In Latvia, a remembrance of sailors from a forgotten fleet in the fight against Nazi Germany

Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia - More than 60 years after they joined U.S. Atlantic convoys in running the gantlet of German U-boats during World War II, 164 Latvian sailors were honored Thursday on both sides of that ocean.

The men were crews on eight Latvian-flagged freighters that defied Soviet orders and remained at sea after Red Army troops occupied the Baltic Sea nation on June 17, 1940.

The newspaper Chas ran a several-part series about the fleet last month, telling Latvians about the sailors, their exploits and role in World War II.

The story - banned from history books and newspapers during five decades of Soviet rule - came as a surprise to virtually everyone in the country of 2.4 million that, over the past decade, has been rediscovering a history that was suppressed.

"It was a tremendous injustice that these men were never known in their own motherland, Latvia," said Alex Krasnitsky, an organizer of Thursday's memorials.

Commemorations included the laying of wreaths simultaneously in the Gulf of Riga and above the site where one of the ships, the Ciltvaira, was sunk off the coast of Nags Head, North Carolina, in 1942. A plaque honoring the sailors was also unveiled in the capital, Riga.

Aboard the Latvian naval frigate Virsaitis, Ilmars Leshiskis lowered brightly-colored wreaths into the calm, gray Baltic Sea.

As the wreathes broke apart, sailors and officers aboard the ship saluted, a Luthern and Orthodox priest flanking them.

"This is a very emotional day for me," Leshiskis, commander of Latvia's navy, told The Associated Press aboard the ship. "Those merchant sailors made a dramatic choice to go to war (alongside) the Americans - something they didn't have to do. They were very brave men."

He said the memorial would be an annual event as a way to commemorate the sailors' memory.

Only one sailor aboard the ships is believed to still be alive. He lives in Boston and his family, who wouldn't release his name, said he was too frail to travel.

After annexing Latvia, Josef Stalin's regime ordered all Latvian vessels to return home, and threatened to deport the families of any rebellious sailors to labor camps. Dozens of ships did return - and some of their crews were exiled to Siberia and were never heard from again.

But crews on the eight ships refused the order and, along with Latvian embassies in Washington and London, became the last remnants of an independent Latvia.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the ships ferried coal, rubber and other raw materials needed by the United States to wage war in Europe. By this time, the Latvian nation had already been seized by the Nazis, an occupation that would last until 1944.

The Ciltvaira was the first of the Latvian ships destroyed. Within nine months, five others sank - the Everasma, Abgara, Everalda, Regent and Everelza. Only the Everagra and Ke'gums survived the war.

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