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Onboard the Viking Ship Over the Atlantic

Joann Saarniit Article - Fall 1978

It has now been 30 years since 347 Estonian refugees arrived in Canada aboard the old steamship "Walnut" in the fall of 1948. The majority has forgotten this voyage, however, those who participated will recall it vividly for the rest of their lives.

The events prior to the "Walnut's" voyage and its difficult journey across the North Sea and Atlantic has been documented based on memory and his diary by Toronto resident and artist Joann (John) Saarniit, who's detailed article we present for "Vaba Eestlane" readers:

The reasons to leave Sweden for overseas were many, the most critical were, however, to achieve for political refugees a stable fate for the future. This included also the Berlin blockade, talk of war, counter political news, the continuous breaking of Russian agreements, the gathering of large armies in occupied territories, KGB agent activities in Sweden, the mysterious disappearances of some Estonians, the handing over of Estonian soldiers to the Russians and the large refugee exodus from Sweden to the American continent. The days began and ended with a feeling of insecurity, fear and horrible stories, in addition to many Estonians receiving negative responses from the Canadian consulate regarding emigration to Canada. The psychosis to leave only grew. The Viking ships "Erna", "Atlanta", "Österväg" and others had, although with difficulty, successfully crossed the Atlantic and the refugees had been accepted in the United States and Canada despite arriving illegally. 

Stories about the steel ship Walnut

Stories about the steel ship Walnut were quickly disseminated during 1948, especially among those Estonians whose hopes of traveling legally to Canada had been destroyed. The WWII, 700 ton minesweeper "Walnut" was for sale for 250,000 Swedish kr. ($63,000. Cdn.). If 250 passengers could be found, it could be conceivable to purchase this ship and accommodate her to transport these people.

On the 10th of September, 1948, an organization was formed in Göteborg to purchase the ship, the administration of which was elected: A. Kalbus, H. Suursööt, V. Vares ja Captain A. Linde. The conditions for the purchase of the ship were acceptable, since if enough money had not been gathered for the purchase, the deposit would have been returned. It was necessary to act quickly and organize fellow passengers, in order to meet the deadline of the purchase agreement. Despite the fact that during the war, the Walnut was designed to house 80 seamen, [this is incorrect] it was now necessary to consider how to accommodate four times the passengers. Passengers knew ahead of time, that during the voyage, there would be no conveniences, including no bathing facilities. Despite this, passengers were prepared to pay 250 dollars per adult and 150 for children (calculated according to 1948 dollar values).  

Many hundred sleeping bunks in the minesweeper

Despite not having all the necessary funds, the remodeling of the interior rooms began immediately. Based on a cell-like structure and built from planks, narrow bunks with dividing walls were built, into which one could squeeze via a 24 x 24-inch opening. By September 16th, 150,000 kr. had been collected, 100,000 more was needed. The slow accumulation of funds was due to the poor state of the ship. 

On the 18th of September in Stockholm the ship's administration held a meeting at which luckily, 50 more passengers were added. On the 19th, the administration advised that 225,000 kr. have been forwarded to the sellers of the ship in England. For shares, it is still necessary to procure and additional 500 kr., which it is hoped to get from the sale of the ship at our destination. Unfortunately, I don't have the information concerning how many shares were sold and how much money was collected through their sale.  

It was decided that the "Walnut" would depart at the end of October. The interim waiting period was spent liquidating assets acquired in Sweden and procuring necessary supplies for the unusual and long voyage. No-one really knew what to bring and what was needed in Canada - or, if the ship would even make it that far?!

Warnings prior to departure 

On September 23rd, an article appeared in the Swedish newspaper "Expressen" advising of Captain E. Pasti's ship's arrival in Canada. It also mentioned that the passengers had been given asylum. It was also advised that 21 Finns had perished in a violent Atlantic storm, which caused many "Walnut" passengers to think. In the Swedish newspaper "Stockholms Tidningen" the Canadian embassy sent a message warning against illegal passage to Canada. Warnings appeared also from A. Reil, J. Poska, H. Lareteil and others. Articles appeared about the "Walnut" which said that this ship would not withstand the ocean's strong waves.  

With the energetic instigator [of the voyage] H. Suursööt's leadership, many difficulties were resolved, including currency exchanges to Canada if anyone still had anything left after purchasing a passage. The ship's insurance and registration was difficult, since insurance demanded two-thirds of the purchase price as guarantee. The problem was solved by an Estonian individual knowledgeable in shipping, who obtained a Honduras registry and insurance. Later in Canada, it became clear that the Honduras government did not know anything about the "Walnut". 

Under great secrecy to Lysekil

October was a worrisome month for the "Walnut" passengers. The ship's departure date was kept secret and the passenger tension grew continuously. On October 20th a registered letter arrived from the ship's administration with instructions, however, the sailing date was not mentioned. 

Privately I received a letter which spoke about disagreements among the administration. It mentioned that the ship's boiler had been emptied of steam. On October 27th, the first snow appeared on the shores of Sweden. It would be insanity to go to sea with such weather - was the opinion of many. At the end of October a meeting was arranged in Göteborg where the ship's organization "Lennuk" [translated as "airplane" but perhaps meaning "flight"] was officially changed to the Compania Maritima S.A. Walnut.

On November 12th a letter arrived from H. Suursööt which gave instructions that passengers needed to gather by November 13th to the port of the small Swedish town Lysekil, where the visually pitiful and rusty "Walnut" indifferently awaited its passengers. It became apparent that instead of 250 people, 347 arrived for passage. The passports of all travelers were collected and given to the police authorities for control. Although the Swedish control searched the ship completely, they did not find those "rabbits" [meaning stowaways in hiding] hidden in the coal bunkers, who numbered 30. At exactly 3 p.m. on November 17th the Swedish pilot boat arrived and the difficult journey towards an unknown future began. The passengers sang "Du gamla du fria" and "Mu isamaa mu õnn ja rõõm" [Estonian anthem]. Many cried openly, the faces of others betrayed their fear and distress.

We are on the North Sea - destination Ireland

Soon we were on the tumultuous open sea. The wind whistled in the ship's masts, which became continuously stronger. Many people soon became seasick. Norway's high seashore faded into the fog. We were on the North Sea and our destination was Ireland. 

On November 19th the storm swelled to 11 gale force winds. Eighty percent of the passengers are seasick. The "Walnut" is moving ahead only one mile per hour. Soon it is apparent, that the ship is leaking. The pumps cease to work and the coal bunkers fill with water. The pumps bearings have burnt out and the men work throughout the night, to carry with milk containers [buckets] the water gathering in the bottom to the top deck and throw it out to sea. The bearings were repaired at the last minute, since the water threatened the boiler.

Soon the "Walnut" suffered another problem - the radio transmission antenna broke and was not fixable the entire voyage due to a lack of parts. The "Walnut" traveled the sea like a "pirate ship". We received from passing ships welcome signals, but it was not possible for us to signal back and explain where this old rusted ship with its huge passenger load was going.

The waves washed off the deck our reserve coal.

The stench in the ship's rooms was appalling. The "Walnut", with it's moaning and lamenting passengers was like some kind of "sinners" ship. Coming out onto the deck was very dangerous since the large waves threatened to wash overboard those passengers not acquainted with the sea. The North sea cross waves rocked the small ship so severely that 200 tons of reserve coal disappeared into the waves.

On November 20th, the "Walnut" approached England's northern islands, keeping 20 miles from shore in order to avoid hijacking by the British, which apparently had occurred on several occasions during 1944 inside their waters.  

On November 21st it becomes clear that the boiler's fan is broken and the ship is moving with much difficulty. The passengers are becoming upset over rumors that the "Walnut's" administration needs additional funds to purchase coal from Ireland, since more coal was consumed than expected on the North Sea due to the rough seas. The situation was resolved amongst the shareholders who themselves paid more funds, the organization of which it was rumored to have been V. Vares.

The pilot boat from northern Ireland arrived on November 25th. The pilot wanted to bring the ship to Sligo harbour along the river, however, because the water was low, this was not possible and we waited at the pier until the next day. On the 24th of November the harbour police chief allowed people to disembark, the opportunity of which was generously used, foremost to search for bathing opportunities. It became clear that the town's only hotel charged $1 for half a tub of water and this was suppose to be sufficient for three people. Sligo had never heard of a sauna, although every third house sold alcohol. The streets were not lit and everything appeared poor and shabby. 

We give away the lifeboats. 

We stopped in this harbour for a few days to repair mechanical damages and to load coal. During this time the "Walnut" passengers left a fairly sizeable amount of money on the town's restaurant counters. Some ill passengers did not continue on the voyage and had to be sent to the local hospital. Later, they arrived in Canada courtesy of the Irish government. 

On November 25th the "Walnut" administration gifted the Irish with two twenty foot cylindrical, metal lifeboats which were unnecessary cargo. It was calculated that these boats could not accommodate 347 people anyway and, therefore, it is correct to go on the ocean without all sorts of lifesaving means. [Editorial note: The author is referring to circular, raft-type lifeboats -- not all lifeboats were abandoned, just the circular ones at the front of the ship.]

On November 27th, prior to leaving the harbour, the local priest blessed the ship. Again, the passengers and those sending them off had tears in their eyes. The 28th of November saw gale force winds of 12 - cold and stormy. Strong waves rocked recklessly the little ship and again swept away the reserve coal on deck. The stormy days persisted, however, by the beginning of December we had reached the middle of the Atlantic. We still needed to travel half way until we would reach Halifax harbour. The "Walnut" traveled 8 to 9 knots per hour, however, the barometer dropped continuously. The majority of the passengers were seasick and the cook's, E. Potsep's, food was thrown overboard to the fish.  

The storm raged almost a week and the radio did not foresee anything better for the next days. It was cold on the ship and sleeping on the wooden blank beds was like being on the rack. Due to the huge waves, the "Walnut" often moved only 4 knots per hour. Finally, after almost a month of churning, the foggy shore of Newfoundland began to appear. However, this is not where we planned to land and we continued our journey. Canadian air force planes flew low over our ship exhausted from the storm waves, and signaled that we had lost our course and needed to turn south. 

Our first stop in Canada was in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where the Canadian government supplemented our coal free of charge. Generous Canadians brought onboard a multitude of gifts -- food stuffs, clothing and sweets. The local newspapers already knew about the refugee boat that was coming and they wrote and talked about us a lot. The radio stations talked about the "Northern Vikings" who had arrived through the winter storm over the Atlantic narrowly escaping the hurricane which just shortly befell the huge ocean liner "Queen Elizabeth". 

Finally, on the 13th of December, the "Walnut's" ropes are secured to the posts on the Halifax pier. The passengers leave the ship, the men and the women are separated. Authorities disinfect the putrid rooms of the ship. The Canadian government had already received the letter mailed by the passengers from Sweden requesting asylum for the refugees. The letter had been signed by A. Kalbus, A. Linde, Helmi Suursöö and artist Joann Saarniit. Each passenger was interviewed separately, but were not asked where they came from, but rather, where they planned to go.

Christmas and New Year in the Quarantine 

On December 17th the passengers were housed at the Rockhead Hospital's WWII injured soldier residences. During quarantine, the single passengers were given dormitories, families received private rooms. The passengers spent their time in meetings reviewing events, playing cards, entertainment evenings and even a dance party. The refugees were interviewed by newspaper representatives who were especially interested why we specifically picked for our new home Canada. One Halifax newspaper published almost an entire page of Joann Saarniit's paintings of anticommunism and wrote, according to his facts, about life in Siberia.   

The 22nd of December saw the beginning of Christmas preparations. For this occasion the residence hall was decorated especially festively. A local Baptist minister held a Christmas sermon in German. There was a Santa Claus and an exchange of Christmas gifts. Greetings were sent by E. Juudas, E.W. Saks and A. Weiler. If Christmas Eve was celebrated relatively conservatively, then on New Year's Eve, the people were more merry and able to somewhat forget the tossing of their Atlantic voyage.  A masquerade was organized which lasted almost till morning. This was understandable, since the average age of the "Walnut" passengers was only thirty. The passengers, however, did not spend all their time partying, but began an energetic study of the English language, taught by some English speaking passengers.

The "Walnut" was sold and sunk. 

The "Walnut" was abandoned in the harbour and put up for sale. The price was $40,000, but at that price, no-one was interested. Rumour had it that the ship was finally sold for $5,000 and soon thereafter sunk. [Editorial note: Please see "Ship Statistics" concerning disposition of ship.] 

Living in the Rockhead residence lasted two months. The last of the refugees - 60 in all - left the residence on February 15th, 1949 and proceeded to scatter in all directions, the majority of which to Ontario's large city of Toronto. 

It is now thirty years since the "Walnut's" risky voyage and the third generation is hearing from their grandfathers and grandmothers the specifics about this unconventional and dangerous voyage. All the names of the "Walnut" passengers are on record in an illustrated album which was sent to Ottawa on February 14th, 1949.    

The "Walnut" passengers can supplement this article [with their memories], the opportunity for which will be available at the upcoming reunion at the Estonian House on October 27th [1978].

This English translation by Tiiu Roiser is of an article that apeared in the Estonian Toronto community newspaper "Vaba Eestlane" entitled "Viikingilaeval üle Atlandi".  It is not a verbatim exact duplication of the Estonian text, but rather, a very close English version of the original.  Although undated, it is estimated to have been written approx. September or October of 1978.  Photographs have been added and were not part of the original article.  Note that translated newspaper articles from various sources appeared both shortly before and after the Walnut voyage, while some were written many years later.  Many news articles contain factual inaccuracies, but are presented herein as published and written by the original authors.