The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

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Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

“The news was excellent—but still with no essential points.  There has been sabotage in Vemork.  The heavy-water works are destroyed.  Four Norwegian-speaking men in English uniform got away. . . .   Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

Seventy-nine years ago tonight, eleven British-trained Norwegian saboteurs descended upon the heavily guarded Vemork hydroelectric plant.  Their mission: to destroy all extant stocks of heavy water, as well as the accompanying electrolysis machinery used in heavy water production.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

Did the members of Operation Gunnerside understand the importance of their mission?  Probably not.  To do so would have required an advanced degree in nuclear physics.  They were simply told that their mission was critical to the war, and, if successful, would be written about long afterward.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant—the world’s largest when it came on line in 1911, was originally dedicated to the production of fertilizer.  Only years later was it discovered that Vemork’s abundance of both water and electric power could be employed in the production of “heavy-water,” so-called due to the presence of an additional neutron in the H2O molecule.

Even then, heavy water was something of a mystery: what was it any good for?  No one really knew.  It was only when nuclear physicists discovered that heavy water made an excellent “moderator,” controlling the process of nuclear fission—and thus enabling the construction of a nuclear reactor and, ultimately, an atomic bomb, that the true value of Vemork’s unique heavy water plant was recognized.

With their invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, control of Vemork passed into German hands.  Soon, it was apparent that German demands for ever increasing amounts of heavy water from Vemork signaled that they were pursuing their own research on an atomic bomb.  To the Allied Powers this possibility was unacceptable.

The first British Special Operation Executive (SOE) attempt to sabotage Vemork (Operation Freshman), which took place on November 19, 1942, was a total  failure, resulting in the loss of 41 men.  Equally concerning, Operation Freshman alerted the Nazi occupiers of the Allies’ intentions, leading to increased security at the plant: additional guards, searchlights, mine fields, etc.

Nevertheless, faced with such daunting obstacles, the Gunnerside team successfully scaled down a sheer, 660 ft. ravine, crossed a narrow river, and scaled back up the opposite side, to reach the remote ledge where the plant was located.  Entering the plant without detection, the demolition squad set delay fuses to allow time for escape.  All told, over 1,000lbs of heavy water, as well as associated equipment, were destroyed.  There were no casualties.

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

Despite a search effort involving 3,000 German soldiers, none of the Norwegian saboteurs were caught, even though five members skied—in uniform—200 miles to safety in Sweden (two escaped to Oslo and four remained in the area for additional resistance work).

The SOE later considered Operation Gunnerside the most successful act of sabotage in WWII, and the German military commander of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, called it “The finest coup I have seen in this war.”

Joachim Rønneberg, the last surviving member of the Gunnerside operation, passed away on October 12, 2018, age 99.  I have previously written about Rønneberg here.  With Norway’s medal performance in the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting how Rønneberg described his 200-mile ski escape to Sweden: “The best skiing weekend I ever had.”

Operation Gunnerside members being congratulated by King Haakon VII. Rønneberg is on the far left.

Winter Olympic Trivia (Cont.)

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Last week’s blog produced so many responses I’ve decided to do it again!

Q: Did Germany participate in the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Yes

The question of Germany’s participation in the 1952 Games, so soon after the end of the worst conflagration in history, generated strong feelings, both pro and con.  According to Tom Buergenthal, one of those advocating for inclusion was Odd Nansen.  In a speech Nansen delivered in late 1951, he stated: “It is unjust and senseless to punish the children for the sins of their fathers.  But that is what is being sought to be done when Germany’s young people are kept out of associations [designed to promote] international cooperation.”

In the end, both East and West Germany were invited to participate.  West Germany sent a team; East Germany did not.

Q: How did the Triple Axel gets its name?

A: The Axel jump is named after Axel Paulsen, a Norwegian figure skating and speed skating phenomenon (1855—1938). 

Axel Paulsen

At the 1882 World Championships (there being no Winter Olympics until 1924), Axel won the speed skating competition, and was awarded a special prize for the new jump he introduced to the figure skating competition (all while wearing speed skates). Thereafter the jump was called the Axel in his honor.  The Axel is figure skating’s oldest and most difficult jump; it is the only competitive jump that begins with a forward takeoff.

Paulsen went on to win multiple skating competitions, including in 1885 when he captured both the figure skating and speed skating championship.

(A shout-out to my friend R.A. for calling this to my attention.)

Q: Have there been other Norwegian speed skating prodigies?

A: Yes: Fridtjof Nansen

At age 15, Nansen won the boys’ 5K speed skating race in Christiana; at age 17 he won Norway’s distance speed skating championship; and at age 18 he broke the world record for the one-mile skate.  At that point Nansen decided to improve his skiing, and went on to win multiple cross-country skiing championships as well.

Fridtjof Nansen

Q: Who is leading in the medal count for the 2022 Games.

A: As of this writing, Norway is way ahead on the medals.

See my earlier comment about Norway’s size relative to its nearest competitors.

Q: Did the torch relay instituted in the 1952 Olympic Games continue in later games?

A: Yes, and No

Norway hoped the torch relay it began in Morgedal would continue as a regular part of all subsequent Winter Olympics, and it was repeated for the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.  However, the Greek delegation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had other ideas, and began to lobby for the torch relay to originate in Olympia, Greece, as was already the case with the Summer Olympics.  They succeeded at the Innsbruck Winter Games in 1964.

This development did not present any particular difficulties until Lillehammer, Norway, was chosen to host the 1994 Winter Olympic Games.  The Norwegians wanted to recreate their Morgedal torch relay; the Greek delegation wanted the flame to come from Greece.  Neither side was inclined to compromise.  The Norwegians suggested merging the flame from the Morgedal torch with that of the Olympia torch.  No dice said the Greeks.  There was no way the “pure” flame from Olympia was going to be sullied by a “dirty” flame from a simple Norwegian hearth (notwithstanding that no ancient Greek competitor would have known what to do with a ski, a skate, or a bobsled, and would have been most uncomfortable competing in the nude, as was the custom in all historical games).

After much verbal jousting, a compromise was finally reached—the two torches would be carried to the opening side by side.  The Olympia flame would be used to light the Olympic cauldron; the Morgedal flame would be used to start the Paralympic Games.  However, when it came time for Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon to light the Olympic flame, there was only one torch.  Gerhard Heiberg, Norway’s member on the IOC and chairman of the Lillehammer committee, professed to know nothing about what happened to the second flame.  Petter Ronningen, chief operating officer for the Lillehammer Games, could only recall how “two flames entered the forest above the town, but only one came out.”

Lesson: When it comes to Olympic torches, don’t mess with Norway!

Winter Olympics (and Other) Trivia. Did You Know. . . .?

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Q: Who lit the Olympic Torch to start the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Eigil Nansen, Odd Nansen’s eldest son, lit the Olympic Torch.

Eigil Nansen lighting the Olympic Flame

Eigil, then 20 years old, was “ordered” to carry the torch “by my father” he once confessed in an interview.  In fact, he was chosen by the Oslo Olympic Organizing Committee.  In their preparation for the event, they had made it clear that “The skier [lighting the flame] must . . . represent the qualities that Norwegian sports associates with their athletes and their character.”  In lighting the torch, a symbol of international cooperation, Eigil was honoring his grandfather—polar explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, who died the year before Eigil was born.  To build suspense, Eigil was also enjoined by his father from telling anyone about his forthcoming role, not even his closest friends.

The Norwegians hosting the Olympic Games were anxious to show the world that their country had recovered from World War II, and five long years of Nazi occupation.  With the world’s attention focused on their country, the organizers devised an event, rich in cultural associations, which would highlight their own unique contributions to winter sports.  How?  By introducing the first Olympic torch relay to the Winter Olympics. [A torch relay, from Olympia, Greece, had been instituted for the 1936 Summer Olympics, and followed thereafter for the Summer Games].

What better place to light the Olympic torch and start the relay than in the hearth of a simple cabin in Telemark, Norway that once was the home of Sondre Norheim (1825—1897), considered the father of modern skiing.  Skiing was already popular in Morgedal, a tiny hamlet in Telemark, and Norheim soon distinguished himself as a master skier.  He won Norway’s first national skiing competition in Oslo (then still called Christiana) in 1868.  [Not surprisingly, when Norheim was invited to the competition, he and two friends for Morgedal skied the entire 140 miles to Christiana just to enter.]  Norheim also developed the Telemark ski, and introduced many technical innovations (different bindings, shorter skis, curved edges, etc.).

Statue of Sondre Norheim

Q: Who was the first to cross Greenland, using skis?

A: Fridtjof Nansen and his team were the first to cross Greenland, using skis.

Even Fridtjof Nansen recognized the skiing prowess of the Telemark skiers: “Telemark is the rightful home of skiing.  The people of Telemark are unquestionably our country’s best skiers, and if they are the best in our country, I can doubtless say, without fear of exaggeration, that they are also the world’s best.”  We can thank Sondre Norheim, who eventually emigrated to the United States and is buried in North Dakota, for introducing the wider world to the words ski and slalom.

Who would have the honor of actually lighting the torch in Norheim’s hearth?

The Norwegians chose Olav Bjaaland (1873—1961).  Bjaaland was also from tiny Morgedal, and like Norheim an excellent skier, winning the Nordic combined at the 1902 Holmenkollen Ski Festival.  More importantly, however, in 1952 he was one of the last living survivors of the five-man team, led by Roald Amundsen, that first reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911.  It was on a trip to Chamonix, France in 1909 for an international ski competition that Bjaaland met Amundsen purely by chance, which led to Amundsen’s invitation to join the expedition (Bjaaland also won the race).

Olav Bjaaland at the South Pole

Q: How did Bjaaland and Amundsen’s expedition sail to Antarctica in 1910?

A: Aboard the Fram, the ship specially designed by and built for Fridtjof Nansen for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

So, the stage was set: A hero of Amundsen’s expedition would ignite the pine torch in the fireplace belonging to the father of modern skiing, perched high in the mountains of Telemark, Norway.  The authorities naturally wanted to capture this historic event on film.  Only one element seemed lacking: a young child, to symbolize Norway’s future as well.

Here’s where the story takes on a number of comic overtones.  First, the filmmakers needed a young child.  The ultimate ‘winner” of this honor, a young boy named Olav Tveiten, once described in an interview how all this came to be:

“My teacher, whose name was also Olav Bjaaland, and there were a lot of Olavs in Morgedal, asked the class which one of us would go up to Sondre Norheim’s cabin.  No one held up their hand, and so he looked at me and said ‘you go.’  I think it was because I was a good skier, better than most.”

Next came the actual filming.  Although Olav Bjaaland was a near-mythic figure in Norway, by February 1952 he was just shy of his 79th birthday, and at his age following even simple stage directions presented a real challenge.  Bjaaland was supposed to light the pine torch in the hearth, with young Tveiten looking on, turn to his right, and exit the cabin.  Once outside, he would in turn light the torch to be carried by the first of 94 relay skiers.  They would carry it all the way to Bislett Stadium, 140 miles away in Oslo, following roughly the same path used by Sondre Norheim 84 years earlier.

Q: Who designed Bislett Stadium?

A: Odd Nansen’s close friend, and fellow prisoner in Grini and Sachsenhausen, Frode Rinnan, designed Bislett, and oversaw the renovations undertaken to prepare for the 1952 Games.

Unfortunately, there was one minor glitch in this film script, as described by Tveiten almost 60 years later: Instead of turning right “every time Bjaaland had lit the torch, he’d turn left and run into the wall and we would have to start all over again.” It wouldn’t have been so bad, Tveiten explained, except that it was bitterly cold (-18 F) and the film crew had to keep the cabin door open for the light.  Ultimately it took a day and a half for Bjaaland to get it right, and turn right, and the relay began, on February 13, 1952.

For two days the torch was carried—entirely on skis—by 93 renowned skiers or their descendants.  Their identities, like Eigil’s, had been kept secret until they began their leg of the journey.  Waiting patiently inside Bislett Stadium at the appointed hour on February 15 was the 94th, and final torchbearer, Eigil Nansen.  The 20,000-seat stadium was packed with dignitaries, all eager to start the games.  All Eigil needed to do was accept the torch, ski from the entrance to the steps leading to the cauldron, ascend and light the flame, ski around the rest of the inside track, and depart.

What could go wrong?  According to Eigil, “The track I was supposed to use had been wrecked by the photographers, so when I got in there it was all ice.  I was afraid I would capsize like a turtle, in front of all these people.”  Nevertheless, the sequence went off without a hitch, although again, not without its humorous side.  Once Eigil had lit the cauldron, “I skied out the end of the stadium and the doors closed behind me.  One moment everyone was cheering and clapping, and the next I was on the outside of the stadium, all alone with this torch in my hand and not knowing what to do.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Eigil several times before he passed away on February 17, 2017, age 85.  He once explained to me what happened next: “I simply threw the torch in the snow,” he said.

So much for Olympic tradition!

All of the above was indeed captured on film, which can be found here.  The film runs for well over an hour, but the good stuff can be watched in the first 10 minutes (with English subtitles to help understand the narrator).  We see old Bjaaland finally getting his directions correct, although he does seem in a bit of a daze, looked on by a rather bored Olav Tveiten.  Shortly after, a strikingly handsome Eigil Nansen accepts the torch, navigates with intense concentration the uneven snow and ice, and in true Olympic spirit, solemnly ignites the caldron. (The rest of the film makes for great viewing as well–winter sports have come a long way.)

Q: Which country has won the most medals in the Winter Olympics?

A: Norway.  Before the start of the 2022 Games, Norway had won a total of 368 medals, followed by the United States in distant second place, with 305.  [Note: the population of the U.S. in 2020 was 331 million; Norway’s was 5.5 million.]

Lesson: When it comes to Nordic sports events, don’t mess with Norway!

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is appropriate for each of us to remember the millions of innocent men, women and children slaughtered in pursuit of a crackpot racial idea.

The Nazi’s murderous scheme did not originate full blown from Adolf Hitler’s fevered imagination. The history of anti-Semitism is long and tortuous, nor was it exorcized with the utter destruction of the Nazis more than seventy years ago. As Primo Levi once observed:

It happened,
Therefore it can happen again. . .
It can happen everywhere.

So, as we remember the dead, let us all dedicate ourselves to insuring that it never does happen again, confronting injustice and intolerance wherever we see it.

The final paragraph of Odd Nansen’s Postscript to his diary reads: “The worst crime you can commit today, against yourself and society, is to forget what happened and sink back into indifference. What happened was worse than you have any idea of–and it was the indifference of mankind that let it take place!”

As true today as when wrote the Postscript in 1946.

The foregoing first appeared in a slightly different form in January 2016

January 13, 1942

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Eighty years ago today,  three officials—two German, one Norwegian—approached a small cabin in snowy East Gausdal, Norway, and informed Odd Nansen that he was wanted for questioning in Oslo.  In fact, he was part of a round-up ordered by the German overseer of Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

That very night Nansen began his prison diary.  His first entry concludes:

“I heard about the new actions against special officers and against friends of the royal family, who were all arrested at this time.  I supposed I must come under the latter heading, and if so I should probably be ‘inside’ until the was was over?”

As a hostage, Nansen was indeed ‘inside’ until the war was virtually over–almost 40 months later.  The record of his incarceration became From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  The diary has been hailed as a masterpiece—both upon its initial publication in English in 1949, and its subsequent re-issue by Vanderbilt University Press in 2016.

On the very same day as Nansen’s arrest, the governments-in-exile of nine German occupied nations, including Norway, issued the St. James Declaration, which set as one of their principal war aims the punishment of criminal acts perpetrated against their civilian populations by the Germans.  The U.K. and the U.S. were present at the St. James Conference, but as non-occupied countries, did not sign the Declaration.

Whether all those “guilty of, or responsible for, these crimes, whether they have ordered them, perpetrated them, or participated in them,” were ever fully punished is debatable. Nevertheless,  Nansen’s diary serves as a damning indictment of Nazi policies, and a roadmap for war crimes.

William L. Shirer, bestselling author of Berlin Diary, and future author of  the blockbuster The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reviewed Nansen’s diary  in 1949 for the New York Herald Tribune.  He, too, recognized the historical importance of  a diary which showed “how the Germans behaved when they had a large part of civilized Europe at their feet.”  And yet, he noted, “and this is what makes this record unique—Nansen never gave in nor did he lose his faith in mankind.”

Now, that’s something worth remembering on this day in history.

The preceding first appeared, in slightly different form, on January 13, 2018.

The Cinnamon Cruller

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Yesterday, as is my custom, I took my dogs Trina and Joni out for their morning constitutional as soon as I got up. (Actually, it’s the dogs’ custom—they’ve trained me, not the other way around.)   The air was crisp, the sky a deep blue, the sun just peeking over the horizon, a frost lay on the grass.  In a word, glorious.

That morning reminded me of another morning long ago when I was a paperboy.  I had inherited my paper route from my older brother Tom, who had outgrown it. [Translation: My parents told me I was now the new paperboy, and my indentured servitude would last until they decided otherwise.]  When one has no say in the matter, it’s best to simply submit and try and make the best of a bad situation.  And there were plenty of downsides: the less time I would have playing with my friends; the pouring rains; the freezing snows; the miscreant dogs. And fickle customers too: one afternoon, at the usual time, I saw one of my customers waiting by their mailbox about 100 yards ahead.  I quickened my pace, then broke into a trot, and finally a dash, all the while with a 35-pound bag banging against my right hip.  Out of breath, I hand-delivered the paper, expecting, perhaps, a word of thanks or encouragement.  What I got was: “Well, better late than never.”

Having a fairly large route—about 85 households—the size of the paper also affected my well-being.  Wednesdays were the worst.  All the merchants placed their advertisements in the Wednesday paper, swelling its size (those were the days).  Even with bags on both hips, I would still need to return home for a new load—meaning even less time for play.  Sunday morning was in a league of its own, but my parents stoically agreed to load the entire backseat of the car with the papers, allowing me to simply reach through the rear window as they drove and I walked alongside.

Conversely, Saturdays were the best day.  Now, I am congenitally against getting up early, and it seemed a crime against nature to miss sleeping-in on the only non-school, non-church day of the week, but once I was out and about, I was fine.  The paper was so thin I could easily carry my entire route in a single bag.  And at 7:30 am the neighborhood was all mine: no kids playing in the street, no adults making a racket with lawn mowers; no pesky dogs about.  I could daydream, and look forward to that second bowl of Cheerios waiting for me at home when the job was done.

One crisp late fall/early winter Saturday morning, my reverie was interrupted when Mrs. Kozolewski, one of my customers, pulled up alongside me in her old-model, two-tone Chevy. [I can no longer be sure her name was precisely Kozolewski, but I know it was 100% Polish.  My neighborhood consisted almost exclusively of Italian, Irish, and Polish surnames, with an occasional “Smith” or “Jones,” and one Jewish family, thrown in for good measure.] Mrs. K. rolled down the window, flashed me a friendly smile, and asked, “Would you like a donut?  I just came from the bakery.”

Well, what could I say?  Here was an offering featuring two of my favorite food groups: dough and sugar.  (Readers may remember my ode to the oatmeal raisin cookie, here).

I nodded, and she reached into her bag and handed me a cinnamon cruller.  A warm cinnamon cruller.  I had never had a cruller before, being something of a jelly donut devotee at the time.  One bite and I was transported, to a new and higher plane of existence. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better donut before, or since—and I’ve had my share.

I guess it all goes to show that even the smallest act of kindness can reverberate down through the years, long after the event itself.  Mrs. Kozolewski, wherever you are, thank you again, and Happy New Year.

PS: For a more contemporary story of a kind gesture, and what it can do, read this story.

A Year-End Potpourri

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Let’s face it: 2021 was not the year most of us will remember fondly.  The fears, the disrupted plans, the false dawns.  Yes, 2021 is best left behind as soon as possible.

But even at the end of a bad year there are always a few bright spots worth noting.

I. A Mother and Child Reunion

Thomas and Gerda Buergenthal

Seventy-five years ago today Tom Buergenthal, age 12, set eyes on his mother for the first time in over two years—two years during which he had no idea whether his mother was even alive.  A simple boy’s faith had sustained him when the war finally ended:

“Of course, I was happy the war was over and that we had been liberated.  But when the soldiers spoke of their families and of home, I was reminded that I did not know where my home was.  I had no home without my parents, and I did not know where they were.  I was sure that if I had survived, they must have survived too and that they would find me!”

But as time passed, that hope became less and less tenable; if his parents were still alive, where were they, and why hadn’t they found him yet?  His mother, for her part, hadn’t given up looking for Tom—after all, wasn’t he ein Glückskind, a lucky child?  But the challenge of locating one small boy in war-ravaged Europe was almost insuperable.

As I have recently written (here), it was Tom’s decision to emigrate to Palestine, born of despair over his parents’ unknown status, that provided the key to his ultimate discovery and reunion with his mother, on December 29, 1946.

When Tom first learned that his mother was alive, earlier in the fall of 1946, and that the two would soon be reunited, he wrote those most poignant words:

“’She is alive!’ I kept repeating to myself.  It was the happiest moment of my life.  I began to cry and laugh all at once, casting off the self-control and tough-guy attitude I sought to cultivate at the orphanage.  I had a mother, and that meant that I could be a child again.”

II. It’s a Wonderful Life.

Clarence and George Bailey

This December also marks the 75th anniversary of one of my favorite movies: “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  I’ve written about the movie, and the power of serendipity, before (here).  It took George Bailey a visit from the angel Clarence to finally realize the important impact he had had on the lives of others.  I’m not sure if Odd Nansen ever wondered what impact his life—now perpetuated through the words of his inimitable diary—had on others.  I hope not.  His humanity in the crucible of a concentration camp has undoubtedly inspired others—myself included—to follow his example.  As Tom Buergenthal once told me, Nansen “not only saved my life, but also taught me to forgive.”

III. Sixth Distribution Goes Out

Recently, as is my yearly custom since From Day to Day first reappeared in print, I donated all my 2021 royalties and speaking fees: 50% to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL-senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies in Oslo.  To date these donations cumulatively total $22,369.04.

IV. Looking Ahead

Back on March 15, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I compared the (rather minor) dislocations to our everyday life caused by COVID to the infinitely more terrible experiences of people like Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal (here)—and hoped their experiences could inspire us to overcome whatever challenges we might face.

Thus I think it appropriate to end this blog with the words Odd Nansen wrote on January 2, 1944, and the hope he was able to muster in a much darker place:

“[W]e bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year. . . .  [A]ll things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.”

Postscript: For all of you assembling your list of New Year’s Resolutions (lose weight, read more, argue less, look younger, exercise more, be smarter, etc.) let me suggest one more: “I’ll write that review of From Day to Day on Amazon that I promised Tim back in. . . .“  You’ll be glad you did! And for those who have already done so—Tusen Takk! (A Thousand Thanks!)

Cassin Young: Pearl Harbor Hero

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Pearl Harbor Memorial at Boston Navy Yard

Eighty years ago today the Empire of Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  Even today, eighty years later, the words “December 7” and “Pearl Harbor” generate strong emotions.  To use the words of one of my favorite authors, William Manchester, it was an event “which, in retrospect, seems to have been a kind of historical hinge; everything that been, no longer was, and everything that was to be, became.”

Ten years ago today I had the honor to be at Pearl Harbor at 7:55am, under a cloudless blue sky and a bright morning sun, when the tocsin tolled for those who were lost that day. The event was attended by many survivors who were eager to tell their stories—of exactly where they were, and exactly what they did on that fateful day—the memories still burned bright.

The highlight was a visit to the USS Arizona memorial.  At the far end of the memorial is a wall with the names of all the sailors on the Arizona who were killed on December 7, all inscribed on marble slabs.  Particularly poignant is a marble slab which was added later.  On it are engraved a handful of names as well.  These represent survivors of the attack on the Arizona who, fifty, sixty, even seventy years after the event, having lived a full life, still insisted that upon their death their ashes be added to the remains of their fallen comrades who lie entombed below.

December 7, 1941 produced many heroes.  Many of you know about Doris (Dorie) Miller, featured in the 2001 film, “Pearl Harbor.”

Cassin Young

I want to write about another hero of that day: Cassin Young.  Young, born in 1894 and a 1916 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was in command of the repair vessel USS Vestal, which was moored next to the Arizona on December 7, 1941.  Here’s what Richard Ketchum relates in his book, The Borrowed Years 1938-1941:

“The repair ship Vestal, with a complement of some six hundred men under Commander Cassin Young, was tied up alongside the Arizona.  The Vestal had already been hit by two bombs and was afire when the battleship blew up; the vacuum created by the explosion put out the fires on the repair vessel, but the concussion blasted overboard nearly one hundred men, including the skipper [Young].  Debris of every description—huge chunks of metal, unexploded shells, parts of human bodies—crashed down on the deck, and finally someone gave the order to abandon ship.  Before anyone went over the side an apparition appeared—a furious Commander Young, coated from head to foot with diesel oil from the water—demanding of the officer of the deck, ‘Where the hell do you think you’re going?’

‘We’re abandoning ship,’ the man replied.

‘You don’t abandon ship on me,’ Young announced, and the crew returned to battle stations.”

The citation for the Medal of Honor Young subsequently received further states: “Despite severe enemy bombing and strafing at the time, and his shocking experience of having been blown overboard, Commander Young, with extreme coolness and calmness, moved his ship to an anchorage distant from the U.S.S. Arizona, and subsequently beached the U.S.S. Vestal upon determining that such action was required to save the ship.”  This helped insure its ultimate salvage.

Less than one year later, on November 9, 1942, Cassin Young took command of the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco, which, interestingly, had also survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.  His command was short-lived: only four days later, during the naval battle of Guadalcanal, the San Francisco engaged with a superior Japanese force and Young was killed by enemy fire, one of 77 killed aboard the ship.  He was 48 years old.  In addition to his previous Medal of Honor, Young was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the country’s second highest honor.  His Medal of Honor is now on display at the Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.  I visited the museum several times while my older son, Owen Boyce (USNA 2003) was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy, but never saw it.  Now I have a reason to return.

USS Cassin Young

On December 31, 1943, a newly commissioned Fletcher-class destroyer was named after Cassin Young.  The ship saw action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Battle of Okinawa, where she was twice struck by kamikazes. Following her decommissioning she was permanently loaned to the National Park Service to be preserved as a floating memorial ship.  Since then she has been berthed at the Boston Navy Yard, part of the Boston National Historical Park, across from the USS Constitution.  In 1986 she was designated a National Historic Landmark, one of only four surviving Fletcher-class destroyers still afloat.

Today, one of the US Navy shuttle boats taking visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial, hull designation 39-3, is also, appropriately, named for Cassin Young.

My younger son, Patrick Boyce, is a US Park Service Ranger at the Boston National Historical Park, and regularly gives tours of the USS Cassin Young.  He has also prepared several fascinating and informative videos on the Cassin Young and its many components: Coming Aboard; Berthing; Meals and Water; Weapons Systems; Navigation and Communications; and Engineering and Propulsion.  Check them out, and please be sure to ask for him if you are ever visiting the Boston Navy Yard!

 

December 6, 1901: Odd Nansen’s Birthday

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Odd Nansen: Self-Portrait

Today is Odd Nansen’s 120th birthday.

Nansen has been described in many ways: humanitarian; architect; diarist; man of character.  In my Introduction to From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, I use the same words Primo Levi used to describe his friend Alberto Dalla Volta, whom Levi credits with saving his life while Levi and Dalla Volta were together in Auschwitz: “I always saw, and still see in him, the rare figure of the strong yet peace-loving man against whom the weapons of night are blunted.”

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen

(The preceding first appeared, in slightly different form, on December 6, 2015)

Happy Birthday, Fiskerjente

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Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Today is Marit (Nansen) Greve’s birthday.  She would have been 93 years old.

Odd Nansen wrote about Marit in his diary on November 8, 1944, while in Sachsenhausen, using “fiskerjente,” meaning “fisher girl” as a term of endearment.  After all, she had often accompanied him in the prewar era when he went out fishing, something he greatly enjoyed.  Nansen worried in his diary that their long separation, and those crucial years in Marit’s young life—from age 13 to age 16—without her father, would cool her affection for him.

Nansen needn’t have worried.  Marit was the keeper of the flame, and throughout her long life worked diligently, but unobtrusively, at the Grini Museum and the Fram Museum, to ensure that her father’s and grandfather’s legacies would endure.  Without her help, the current edition of Odd Nansen’s diary would have been significantly poorer.

Marit passed away last March 26.  She had lived a long and full and productive life, spanning so many important years in the life of her country and her family.  She had left nothing undone.  It was her time to go.

Nevertheless, to borrow the same words her father wrote 77 years ago today: “But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fisher girl.”

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • June 30, 2022: Sons of Norway Book Club*
  • October 7, 2022: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA*
  • October 13, 2022: Tri-County BNC, Princeton Junction, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ
  • November 15, 2022: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT*
  • * = Virtual

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"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

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