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8/14/09

Sailing for America




In 1941, I was nine years old and living with my mother in Reykjavík, the Icelandic capital, where I was born. The British had invaded the year before and my mother decided that it would probably be good for me to spend the summer away from the city. In Iceland, that doesn’t mean a beach house, quaint cottage in a forest, or a nighttime chorus of crickets. I was going to a farm belonging to the family of my mother's second husband, Baldvin. My mother had married him because she felt that I needed a father, and Baldvin was the best father anyone could ask for. My vacation spot was north of Reykjavík and not easily accessed. It was a farm that could only be reached by three successive modes of transportation: a small ship, a rattletrap bus or car, and a long trek on horseback that included crossing a busy little river without a bridge. It was in a desolate region, stark and stunning. If one wanted to get away from it all, this was indeed the place.


I had not been at the farm very long when I received a call from my mother (yes, amazingly, they had a telephone), who asked me if I would like to go to America. She did not have to persuade me, I found the primitive life on the farm boring, although I enjoyed afternoons spent with grazing cows in a field at the foot of mountain. I found it soothing to rest my head on a cow's side as it reclined and lazily chewed the cud. It was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a few hours daydreaming. After my mother's call, those dreams were mostly about America, as I imagined it to be. That, of course, was solely based on what I had seen in movies and Life magazine. There was no Grand Canyon in my dreams, no Golden Gate Bridge or Mississippi riverboat—perhaps some cowboys and Indians, but, mostly, there was New York City. That big ape on the skyscraper, rich kids in the back of huge limousines, and masses of well-dressed people going in and out of marble-walled office buildings. I think I had seen a lot of pictures from the 1939 World’s Fair.


My 10th birthday party. I'm 4th from right.
My ticket to New York was a father I had never met. He married my mother in Copenhagen when she 17, whisked her off to Marseilles, conceived me, and disappeared. Now he suddenly wanted to have me spend a year with him, his mistress, and her 6-year-old daughter whose father was said to be an English nobleman. I was told that Kanda believed my father to be her father, too, and they instructed me to never tell her the truth. I kept that promise and I know that it all sounds like an unimaginative soap opera scenario, but that’s how it was. I have yet to figure out why my father suddenly decided to recognize my existence, but Kanda and I have stayed in touch. She lives in Iceland.
My mother had my father sign a contract that called for my return to Iceland after one year—it was not honored (as you will see in a future post).


A friend, a cow, and I. On the farm, Summer 1941.
On October 18, 1941, Baldvin—whom she had recently divorced—threw a birthday party for me. It was also, unofficially, a bon voyage affair, for it was only five days later that I boarded the S/S Goðafoss with my father, his mistress, Stella, her daughter, Kanda, and our Icelandic maid, Adda. I had no apprehensions about the trip itself, I knew that there was a war going on and I had watched with excitement as the British troops occupied Iceland and seemed to be preparing for street combat. The day of their arrival, they began putting up sandbag fortifications on street corners. That alarmed the adults, but boys find that sort of thing cool, like that German reconnaissance plane that flew over Reykjavík every Sunday morning. The
British always tried to shoot it down, so there were puffs of smoke all around it, but it was never hit.

The NY Daily Mirror would soon describe the Goðafoss as “a drab chunky one-stack merchantman, flying a blue flag like a swastika,” but I knew it as a freighter that had taken us to England and Denmark a couple of times when I was very young.


The steamship company’s logo was, indeed, a blue swastika, and I recall how the British had stormed their building when they occupied. I also remember seeing smoke come out of the German embassy's chimney. It was all quite fascinating to us kids. The Goðafoss, named after one of Iceland's many beautiful waterfalls, was a 1,542-ton freighter that carried about 27 passengers in its small cabins. The ventilation was poor, the wood-paneled walls creaked and there was a gurgly sucking noise from the sink each time the ship's structure was tested. It was important that we be situated as close as possible to the lifeboats, so, as soon as we reached the open sea, we were told to sleep on the narrow leather benches that lined the walls of the upper deck's smoking lounge. Unfortunately, we also had to sleep wearing a bulky life vest, which only was fun on the first night. As we slowly moved towards the mouth of the bay, the convoy began to take shape. Seeing all these ships, which eventually numbered about fifty, inspired a morbid game. In kindergarten, I had learned how to make boats by folding paper, so I got Kanda to help me make a little convoy for us to play with. Our fellow passengers were horrified as we played out a bloody maritime battle on the floor. 

That battle became all too real a few days later when our convoy was attacked by a U-boat wolf pack. We were immediately herded into the parked lifeboats—just in case. That was seventy years ago and I can still hear two prominent sounds: the hooting of a destroyer's siren and the thud of depth charges, the latter followed by a vibration. It was high drama that scared the adults and had us kids fascinated. About two and a half years later, I would have the same experience on the same ship—I'll recall that one in a future post. This encounter, however, was historic, for we watched as torpedoes all but ripped apart the tanker, Salinas, and another ship, a U.S. Navy destroyer, rushed to its aid. The Salinas made it, but the destroyer did not: The Reuben James took 100 men of the U.S. Navy with it to the bottom of the Atlantic. 

This was the first U.S. warship to go down in WWII and the papers were full of it, but decades passed before I discovered that the ship I had seen go down was the one Woody Guthrie memorialized in a song.

Here's a newspaper photo of the Goðafoss taken November 7, 1941, as we prepared to dock in New York. (Click on image to enlarge) We were met by a pushy, grubby-looking group of gum-chewing photographers and reporters wearing felt hats with their IDs stuck in the band. Flashbulbs blinded us, and the shouted questions were deafening, but I didn't understand a word of it. This was a central casting type of scene that I would later see played played out in many movies.

The S/S Goðafoss as we sailed up the East River.
The manifest. (Click on image to enlarge)


Here I am, Gunnar (my middle name) Albertsson on the ship's manifest. (Click on image to enlarge). The extra "s" in my name is how Icelanders note that one is "son of," but I was not son of Albert, my father was. By rights, I should have been christened Thórðarsson, but someone had the good idea to drop an "s". Just thought I'd throw that in here.




SS Godafoss, The Reuben James, Captain Erich Topp and the U-522 crew that sank the destroyer.










Below is Arlo Guthrie's song, sung by the Kingston Trio—the video includes a scrolling list of the casualties.

10 comments:

  1. You've got my interest! What a great story. Looking forward to reading more.

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  2. Thanks, Rose, there will be a follow-up, of sorts.

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  3. A blue swastika... that's intriguing, what with the War and all. First I've heard of something like that.

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  4. The symbol itself is an ancient one, going back at least 3000 years. When the British invaded and occupied Iceland, the blue and white flag waved from the roof of the Eimskip building, which they stormed. Guess they were colorblind :)

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  5. Neither the Salinas nor the Goðafoss were in the same convoy as the Reuben James...

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    1. They certainly were. Where were you? Nobody should be so uninformed in this age of the Internet I suggest that you check the day's newspapers, as a starter. Or you might save yourself some time and effort by looking at the images above. Click on them to enlarge them.

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    2. Actually, s/he is correct. USS Reuben James was escorting eastbound convoy HX-156 towards Britain when it was torpedoed; the Salinas and Goðafoss were headed WEST, towards America, with the westbound convoy ON-28. The two convoys may or may not have been within sight of each other, but they were headed in opposite directions.

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    3. That could be, I assume that you looked up the convoy details, but I know what I saw from the Go∂afoot, a lot of depth charges were dropped around us and I can still hear the hoots that emanated from one or more destroyers.

      Are you implying that there were two simultaneous U-boat attacks? I really doubt that.

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    4. USS Reuben James was torpedoed early on 31 October by U-552; however, it was U-106 that claimed credit for damaging USS Salinas, and most sources report that happened on the morning of the 30th, or about 22 hours before Reuben James went down. I don't quite know how to explain the newspaper reports; perhaps the Goðafoss passengers had been misled, unintenionally or otherwise, about which destroyer they saw.(The St. Louis Dispatch article, for example, says that "the Godafoss radio reported the Reuben James was sunk in an effort to rescue the Salinas"--maybe the radio operator was confused or didn't realize there was a whole other convoy out there.)

      Certainly both convoys were in about the same waters at about the same time: HX-156 left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 22 October, arriving at Liverpool on 5 November (several vessels either stopped in Iceland or joined the convoy there, and the Royal Navy took over from the US Navy escorts late on the 31st or early on 1 November). Meanwhile, ON-28 left Liverpool on 20 October and dispersed south of Newfoundland on 3 November, with ships heading to various ports up and down the east coast (again, some having joined or left in Iceland).

      Both convoys had US Navy destroyers escorting them, and in both cases depth charges were dropped to try to catch the attacking U-boat, so I certainly cannot and do not seek to challenge your recollections of what you saw and experienced.

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    5. That is interesting and I appreciate the information. I do recall us (Go∂afoss) sailing to the mouth of the bay unescorted, then joining other ships there. Eventually, at least one other Icelandic vessel belonging to Eimskip was sunk around the entrance to the bay (Hafnarfjör∂ur). After the attack, we made a stop in Halifax.

      BTW, I was also on the Go∂afoss in June, 1944 when our convoy was attacked. That time, we lost the convoy and had to wait in Loch Ewe, Scotland, to hook up with another Iceland-bound convoy.

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