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Uncovering Latvia's WWII navy

By J. Michael Lyons

RIGA - Sixty years after their stories of dodging German U-boats while helping the Allies win World War II were splashed across U.S. newspapers, a group of unsung Latvian sailors is finally making news back home.  

The sailors manned eight freighters that defied orders to return after the Soviet takeover of Latvia in 1940 and instead pledged allegiance to Latvia's Embassy in Washington, which remained open and served as the country's exile government during the Soviet period.

Suppressed by decades of iron-fisted Soviet rule, the tales of the Ciltvaira, Everasma and six other Latvian ships were never mentioned in history textbooks here and only a few historians had heard of them until now.

Citing government documents, newspaper clippings and private telegrams, the Russian-language newspaper Chas has brought the 164 sailors back to life in a series of front-page articles.

Their story begins in the interwar period, when an independent Latvia built one of Northern Europe's largest shipping industries. In June 1940, when the Red Army marched into Latvia, dozens of privately owned Latvian cargo ships were plying international waters.

The Soviet government immediately ordered the ships home, and subsequently many - persuaded by threats that their families would be deported - returned.

One ship sailed from Peru to the Soviet port of Vladivostok. Its Latvian flag was lowered, and the ship, the Hercog Jekob, was renamed Soviet Latvia. For the next 15 years it carried prisoners to the notorious Stalinist labor camps on Sakhalin Island.

But eight ships that worked mostly between U.S. and South American ports refused to return. Along with embassies in Washington and London they were all that remained of a free Latvia.

Nazi Germany invaded Latvia in 1941 and a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, Latvia's Washington embassy pledged its eight ships to the U.S. war effort.

The Latvian ships ferried coal, rubber and other raw materials the United States needed, running a gantlet of German submarines, or U-boats, between North and South America and Europe.

"In their minds they were fighting the Germans to free their country," said Irina Schneidere, a history professor at Latvia University and one of the few historians here familiar with the ships.

Off the coast of North Carolina - later dubbed "torpedo alley" because U-boats sank dozens of ships there - the first Latvian freighter, the Ciltvaira, was torpedoed on Jan. 18, 1942.

All but two of its 32-member crew were rescued, but the 350-foot Ciltvaira sank.

A story on the front page of The New York Times, complete with a picture of the crippled Ciltvaira, ran on Jan. 21, 1942.

"When it was sunk, it was as if one-eighth of what remained of an independent Latvia was gone," said Alex Krasnitsky, the Chas journalist who spent months researching the story with the help of Latvian emigres in the United States.

The Ciltvaira, like many merchant ships sunk along the U.S. coast, was sailing close to shore when U-boat 123 fired.

The U-boat's captain later described its sinking in his memoirs, recalling that on the night his submarine sank the Ciltvaira he was able to get so close to the U.S. coast that he could see car headlights through his periscope.

On land, several rescued crew members maintained their defiance as they described the ordeal to reporters.

"We couldn't fight back this time, but probably our next ship will be armed," radio operator Rudolphs Musts was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "It will be different then. You will see what we can do when the devils attack."

The Ciltvaira shipwreck near the town of Nags Head, North Carolina remains a popular site for scuba divers and a street in the town is named after the ship.

Few of the Latvian ships were armed, but at least one put up a fight.

The Everasma was in the Caribbean Sea en route from Norfolk, Virginia to Rio de Janiero with a load of coal on Feb. 28, 1942 when crew members heard a rumbling under the ship.

Captain Mikelis Perkons later said in a statement obtained by Chas that he saw three torpedoes pass harmlessly by and turned to see a German submarine tailing the ship. The U-boat submerged and the ship's crew never saw it again.

It was later determined the Everasma had rammed and sunk the submarine.

But the Latvian freighter's luck didn't last long. A few hours later an Italian submarine, the Leonardo Da Vinci, disabled it with two torpedoes about 550 miles from Barbados. The Everasma's crew scurried onto lifeboats and watched the submarine finish the ship off with its deck guns.

"The submarine came to the surface immediately after we had cleared off the ship and shelled her," Perkons said in the statement. "About 15 shells were fired, and when the boiler exploded she broke in half and sank."

Four of the remaining six ships were sunk between May and August, 1942. Two survived the war.

Most of the sailors on the eight ships were Latvian citizens, though their ethnic backgrounds varied. Many were ethnic Russians and Poles.

Their stories stayed with them in the United States, where most received citizenship. None are known to have returned to Latvia, and just one is known to be alive. He lives outside Boston.

The series of articles, which continues this week, has caused a stir among government officials, historians and ordinary people in Latvia, where the country's Soviet history is still being pieced together.

Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete thanked the newspaper for uncovering a page in Latvia's history that had been lost. She urged Riga City Council to create a memorial to the sailors.

City council members are reportedly considering naming eight Riga streets after each of the ships.

The Latvian-language newspaper Diena, the country's largest newspaper, will print translated versions of the articles this weekend.

Bits of information continue to trickle into Chas from people who have read the articles in Latvia and the United States, where an Associated Press story about the ships ran in several newspapers.

"Europe and America know its history, but our history was kept from us," Schneidere said.

"We are still learning about what really happened to us and who our heroes are."

The Baltic Times

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