Newspaper rekindles merchant marine history

A chapter in the forgotten history of Latvia’s merchant marine is making waves thanks to the Russian-language daily newspaper Chas, even earning rare accolades from the Latvian government.

The Rīga-based newspaper recently published a series of articles about the crews of the eight merchant ships that refused to heed orders to return to Latvia after the Soviet Union occupied the country in 1940. Instead, the ships continued to fly under the flag of an independent Latvia, aiding the allied war effort against Germany.

Latvian Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete sent a letter March 25 to the newspaper thanking it for illuminating an aspect of history that for years had been hidden from Latvians. While Latvians in the West had known about the ships, Soviet authorities kept the history hidden.

Six of the ships were lost after being attacked by German submarines, according to the series, which has been retold by the Associated Press.

The first of the Latvian ships to be attacked was the Ciltvaira.

Just weeks after Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany unleashed a series of attacks on merchant vessels sailing off the eastern coast of the United States. The 3,779-ton cargo ship Ciltvaira was sunk Jan. 19, 1942, by the German submarine U-123 near the Outer Banks region of North Carolina. It was one of three merchant vessels attacked by the submarine that day.

The existence of the Ciltvaira wreck is known to some people along the North Carolina coast. At least one Web site shows photographs of the sunken ship, also known locally as the Green Buoy Wreck. According to the Web site of the Outer Banks Dive Center ( in Nags Head, the Ciltvaira wreck is found in 120 feet of water and is covered with marine life that is popular with underwater photographers.

The community of Nags Head has a street named after the Ciltvaira.

According to media reports, city leaders in Rīga are considering renaming streets for the eight merchant ships.

In addition to crew members aboard Latvian ships who were lost during the war, several Latvians serving on American merchant ships also lost their lives, according to information posted on the Web site of the U.S. Maritime Service Veterans (

The sailors included John Alost of the West Ivis, killed Jan. 26, 1942; Sergei Burmeister of the Pan New York, killed Oct. 29, 1942; William Karklin and Jānis Krastiņš of the Equipoise, who died March 26, 1942; Victor Frank Liskovs of the LaSalle, who died Nov. 7, 1942; and an unknown Latvian who died in October 1942 when the El Lago was attacked.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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