Utö islanders commemorate S. S. Park Victory

On our recent trip to Finland, we had the opportunity to travel to Utö, the southernmost year-round inhabited island of the Finnish archipelago off which the S. S. Park Victory sank in 1947. A small island of .31 square miles, it’s history is linked to the sea.

Rex and I on our way to the Utö lighthouse. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

With our host and guide Jouko Moisala, we walked all around the island. He pointed out to us the place where the Park Victory rests.

The S. S. Park Victory lies some 40 meters deep on the other side of the narrow rocky island to which I’m pointing. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

Four divers prepare to go down to the Park Victory. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

On a tour of the lighthouse, guide Hanna Kovanen shared her family’s story of the stormy night the ship went down and the role the islanders played in the rescue of the survivors. The call for help went out at 3:00 Christmas morning. Hanna’s short-statured grandmother trudged through waste-deep snow to get to the pier. She hauled an unconscious man over her shoulder to her house, took off his wet clothes, warmed him, and washed the oil off him. When the man came to, he later said he looked up and thought he must be in heaven because he was looking at an angel. The man was Allen Zepp, captain of the Park Victory.

Jouko shows us the Park Victory display in the island’s small museum. Captain Zepp’s photo is on the wall in the center of the picture. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

Hanna’s grandmother took in another man who had dark curly hair that looked like it had been washed, but she thought he was still covered with oil. When scrubbing didn’t take the darkness away, she discovered he was a black man and had, in fact, already been cleaned. She had never seen a black man before.

Hanna said the islanders didn’t have extra winter clothing, so they pulled out their summer things to dress the scrubbed survivors in. Finnish Army clothes were also available from the small Finnish Defense Forces station on the island. The survivors were so grateful for the care they received from the islanders that after they arrived home they sent 100 pounds of sugar and 100 pounds of coffee to Utö, items that were rationed for the inhabitants at the time. The goods were apportioned to all the families on the island. Their gratitude led them to each pay their share for what they received into a fund that was used to commission a memorial for the ten sailors who lost their lives in the wreck.

Candelabra commissioned by the people of Utö in memory of the ten Park Victory sailors who lost their lives. Photo credit: Peggy Reiff Miller.

The Park Victory’s isn’t the only shipwreck commemorated on the island. The Draken went down in 1929 on her way to England with a load of timber. The ship wrecked in a storm against a little rocky island just 150 meters from the shore of Utö. Two men tried to make it to shore. One made it; the other didn’t.

Rex and I at the Draken memorial. The cross is for the sailor who lost his life, the star for the one who lived. Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

Utö did not have a rope rifle that could have shot a rope to the sailors to pull them ashore. A shopkeeper in Turku on the mainland sent them one two weeks later, and new life was breathed into lifesaving work in Finland, with the Draken’s captain, Niilo Saarinen, becoming head of the Finnish Maritime Rescue Society.

Our island trip ended all too soon, but the Park Victory story doesn’t end here. Another chapter is beginning with the discovery of one of its life boats. More on that in September.

One last personal note on our trip: we were amazed that our four-hour ship ride through the archipelago’s mass of rocky islands to Utö was free! The ship was part of Finland’s public transportation system, making stops at four islands to transport locals and tourists alike to and from the mainland. I still marvel at that!

A map on the ship showing its route. Photo credit: Rex Miller.

A day with Jouko was not complete without ice cream! Photo credit: Jouko Moisala.

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The Christmas Eve fate of the S. S. Park Victory: not to be forgotten

In Finland there is a national reading of the Christmas Peace at noon every Christmas Eve. On the island of Utö at the farthest edge of Finland’s southwest archipelago, this reading will be followed at 1:00 p.m. by the lighting of ten candles in the island’s chapel. These candles represent the ten seamen who lost their lives in the sinking of the S. S. Park Victory on Christmas Eve 70 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

The S. S. Park Victory delivers horses and heifers to Poland, December 1945. Photo by Will Keller, Peggy Reiff Miller collection.

The Park Victory will be remembered by many seagoing cowboys for the six trips she made as an UNRRA livestock carrier, October 1945 through December 1946. She is remembered quite differently in Finland, however. In December 1947, she was delivering a load of coal to Finland, possibly for the Marshall Plan. She anchored in good weather near the lighthouse off the island of Utö  before dark on Christmas Eve, awaiting orders as to whether to proceed to Turku or Helsinki the next day. During the night, a wicked snow storm descended on the ship. The gale-force winds dislodged the anchor, and the ship fought for her life. The rocky coastline won, however, breaking into and flooding the engine room.

The distress signal was sent out and lifeboats lowered. At risk to their own lives, help was dispatched from the fishing community of Utö. A small military craft captained by Thorvald Sjöberg found a group of seamen huddled on a low reef. Between the winds and underwater rocks, there wasn’t a safe way to reach the men. Captain Sjöberg kept his craft nearby until daylight when they were able to get a rope to the men. One had died of hypothermia and the rest were in bad condition, some having survived the night in little more than their underwear. In all, thirty-eight of the seamen were found, rescued, and compassionately tended to by the brave Utö islanders.

Rescuing Captain Thorvald Sjoberg, the widow of Park Victory Captain Allen Zepp, and Hanna Kovanen, who was ten years old at the time of the sinking, reunite on Uto, summer 2017. Mrs. Kovanen will light the ten candles on Christmas Eve in commemoration of the seamen who lost their lives. Photo courtesy of Jouko Moisala.

In memory of those who perished:
Mose Andersson, F.W.T., 19
Augustine Bebrant, Messman, 50
Eric Cain, Assistant Electrician, 36
Herbert Deglow, Oiler, 23
Michael Duffy, Chief Electrician, 50
Henry Holste, Junior Third Mate, 65
Rex Jackson, Wiper, 40
Juan Lopez, Chief Cook, 50
Daris Mitchell, Junior Engineer, 51
La Verne Woods, Junior Engineer, 19

A Blessed Holiday Season to my readers.
~Peggy

Sources for this post: correspondence with Jouko Moisala, and the article “The Gloomy Christmas Eve at Sea” by Martin Latimeri.

This is a famous shipwreck in Finland and popular among divers. More on that in my next regular post in January.