As some of you know, I’ve been a sailor most of my life. I learned to sail in Newport Beach harbor during my teen years in southern California. However, as I later learned, sailing comes naturally for many whose family history begins on the Norwegian coast. The sea was a source of income and food for those folk. My grandfather Ragnvald Duesund Bergeson’s childhood home is on the shore of a fjord (Masfjørd) and he was often expected to take the family boat out on the water in search of fish.
I’ve known for many years that Ragnvald’s brother, Trygve Duesund, made his living as a sailor, but until this week I didn’t have any details to fill in the barest of outlines.
I found his name on multiple merchant marine crew manifests in 1951-1952. The boats he worked on were doing monthly transatlantic passages between Norway and the United States. Every voyage made a stop in Walton, Nova Scotia before continuing to New York. I could find no information regarding types of cargo that being transported or what role my great-uncle had on the ships, only the names of the vessels and the dates of departures from Nova Scotia and arrivals in New York.
It was when I did a Google keyword search that things got unexpectedly interesting. I found Trygve’s name on a Norwegian website called “Krigsseilerregisteret.” The word “krigsseiler” means “war sailor,” a term used to denote the crews of the Norwegian merchant fleet who worked for the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission (Nortraship) during World War II, often at great risk of capture and even death. Nortraship has been described as the largest shipping company in the world at the time. The Krigsseilerregisteret database contains the names of nearly 70,000 sailors and over 5,000 ships.
Trygve is shown in the database with the rank of “matros”, mate, and listed as crew on the ship M/S Cometa. Next to the name of the ship is the word “Torpedert,” torpedoed! I followed a link to a document that was clearly a report of some kind about this ship, but it was in Norwegian so I had trouble deciphering enough details to make sense of anything.
A private website titled Warsailors.com provided me with a short description of the purpose of the Cometa’s voyage and her untimely end.
The Cometa left Oslo harbor on March 17, 1940 bound for Santos, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina with a full load of cargo. Over the next several days she made stops in Brevik, Bergen and Ålesund on the west coast of Norway before heading into the Atlantic. This was two weeks before the German armed forces invaded Norway on April 9 and began an occupation that lasted for the entirety of the war. That meant Norwegian vessels were from a neutral country at the time of Cometa’s sailing.
The Cometa was to meet up with a British patrol ship for assistance in safely navigating the passage in the Orkney Islands leading to the Scottish city of Kirkwall. On the evening of March 25, 1940, she picked up several British sailors to help her, but soon after she was fired on by a German submarine in the area hunting for merchant vessels. The torpedo missed the Cometa. The submarine was U-38 and the German captain, Heinrich Liebe, sent word that one of the Cometa’s officers should come aboard for a message. When he arrived he was notified that the Norwegian vessel had one hour to abandon ship before U-38 was going to sink her.
Onboard the Cometa that night were 31 crew, 6 Swedish passengers and 5 British sailors. The Cometa cohort abandoned the ship into one motorboat and two lifeboats. At 2:20 AM, U-38 fired a torpedo that hit the Cometa amidships and she broke in two. One more torpedo was required to sink her about 30 minutes later. Her last position was 65 miles northwest of Noup Head on the Isle of Westray in the Orkneys.
All 42 crew and passengers of the Cometa survived the ordeal. They were picked up later that night by another British patrol boat and taken to Kirkwall.
If you want to find out more about the incident and the submarine that sank her, U-38, go to uboat.net.
Tryggve was one of four witnesses who were later interviewed during the official investigation of the incident. He testified that he was the 3rd Mate on the crew and that he was on the 8 PM – 12 AM watch that night. He was at the helm when the Cometa was first fired upon sometime between 11 PM and midnight. He didn’t know what type of ship fired the shot until one of the Cometa’s boats was lowered and sent over to U-38. Then he could see the submarine on the starboard side of the Cometa. He described the safety equipment that was on the lifeboats and the orderly way in which the crew launched the boats and everyone climbed down the ladders on the ship’s side to the water level.
I don’t know what Trygve did immediately following his harrowing experience in the North Atlantic. If he continued his international maritime work during the war years, I haven’t found anything that would confirm that, although he could have done work on the local waterways instead.
In 1942 he married Konstanse Mathilde Torsvik and they had their first child, Ella, the next year. After the war he went to sea again, as I mentioned earlier. In 1949 they welcomed their second child, Toralf, and in 1953 Trygve and Konstanse bought the Torsvik family farm from her father. I’m assuming that marked the end of his sailing days. Tryggve died in 1991.
I met Tryggve in 1975, the first time I visited Norway and connected with my many relatives there. He didn’t speak English so we didn’t have any direct communication, but I wish I had known about this profound experience of his so I could have peppered him with questions. There were several folks in the family who could have served as translators for us!
P.S. Thanks to my daughter, Kari Bergeson Holden, for translating Tryggve’s testimony. She’s the best!
3 thoughts on “My uncle’s ship was sunk by a U-boat”
Trygve, our Great Uncle. Thank you, Dan, for sharing his story. Thank you, Kari, for translating. This is incredible.
Sara, I keep getting surprised by all the stuff that I didn’t know. There may come a point where I’ve exhausted all of the leads that I’ve discovered, but I’m not there yet!