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Seeking survivors: Crews of foreign-flagged ships faced death, loss of countries and families

This photograph was taken Jan. 19, 1942 as the torpedoed Ciltvaira was slowly sinking to join other ships in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Photo From The National Archives
Editor's note: Earlier this year, a reporter for Chas (The Hour), a Russian-language newspaper based in Riga, Latvia, e-mailed this writer to ask for assistance in gathering information for a story he was researching. The information that followed that first communication guided this story down a path that was cluttered with past political agendas and misunderstandings, but in the end opened up to reveal a remarkable story of perseverance, courage and the thirst for freedom.

Jan. 19, 1942, a unique part of Latvia was sunk off Nags Head when the freighter Ciltvaira was torpedoed by the German submarine U-123. The "Cilt," as it is referred to by divers, did not give up its seafaring ways easily.

"She floated for two days after that," said Kevin Duffus, producer of the documentary "Torpedo Alley."

According to survivors' reports, the U.S. tanker Socony Vacuum and the Brazilian freighter Bury picked up the crew. But fearing that the Germans were still in the area, both left the scene after the Bury made an unsuccessful attempt to tow the damaged vessel. The Bury sailed to New York with nine of the men. The Socony Vacuum left the scene at the same time, heading for Charleston, S.C., with 21 crew members.

Duffus, also a board member of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, said that about six hours after the Ciltvaira was hit, the U.S. Navy tug Sciota arrived on the scene to lend aid to the ship, which by that time had been abandoned by the crew. The tug also attempted to tow it before finally making the decision to let it take its place among the thousands of other vessels that make up "the Graveyard of the Atlantic."

The freighter was the first Latvian vessel to be sunk in the Western Hemisphere during World War II. Five other Latvian-flagged vessels and hundreds of other ships eventually met the same fate at the hands of the Germans and Italians during the first several months of 1942. Although fires from ships routinely lit the night sky along the Outer Banks, the U.S. government denied that the waters off the nation's coast had become a killing field where the German submarines and U-boats roamed at will. Before the Germans were thwarted in their mission late in 1942, almost 400 ships and about 5,000 merchant seamen and passengers were lost along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf of Mexico and the Carribbean.

Passing ships silhouetted against the lights on shore were easy pickings for the subs, Duffus reported in his documentary. Outer Banks residents watched the fires burn as ship after ship was torpedoed. Some Bankers used their fishing boats to rescue crews, buried bodies that washed ashore and fed those who lived to sail another day.

The Cilt had left its home port in Latvia about two years before, when the crew said their goodbyes and made plans for their eventual return to their homeland. They didn't know that many, if not most, would never return. And they couldn't have imagined that although their national flag would continue to wave above the deck of their ship, their country would cease to exist except in their hearts and would not be reborn for more than a half century.

Eight Latvian vessels -- including the Cilt -- were working in the Atlantic Ocean, primarily off North and South America, when the Soviets gained control of the country in 1940.

The Soviets ordered the ships to return to their home ports, but the captains and crews refused to recognize any orders that didn't come from their own government, which now existed only in exile.

Latvian embassies in Washington, D.C., and London never received the official status of government in exile. But most of the Allied nations recognized the embassy officials' authority to represent the Republic of Latvia during WWII, and the embassy in Washington remained in operation without interruption until 1991, when Latvia reestablished its independence.

Disobeying Soviet orders translated into a death sentence for those unwilling to return. Some crew members did go back to what had become an occupied country. But most steadfastly stayed with their vessels, flags and tenacious allegiance to their country.

The small fleet joined hundreds of other vessels that became part of the Allied effort even though they were from countries that were under German or Soviet occupation. In a strange turn of events, because the Soviet Union became an Allied country after being attacked by Germany in the summer of 1941, the Latvian crews that refused to acknowledge Soviet authority indirectly helped the Soviets through their work on the side of the Allies.

Kevin Foster, maritime historian for the U.S. Department of Interior, said that other occupied countries including Poland, Norway, Greece, Denmark and the Netherlands had ships operating on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ships from most other countries were later recognized for their contributions to the Allied war efforts, but the Latvian vessels weren't. In fact, the fate of the fleet remained a mystery to many in Latvia during the five decades of Soviet occupation. They were an embarrassment to the Soviets, who decided to simply erase evidence of their existence. Today's official history doesn't note the fact that Latvia as a state played any role in the World War II although these sailors were the only known group of Latvian citizens who fought in WWII under lawful authority of their exiled government. The only recognition of the fleet to be found in the U.S. or Latvia is a street in South Nags Head named after the Ciltvaira.

Many of the foreign-flagged vessels' crews became part of the U.S. Merchant Marine, hauling materials and men to and from the war in Europe. And while they were trying to help end the war, it took huge tolls on their countries.

As Latvian mariners risked their lives in the Atlantic, friends, family and neighbors were being slaughtered or simply disappeared, never to be heard from again. Soviet domination of the country briefly ended in 1942 when the Germans invaded. Later in the war, the Soviets regained control. During both occupations, Latvian citizens were drafted to fight. The Jewish community of approximately 90,000 was exterminated during the German occupation.

The Soviets repressed and caused the deaths untold tens of thousands by sending them to Gulag camps in Siberia, where the chances of survival were not good. When the Germans began retreating in 1944-45, many Latvians left with them, fearing the Soviets' brutality.

When victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, thousands of Latvians were already living outside the country -- torn away from their homeland and other family members. Many became citizens of other countries, changed their names to fit into their new cultures and were left with only memories of their former lives.

The Soviets replenished the Latvian population with "settlers" that they brought in from Slavic republics of the USSR.

For the next five decades, the stories of the Ciltvaira and its seven sister ships, the Everasma, Abgara, Everalda, Regent, Everelza, Kegums and Everagra, remained unfinished. Earlier this year, reporter Alex Krasnitsky received permission from the decision-makers at Chas newspaper to take on the enormous task of trying to reclaim at least part of the nation's history. Subsequently, Krasnitsky set out to find what exactly had happened to the fleet, whether there were any survivors and, if so, where they are.

Krasnitsky's research has led to a series of articles that have helped bring the paper's readership a step closer to knowing the facts. He is still searching for survivors, however.

At 8 a.m. Thursday, May 8, the Outer Banks Sentinel will host a memorial service to recognize the contributions of the many foreign-flagged merchant vessels and their crews that served during WW II, particularly those of the Latvian fleet. A wreath will be placed in the water, and the U.S. Coast Guard will provide military honors. Simultaneously, Chas will host a similar ceremony in the waters near Riga, Latvia. After the ceremony, the papers will exchange photographs and stories so that readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean can see how the events were memorialized.

The public, especially WWII veterans, are invited to attend the ceremony on the beach at the end of Ciltvaira Street in South Nags Head. Those wishing to participate may bring a fresh daisy to toss into the water at the end of the ceremony. Please don't bring anything with ribbons or wires. The daisy is Latvia's national flower and is also a symbol of innocence and freedom.

Anyone willing to share information about survivors from any of the Latvian ships can contact the Sentinel by sending e-mail to editor@obsentinel.com The information will be shared with Krasnitsky so that it can be incorporated into that paper's work.

(Sandy Semans can be reached at 480-2234 or editor@obsentinel.com )

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