When the slow milk-run train would stop at various stations, Grandmother would slam the window shut, as the locals would try to enter !! Long night and ride.  No sleep.
We did stay at a very nice/ beautiful hotel in Luxor, plus took a large Nile river cruise vessel for a tour, and I drove it for awhile. My proud Father was standing next to me. The local captain was pretty amazed by my skills/ riverine. Daddy proudly told him that I had previously steered, w/ 2 lever controlled rudders, not a wheel, the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers' boat, "Sergeant Floyd", on the swifter/ curvey Missouri River at Kansas City, not to mention the MS Gripsholm. (Quite an experience for me to manually drive such a large ship in the open ocean, under strict supervision by Leif, once the "auto-pilot" system was disengaged, and keep my eyes focused on the mechanical vertical pendulem within 5 dgs port to starbord. No GPS stuff then. That is all that I looked at. Keep at "zero". Very large "old syle" wood "wheel". Not easy.)
Next, we went to stay at the famous "Shepards" Hotel on the Nile in Cairo. Nice. Daddy could get a Scotch and water there. Colonel was happy. Went to see the Giza pyramids, day and night (light and sound show). Climbed all over the Pyramids, inside and out, rode a stinky camel, etc..   
FINALLY, we got back to the Gripsholm at Port Said. HOME !!  All of my peanut butter sandwiches had been consumed.

* Ice-Cold in Alex (1958) is an award-winning British film based on the novel of the same name by British author Christopher Landon.

A Midnight Ride, Dubrovnik, Croatia, Yugoslavia

Mediterranean Cruise, night of 9 - 10 APRIL 1963. We had some local dancers and singers (many) on board.

We were anchored far from the local dock. About 30 Mins away. Beautiful and rugged Croatian Coast. Almost like Norway's fjiords, but smaller.

Needed to get the dancers and singers back home, after their performance for our passengers. We tied to the aft of our motorized Tender #5 with a line, a lifeboat (#7).  Both vessels were packed and they were all singing, I think drinking too. OK. No problem. Happy. Perfect.

It was the most gorgeous of all nights, with a huge Full Moon. Bright as day. Calm waters.

We got them safely home, and, we safely returned to the M.S. Gripsholm.

Why did we not launch 2 motorized tenders that night in Dubrovnik? I have zero idea, but it was fun for all.

One night that I wish had never ended.

Sagueney/ Bermuda Cruise, circa AUG 1963

Foggy, Foggy Night

Age 15 or 16. We were Northbound from NYC to the Sagueney River mouth in the Saint Lawrence Seaway to see the white Beluga whales in Quebec, with a couple of stops in between. Namely, Prince Edward Island and Halifax . Then, on to Bermuda . A short 2 1/2 week August cruise.

We were going around the coast of Newfoundland , which is famous for its "pea soup" dense summer fog, as that is where  the cold Labrador Current and warm Gulf Stream Current briefly interact. That area is also famous for its rich fishing grounds. Meaning that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of small fishing vessels all over our 2 radar screens set at both short and medium range. We were afraid of running over them. We could not dodge them all. Had to maintain our course. So, we slowed down to about 5 KTs SLOW speed and set the ship's horn on 5 second intervals, all night long, so that they could avoid us . The next morning, the fog burned off, so we then went on our way at FULL speed. Tense. Zero visibility. Could not see our bow, even with our powerful Bridge searchlights. Just made matters worse. Whiteout. Everyone on those waters was blind that night. We could tell, by radar, that those small vessels were avoiding/ moving away from us.

Soviet Spy Trawlers

Same cruise: We were returning from Bermuda to NYC, and on that last night, we were climbing NORTH abeam (East) of the coast of Delaware and New Jersey . We had our VHF local Bridge radio on. (Unusual.) We mostly relied upon the Radio Room, behind the Bridge, using world wide HF frequencies, while at sea, except for immediate port operations. (VHF only has a range of 15 NM.) All that we could hear that night, was Russian being spoken on the radio. Many transmissions and waterborne radio stations. Not observing USCG, nor International, radio frequency etiquette either. They did not care. These Soviet trawlers, for decades, scoured our East Coast, trolling, not for fish, but for electronic radio/ Microwave Telephone intelligence, etc.. Loaded with antennae. They were very obvious, arrogant and unapologetic in their actions.  "In your face, America".

A voyage that did not happen

Mother and I were once in NYC, not going on that cruise, but the Kungsholm was in town. Coincidental. We had to go down to  Pier 97 to see our many Friends. Of course, I headed straight to the Bridge. I do not remember if Carl was the Captain. Probably.
I was more or less 15 - 16 years of age.
Getting close to Sailing Time. 30 MIN Preliminary Announcements being made. The First Officer said to me; "Bob; Do you want to go out to Ambrose with us, and go back on the Pilot Boat?"

ANS = "Absolutely, but I have to inform Mother." (No Cell Phones, etc., then.) I told that officer that I would either inform my Mother and remain on board, or exit the ship on time. I had plenty of money/ cash in my pocket to get a cab from the East Lower Manhattan Pilot STA to get back to the Waldorf, but could not put my Mother through the worry of my whereabouts. (My COL Father back in Kansas City , would have spanked me hard for that error.)
I ran Q-F down the stairs (elevators would take too long) as fast as I could. Looked around the PORT Upper Deck entrance / Gangway for Mom. Inquired. NO GO. So, I exited the ship and found Mom on the Pier. I told her the story. She was grateful. We waived the Kungsholm "Goodbye". The Deck officers on the Bridge saw us, as they carefully backed out into the Hudson River . They were looking for me for confirmation of my whereabouts. They knew that I would signal them.  

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