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 Top Stories
Memory of sailors returns


Latvian Navy sailors lower the wreath presented by Chas into the sea. Photo By Oksana Jedan/Courtesy Chas Daily, Riga, Latvia
RIGA, LATVIA -- "In the late autumn of 1939 and early spring of 1940 eight ships, one after one, left this harbor. Sailors thought that it was to be an ordinary run, some several months long. But it wasn't. Their voyage still continues. Now the time has come for this voyage to end where it began more than five dozen years ago, in the home port of all eight steamers. To end here, in Riga."

These words became a watershed for many people in several countries spanning half the globe: the words were pronounced at the opening of ceremony held on Victory in Europe Day in the Latvian capital city of Riga in honor of the crews of eight Latvian-flagged vessels. After the Soviet Union swallowed the small Baltic state in the fateful summer of 1940, crews of these ships refused to recognize the Soviet orders and never laid course to the nearest Soviet port, as they were ordered. They went under authority of the Latvian embassy in Washington and under legal protection of the U.S., who never recognized the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet empire.

One and a half years later, when WWII, after engulfing Europe, Asia and Africa, erupted in the Western hemisphere as well, eight steamers -- with Latvian flags flying and under complete jurisdiction of the Latvian legation in Washington, joined the Allied merchant navy. Six out of the eight vessels were sunk by Nazis in the course of first seven months of 1942. The Ciltvaira was torpedoed Jan. 19 off the Nags Head shores, and the Everelza was sunk by a U-boat Aug. 13 several thousand nautical miles to the south. Four more ships -- the Everasma, Abgara, Regent and Everalda -- met similar fates in between. The crews are the only known group of Latvian citizens who -- under their national flag and while in the jurisdiction of legitimate Latvian authority -- fought the Nazis. Even after losing six ships that equated to three-quarters of its "firepower," they continued their fight on board two remaining Latvian ships, named the Kegums and Everagra, or under flags of other Allied nations.

Emotionally their sea run continued until May 8th, 2003 -- when Riga's Russian-language daily Chas, with the support of the city authorities and the National Defense Forces, unveiled a temporary memorial plaque on the Riga building which -- back in 20s -- housed the maritime school where many of the sailors trained.

"Today we are ending this voyage," Regina Lochmele, the producer of Chas' sister radio station, Nova, told the gathering.

It is said that the day will come when the sea shall give up her dead. It is not in a human's forces to do it, but a human may resurrect the memory thought faded long ago. When this writer contacted colleagues at the Outer Banks Sentinel, none of us thought that two memorial events would be held simultaneously on shores some 5,000 miles apart. The facts of Latvian vessels' participation in the Allied convoys were known before only to a small group of history enthusiasts and not in every detail. They came to be known to the wider society in Latvia and elsewhere because of the Chas research series, produced with the invaluable assistance of many sympathizers all over the world, including the Sentinel.

Speaking after Ms. Lochmele, Sergey Dolgopolov, vice mayor of Riga, stressed the importance of society rediscovering its history -- in full and without ideological aberrations. In his words, the sailors of the eight ships deserved not only a memorial plaque, but a monument in Riga. The city council will consider erecting it, Mr. Dolgopolov said.


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Alexey Sheynin, the publisher of Chas, stressed that virtually every day the newspaper is contacted by relatives of sailors who, on several occasions learned about the wartime destiny of their loved ones from the stories that Chas started to run in mid-March. The work is far from over, he said.

Indeed: for now, even the list of sailors' names is far from complete. Chas was able to establish slightly more than a half of them. However, judging by the names, it is already clear that the crews of the eight ships were multi-ethnic, reflecting the ethnic diversity of Latvia. While ethnic Latvians were the clear majority on board the eight steamers, Latvian citizens of Russian descent, for example, served as officers and average seamen on the ships. This fact, which could be viewed as of secondary importance elsewhere, resonates with the realities of today's Latvia, still healing after five decades of strangling Soviet rule, habitually labeled in the West as the "Russian" occupation.

This writer was given the honor of unveiling the plaque -- and did so under photo blitzes and lenses of cameras of several TV companies. Attendees -- including the Deputy Commander of the Defense Forces Karlis Kreslinsh, Commander of the Navy Capt. Ilmars Leshinskis and state secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maris Riekstinsh, as well as several WWII Soviet Northern fleet vets, who themselves served in the Allied convoys and as foreign diplomats -- applauded. Flowers were laid at the plaque.

The second part of the ceremony was held on board the Latvian Navy flagship Virsaitis, a 180-foot mine-layer. The Virsaitis left the seaport of Riga, going along the same routes as the eight ships once did. Under the cloudy and unfriendly skies, she picked up speed and headed down the Daugava River to the Gulf of Riga.

There, some 10 miles offshore, it stopped. Participants of the ceremony gathered at the stern. The flag was lowered to half-mast, and the first wreath -- from Chas -- was lowered onto calm, but murky waters. The moment it touched the surface, the dense cover of dark clouds cracked unexpectedly, and bright sunlight washed the deck of the Virsaitis. Two more wreaths and flowers followed. Those on board who wore uniforms saluted.

Navy Chaplain Rev. Viesturs Kalninsh in his sermon stressed that the crews of the eight steamers never betrayed either their Motherland or themselves. "These sailors must not be forgotten," he said. He urged everyone on board to observe a moment of silence in "memory of those heroes who lost their lives and were not honored before" because their country was controlled by a brutal outside force.

"We returned a long-overdue debt to those who risked their lives in the name of freedom fighting in the most terrible of all wars humankind ever knew. I do believe that the feelings we all just have experienced will be with us for the days to come. This ceremony must become a tradition, and on May 8 of each forthcoming year we will lay wreaths in memory of those brave sailors," said Capt. Leshinskis, who addressed the participants in the ceremony after Rev. Kalninsh.

Ksenia Zagorovskya, Chas' editor in chief, accented yet another facet of the sailors' saga: "We are starting to recognize that in the WWII history of Latvia, not all pages were tragic. We have reasons not only to mourn, but to celebrate and be proud as well."

Father Theophan of the Russian Orthodox Church closed the ceremony by saying, "For the Almighty, everyone is alive. For living people, everyone is alive while the memory lives. God bless the heroes who lost their lives at sea!"

Then two ministers -- Latvian Lutheran and Russian Orthodox -- embraced each other.

Under swiftly clearing skies the Virsaitis set a course to the east, back to Riga, leaving behind three wreaths and flowers, which slowly drifted west.



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