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WW II sailors honored

Latvian minister Juris Saivars tosses a daisy into the Atlantic Ocean in memory of the crews of the Ciltvaira and her seven sister ships. Photo By Julia LeDoux/Sentinel Staff
Sixty-one years after the sinking of the Ciltvaira, its crew is honored.

"Musu Tevs debesis" ... Our Father in heaven ...

That was the end of a ceremony honoring a story that began more than 60 years ago.

Thursday on the beach in Nags Head, Outer Banks Sentinel Managing Editor Sandy Semans opened a wreath-laying ceremony honoring Latvian sailors who worked with the Allies during War World II. There were 45 people in attendance, including Latvian families from both Dare County and New York, and several local dignitaries.

"Most especially today, we salute the eight Latvian vessels," said Semans, "the Everasma, Abgara, Everalda, Regent, Everelza, Kegums, Everagra and the Ciltvaira, which was torpedoed off Nags Head Jan. 19, 1942. Until this moment, the only recognition that these vessels and crews have received is a single Nags Head street named after the Ciltvaira."

Across the ocean, the Chas daily newspaper in Riga, Latvia, held a simultaneous wreath-laying ceremony at sea for the same purpose. Suppressed for more than half a century, the story of the sailors came to light several months ago, when Latvian reporter Alex Krasnitsky began digging.

Krasnitsky discovered that when Joseph Stalin annexed Latvia at the beginning of WW II and ordered the eight Latvian ships to return home, the sailors refused to acknowledge Soviet authority. The Ciltvaira was the first of six of the vessels to be torpedoed by Germans and Italians. Of the eight, only the Everagra and Ke'gums survived.

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At the ceremony, Nags Head Mayor Pro Tem Mayor George Farah read a resolution adopted the day before by that board that said, in part, "The Board of Commissioners of the Town of Nags Head salutes the country of Latvia and extends its sincere wish that the bright light of freedom shall forever shine on Latvia and all the world and that our nations shall live in peace."

Farah noted that many ships met their destiny off this stretch of North Carolina coast.

"To the Latvian people, we have been proud along this portion of the coast to be the keepers of the Graveyard of the Atlantic," Farah said.

Other remarks were given by Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Warren Judge, who reviewed the area's place in history as the site of the first English settlement in the New World and as the birthplace of aviation nearly 100 years ago.

"It's these very shores that you're standing on today that serve as an icon, an icon for freedom and peace," he said.

Joseph Schwarzer, director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, noted that the crew of the ill-fated Ciltvaira was international in its makeup. It comprised not only Latvians, but also Estonians and a cabin boy from British Guinea.

"These crew members did something," he said. "In so doing, they lost their homes, their families, and in some cases their lives."

After the speeches, the U.S. Coast Guard Group Cape Hatteras honor guard presented a 21-gun salute to the eight vessels and their crews. Breaking the silence that followed, a bagpiper played "Amazing Grace."

Lt. jg. Jason Ingram of Coast Guard Group Cape Hatteras saluted the maroon-and-white memorial wreath.

A small Latvian national flag adorned the wreath, which was carried out to sea by diver Bill McDermott, owner of Outer Banks Dive Center.

On shore, attendees tossed white daisies, the Latvian national flower and a symbol of innocence and freedom, into the waves.

The offering was followed by remarks and a prayer by the Rev. Juris Saivars, a Latvian Lutheran minister from New York. Saivairs said, "Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I am very glad to be here today when we remember the events of 60 years past.

"The summer of 1942 was the time not only of war but also of prayer.

"It was an especially hard time for the Latvian Lutheran Congregation of New York. This congregation was organized by the Latvian seamen at the end of the 19th century.

"At that time every Latvian in New York had a friend or relative at sea.

"The captain, Karlis Shkerbergs, was a member of New York Latvian Church, too, and the end of his ship Ciltvaira made the prayers especially tragic and poignant.

"During the World War II, 110 members of the Latvian Congregation were killed at sea.

"Still their fate was envied by their friends in Latvia. These seamen had a chance to fight and win and even to die for freedom.

"People living in Latvia at that time had no such chance because it was already divided between two tyrannies-Nazi and Soviet.

"The chance to fight for their freedom-that was the greatest wish of all Latvians at all times.

"I am very happy for one opportunity to say the Lord's Prayer today for the Latvian freedom fighters in the same language in which they prayed 60 years ago," said the minister.

The lost story of the Latvian crew erupted on the Outer Banks when Latvian reporter Krasnitsky requested a photograph of the street E. Ciltvaira from the Sentinel. The request was common-the sharing of information or resources between two news organizations.

"We supplied that," said Semans who also asked, Why? "He explained he was trying to reclaim a portion of their history and from there it evolved."

Semans aided Krasnitsky by helping find some fo the contacts that the Latvian reporter needed for his research.

"Over the next couple of months, the story evolved as a remarkable piece of work on his part," said Semans.

The Sentinel editor held the story until it could be published first in Latvia, well aware that the story belonged to Krasnitsky for whom Semans had come to have great professional respect. As it evolved, however, both writers agreed that some kind of recognition was in order for the eight vessels and their crews.

"I think that we tend to forget sometimes that as journalists we are writing history every day and when we come up with a story that has not been reported-whether it's 60 years old or 600 years, it's our duty to bring it to light."

Latvia only regained its independence in 1991. The suppression of the story of the Latvian fleet, said Semans, may have been a result of politics and not wanting to offend other nations such as the Soviet Union.

"I think that this isn't just a Latvian story-it's American story. It's situations like this that built America," she said.

Lativian-born Manteo resident Katia Taylor McClure, adopted at 21 months of age and brought to live on the Outer Banks, originally hails from Riga. The eight-year old attends Manteo Elementary School.

Her mother, Pam McClure, said she felt it was important to bring her daughter out to the ceremony even though it meant missing a little bit of school for Katia and a little bit of work for her.

"It's a good thing to know your heritage," Pam McClure explained, adding that because of Katia's young age, it is difficult for her to understand what Nazi, and later Soviet, occupation, meant to her homeland.

Katia McClure had a broad smile on her face as she threw a bunch of daisies into the ocean in memory of men she never knew. And was Katia excited to participate in the ceremony? She had a one word answer for that question:


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