Many years ago, my parents took me along on a vacation to Nags Head, a small town in the Outer Banks region of North Carolina. For a young boy, it was place where history became cool. Pirates used to roam the Atlantic Ocean off Nags Head. To the north is Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright brothers experimented with flight. And to the west is Roanoke Island, site of the mysterious late 16th century “Lost Colony.”
And though I didn’t know it at the time, it is also the place where Latvian sailors became legends during World War II.
Latvians in America had for years known about the story of the Ciltvaira and seven other Latvian merchant ships (the Abagra, Everagra, Everalda, Everasma, Everelza, Ķegums and Regent). Upon learning that their country had been overrun by the Soviet Union, their crews refused to return to an occupied nation and instead volunteered to help the Allies. Not all the mariners were Latvian.
On Jan. 19, 1942, just weeks after the United States had been dragged into the war, a German submarine torpedoed the Ciltvaira off the coast of North Carolina near Nags Head. Two of the 32 sailors died, but the rest were rescued.
Five more of the ships fell to torpedos that year: the Everasma on Feb. 28, the Abagra on May 6, the Regent on June 14, the Everalda on June 29, the Everelza on Aug. 13. Only the Everagra and the Ķegums survived the war.
Their story was detailed in a series of articles appearing earlier this year in Chas, a Russian-language daily newspaper in Rīga. Because few in Latvia knew the tale, the series saw broad interest, even earning a commendation from Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete. The Latvian-language daily Diena published a version of the story in its Sestdiena magazine. And the Associated Press carried the story around the world.
Back in the United States, the tale of the Latvian sailors took on special meaning for two communities. One, of course, is Nags Head, where for many Ciltvaira perhaps was no more than a name on a street sign. And the other community is the New York Latvian Ev.-Lutheran Church, whose archives revealed that many of the sailors of the Ciltvaira and other ships had been members of the congregation during World War II.
The two communities came together May 8, when cermonies honoring the sailors were held in Latvia and in North Carolina. At Nags Head, local officials, staff from the Outer Banks Sentinel newspaper and members of the New York Latvian church gathered by the Atlantic Ocean to pay their respects, complete with a 21-gun salute.
The night before, the Nags Head Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution honoring the crew of the Ciltvaira.
For the New York church, the event also serves as a reminder of its own history.
A 1944 biography of the Rev. Kārlis Podiņš, who served the New York church for decades, notes how in 1942 the congregation held a special summer service to remember the fallen Latvian sailors and to bolster the spirits of those still living. “Having received their blessing and communion, they returned to the fight with twice the strength and courage,” wrote Austra Truce, who compiled the minister’s biography.
Before and during the war, the arrival of a Latvian ship in the port at New York had been a big event for the congregation, according to the June 1954 issue of the church newsletter, Baznīcas Ziņas, sent to me by Ēriks Niedrītis, a member of the church board.
“Our sailors attended events and came to church,” the article reported, “(and) there were parties in homes and receptions aboard ships.”
But the loss of Latvian lives and ships during the war changed the atmosphere. “The sacrifices of the war at sea brought great losses to Latvian sailors and cut deep into our active membership,” the article continued. “With that, to a great extent, our celebration of the sailors was quieted.”
If you vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, take time to appreciate the history of the region. Read about the pirates. Visit the Wright brothers museum. See the theatrical production of the “Lost Colony.” And if you walk along the beach, pause a moment to remember those Latvian sailors.
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