Commodore (retired) Hans Helseth of the Royal Norwegian Navy has been Senior Mentor at our Higher Command Studies Course (HCSC) for the last two years. In a discussion with a Latvian student of the current HCSC, Colonel Ilmārs Lejiņš, Commodore Helseth mentioned that his grandfather had received a Latvian medal for saving a ship’s crew, sometime before the Second World War. This led to a road of many discoveries for both our Latvian colleagues and for Commodore Helseth himself. It turned out that his grandfather had received the Order of the Three Stars from the President of Latvia and that a dramatic rescue action had taken place, none of which anyone knew much about. To find out what exactly happened and why the Senior Mentor’s grandfather received the highest state award in Latvia, I invited Commodore Helseth to share his memories and knowledge.
by Major Liene Rozenberga
Commodore (retired) Hans Helseth
Before we get to the event itself, what would you like to share with us about your grandfather?
I can only just remember my grandfather, Harald Helseth, but not too much about him since he died when I was 5 years old. I knew he was in the merchant navy and was engaged in salvage operations, but honestly not much more. When the question of the medal came up, I started some investigation. My younger brother had some details, and my cousin luckily had kept the medal and the associated papers safe. Colonel Lejiņš contacted the Latvian War Museum which provided more background information.
Our grandfather was born in 1892, graduated as a navigator in 1910, and sailed in different merchant vessels, in 1924 started working for the Norwegian Salvage Company and later became captain of the salvage ship “Jason”. By the way, he was in charge of the operations in Narvik harbour, removing the numerous wrecks there, after the war – a book was written about it and I have many interesting pictures from the time. His life at sea and in particular in the salvage business, meant long periods of separation from the family, including missing important celebrations like Christmas. Because of his work, my grandfather was once unable to be with his family for Christmas for 6 years in a row.
By the way, has your choice of career somehow been connected with your grandfather?
In a way – yes. My ancestors have been living near the city of Molde since at least back to the 11th century. Typically, they lived a modest life, with farming combined with fishing as subsistence, and later in the all-important merchant fleet. My great-grandfather was a seaman and a shipbuilder, my grandfather Harald Helseth was as we’ve seen an officer in the merchant navy and my father served in the Royal Norwegian Navy in the UK from the beginning of Second World War. He was on a Norwegian tanker on the US west coast when Norway was occupied and couldn’t return home, of course. He spent his whole working life, 44 years, including the period of World War II, in the Navy. I guess it explains how I ended up being a naval officer myself. I joined in 1977 and have had the honour to serve in Norwegian Navy until I retired a year and a half ago.
Returning back to your grandfather Harald and to the deed itself. Rescuing and salvaging had been a regular and common work for your grandfather. What was so special about this operation, which was so highly appreciated by Latvians?
In January 1932, the Latvian ship “Evergunar”, with a cargo of Russian timber, had set off from Murmansk when the propeller snapped off. Another Latvian ship, “Everline” from the same company, took her in a tow southwards to a dock either in Trondheim or in Bergen, but a merchant vessel towing another merchant vessel (steam ships) is not the best combination. In a terrible winter storm, the tow broke and “Evergunar” started to sink near the island of Gimlingen, on a part of the coast where the southwest winter storms can be very dangerous. The weather had been bad for several days, with hurricane force winds, very high waves and at that time of the year it was mostly dark.
“Jason” was called to help. Meanwhile, on the night from 18 to 19 January, as “Evergunar” had run aground and started to take in water, it was believed that she would soon sink. Therefore, 14 people entered a lifeboat and drifted off in the harsh winter conditions – cold, no visibility, at a mercy of winds and currents. Two of these sailors were swept overboard and drowned and one died of exposure just as they - by a miracle - reached a bay where the local people took care of them. It was indeed a pure luck, since if they had drifted just a short distance more to north or south, they would have met with a grim fate. The locals shared everything they had with the crewmembers, including tearing up their own clothes to make bandages. By the way, as a sign of appreciation those two families were later given several Latvian national costumes, and also a certain sum of money raised by Latvians. The local priest, who performed the ceremony over the dead, was sent a magnificent edition over Latvian churches from the country’s bishop. It would indeed be interesting to discover what happened to those national costumes and the book - I’m convinced someone have kept them safe.
Map of the area
Meanwhile, “Jason” had stopped where the waves were less dangerous - at the other end of the island where “Evergunar” was beached. Captain Harald Helseth, together with two divers Bernhard Sebak and Berent Sagosen, went ashore on the other side of the island. They managed to shoot a line over to “Evergunar” and get a rope with a basket across by which they managed to get all eight remaining crew members safely from the ship to the shore and onwards to “Jason” - first the two female cooks, then the crew, the pilot and as the last the captain. The other lifeboats on board, by the way, had been crushed by the sea, so there were no other alternatives. “Jason” started a search for the first lifeboat, and found it in the narrow bay where they were looked after by the local Norwegians. A total of 19 Latvian sailors were rescued, but as we saw, three perished. Their memorial is still at the local churchyard.
The memorial stone of the three Latvian sailors who perished in the incident
What award did your grandfather actually receive and when?
My grandfather, as the captain of the ship “Jason”, received the Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for his actions. This I discovered only a short while ago. The Director of the company, Morten Beyer, also received the same order and the Jason Team Divers Berent Sagosen and Bernhard Sebak received the Gold medal of the Three Stars Order. An interesting fact is that the event happened from 18-19 January 1932 and already on 24 February, a letter from the Latvian General Consulate in Norway came informing that my grandfather had been awarded the Officer of the Order of the Three Stars on 22 February. I don’t think anyone could have done it faster even today! The incident was covered in detail by many newspapers at the time.
According to information kindly and very helpfully provided by the Latvian War Museum “the awards were presented on 10 March the same year, by the Latvian Consul-General A. Vannags. The Norwegian-Latvian Society held a solemn event at the Swedish congregation in Oslo. During the event, the Norwegian student choir sang the Latvian national anthem, several Norwegian songs and folk songs in Latvian. The award was presented solemnly at a lunch at the Bristol Hotel after the event. The press in Latvia also wrote about this.”
Harald Helseth with the Order of the Three Stars The Diploma of the Order of the Three Stars
The crew of “Jason” also received an Appreciation from the Latvian Rescue Society on the Waters. There was an inquiry after the loss of the “Evergunar”. The pilot on board, the second last to be rescued, gave a detailed report. The calmness and discipline of the Latvian crew was highlighted by the pilot and all the crewmembers of “Jason”.
Some of the crewmembers of the “Evergunar”, with a picture of the ship in the background
When daylight came, the front half of the “Evergunar” was still above water. The ship had not, as could be expected, slipped into deeper waters. It is tragic to think – but this is with the wisdom of hindsight - that all could have been rescued if they stayed on board, but if the ship had sunk, all would have drowned. What happened to the wreck, I don’t know.
“Evergunar” after the storm
Anyway, I have my grandfather’s picture on the wall at home. To have learnt this history, and now knowing where the medal came from, makes everything more interesting, no doubt. A big thanks to my Latvian colleagues that helped me getting the snowball rolling!
Appreciation from the Latvian Rescue Society on the Waters
We can just imagine the gratitude the rescued people and their families felt. There have always been heroes among us and their deeds and achievements have inspired and are still inspiring us. Thank you!