Nazi Gold

WITH PERMISSION OF THE REICH
– True –

BY

JAMES D. O’KEEFE

Captain William McHale, master of the S S Mormacsea, was awakened by the noise of several planes circling his freighter as she lay at dockside in Trondheim, Norway. It was 4:45 A.M on April 9,1940. Rushing to the bridge, McHale encountered his Chief Mate, Al McKinnon who explained that something strange was going on and that a damaged, German cruiser, the Admiral Hipper, had just entered the harbor. Her captain requested permission to pull along side the Mormacsea. The German captain boarded the American freighter and explained to Captain McHale that 2,000 Nazi troops now occupied the port of Trondheim and the surrounding countryside. He stated that Germany had no quarrel with the U.S or their merchant fleet. These occupation forces were there only to protect the Norwegians against a British attack that was anticipated in the next few hours.

And so it was, on that bleak, April morning that the port of Trondheim, and the entire coastal area of Norway, fell to the Nazis without the firing of a single shot on land. But unknown to the German flotilla, the S.S. Mormacsea, concealed beneath her deck- among 800 tons of peat- a cargo of $4,500,000 worth of gold ingots bound for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Captain McHale, now anxious about this incident, envisioned that this voyage would be a problem from the start. He was well aware of the neutral status of his vessel, realizing that his American flag gave him specific rights as a tramper along the coast of Europe i.e. the Moore-McCormack line could do business with any country it wished on a cash and carry basis. However, he was also mindful that his ship would be entering the European war zone. There were diplomatic considerations at every port but he was certainly not prepared for this!

Reflecting back to the morning of February 19, in New York City, McHale remembered his queasy feeling at dockside. The European countries were falling to the Nazis. Experienced merchant seamen were reluctant to sign on with the line, even with the promise of large bonuses. Several individuals, passing by, looked quizzically as the shore booms placed wing sections of small planes on the deck of the Mormacsea. The loading of a variety of military hardware followed this, most notably 3 plus tons of Thompson machine guns and related munitions. The freighter also stored within her hold a large Red Cross shipment of medical supplies and clothing, bound for Finland, to be routed through Stockholm. McHale mused, before sailing for Europe that morning, that his ship resembled a floating arsenal rather than a merchant vessel. He had served as master of several freighters, during his 10 years of service with the company, but he somehow felt that this would not be a typical voyage.

McHale was ordered to discharge and pick up cargo-as scheduled-at several ports of call along the European coast. The run would involve approximately 2 months at sea. On February 19, just prior to departure, Captain McHale and Chief Mate Al McKinnon were summoned to a meeting with the port captain at the East River, Moore-McCormack terminal. McHale and McKinnon both held the rank of Lt. Commander in the United States Naval Reserve. They had sailed together before and their superior skills and professional bearing was well known to the company. The port captain informed the officers that their ship was to pick up a classified cargo, per order of the US State Department, at a designated pier in Bergen, Norway on April 5, 1940. The shipment would arrive between 11:00 P.M and 12 midnight via Frey’s Express, purveyors for the Swedish monarchy. The Moremacsea should discharge their machine gun cargo, and Red Cross supplies, to the custody of Frey’s Express and the westward bound shipment should be carefully loaded, verified, stowed, divulged only to crew and transported back to New York as soon as possible. As planned the shipment arrived in Norway on time, but only then did McHale and his officers realize the new cargo was in fact $ 4,500,000 worth of gold. Engineer Harold Wood revealed to his brother-in-law, several months later, that Captain McHale was quite angry that the state department had put them in this predicament. Here they were in occupied Trondheim on April 9, 1940. The gold showed on their manifest, they had no small arms on board for protection, the crew had limited military training, their freighter was effectively under the control of the Germans, and- as they would soon discover- the only escape route to the North Atlantic was most likely mined!

Now, as dawn broke over the harbor on the morning of April 9, naval and military activity increased and the Germans asked if they could shuttle troops and supplies across the Mormacsea to shore. Captain McHale felt that the Nazis were too much interested in his cargo. Declining their request, he moved his ship about 300 ft. up the pier to get out of the way. Still uneasy about the events of that day, the 44-year-old skipper makes the following entry in his log: ” I decided to ask permission to seek a safer berth. At 4:12 P.M., I was told by German authorities that I could go or come as I pleased and that I would not be interfered with. So I left Trondheim and shifted the vessel to an anchorage at Hommelvik, approximately 12 miles away. I had previously determined to leave Norway as soon as possible but consul at Bergen has asked me to remain until further orders. “

For the next 6 days, Captain McHale watched conditions in Hommelvik and Trondheim deteriorate. He worried about the security of his ship, his cargo and most importantly about the safety of his 38 men. The local population was fleeing the area, despite heavy snow, to join the resistance. McHale makes the following entry in the ships log on April 10: “Hommelvik April 10th-13th, 1940 – Master ashore daily trying to contact US authorities but lines have been cut between Trondheim- Hommelvik, Oslo and Bergen. I could not get through to Stockholm until April 12. I spoke to consul and informed him of our position. I asked if he had any instruction from the state department. Should I continue discharging or loading? Should I take on American nationals or possibly refugees? ” Reply, US Department of State, April 12 – transmitted confidential code- “Standby for further orders” Cordell Hull, Secretary of State.

Determined to sail as soon as possible, the American captain and his officers arranged several meetings with the German flotilla command at the Phoenix Hotel in Trondheim. Captain Puffendorf, Captain Weiss and Lt. Fritch Sneider were in charge of the port. These meetings were intense. The Nazis were conceited “notepad and pencil types” -speaking some English- and “pumping” Captain McHale, Al McKinnon and Harold Wood about opinions of the war in the states. The merchant officers explained that as a neutral they could offer no opinion on this conflict. When that didn’t work, they asked for our personal opinions and we explained that those were also neutral. The ringing of the telephone frequently interrupted the discussion. When this occurred, Puffendorf or Sneider would spring to attention, snap their heels and answer the phone while in the process of saluting. The High Command was clearly on the line and giving explicit instructions. The merchant officers would later relate that all the saluting and heeling was most amusing but those phone conversations made them very nervous.

The Germans were somewhat perplexed that Captain McHale wanted to leave Norway so quickly. They indicated that the Moremacsea was free to sail but warned that the roadstead to the open ocean was most likely mined. Moreover, they refused to give the American skipper a pilot to get him out of the treacherous fiord. To further complicate the situation, tensions were growing between the Norwegians and the Germans. British prisoners were being herded across the dock at Trondheim and transported to unknown locations. Significant gunfire was heard in the distance. The local population continued to leave Trondheim, again during heavy snow, and a giant pall seemed to engulf the town. McHale reasoned, “I have to get out of here, before I get the states into it “

On April 13th, Captain McHale again spoke to consul at Stockholm. A cable arrived from New York -via the State Department- instructing McHale to leave Trondheim as soon as possible. Orders were to take on no passengers due to the possible existence on mine fields in his route. The captain met with Lt. Sneider once more that day. McHale again requested a pilot and the request was denied. The German officer was only concerned with the names of the crew. He never asked to see the manifest that would have clearly identified the gold on board! Having now received written permission to sail, McHale returned to his freighter and proceeded to put the ship in a seaworthy condition. The resilient skipper decided to sail for New York at 10 A.M, the next day, when the currents within the fiord would be favorable. He told his officers, ” If I can’t get a pilot, I will take her out myself “.

McHale was clearly worried about the navigational hazards that were evident within the harbor. Several British ships had been sunk since their arrival. While ashore, the captain learned that the HMS Glowworm, a British destroyer, had taken on the Admiral Hipper, just outside the harbor, before the German vessel moored against him on the morning of April 9. The Glowworm was outgunned by 10,000 ton Hipper, but she successfully rammed the side of the German warship -before going to the bottom- accounting for the damage that McHale and his crew witnessed that morning.

Things had not gone well for the Nazis during their first week of the occupation. They shot down two of their own planes in a “friendly fire” incident. Military debris was strewn everywhere throughout the harbor. Captain McHale’s anxiety was increased by the fact that he had moved his vessel out of a designated shipping lane, to avoid German scrutiny, and his charts- out of Hommelvik- might not be reliable under these circumstances. Remarkably, on the evening of April 13, Engineer Harold Wood- determined to “save the day”- scoured the warehouse/dock area at Trondheim and secretly obtained the services of an experienced coastal pilot, Captain J. Dahl. This individual agreed to take the ship out, with the promise of a large bonus. It seemed- for the moment at least- that the chances of the Mormacsea, making it to the open ocean, had improved!

The crew, of this American, tramp freighter, was visibly anxious on that morning of April 14. These experienced seamen had built two extra life rafts themselves, during the previous days, because they could not get any local labor. At McHale’s direction, the men placed one of them on the forward deck and the other aft. They hoped they were watertight and prayed that they would never have to test them. It was now 9:30 A.M, a light snow was falling but the sun could be observed breaking through and casting a misty shadow over the craggy cliffs of the fiord. The engines were put at a (1) hour notice. Captain McHale mustered the crew on deck and explained the precautions they would take upon entering the danger zone. He had previously determined that Captain Dahl would be at the wheel, Engineer Henry Castro would supervise the engine room with a skeleton crew and he, McKinnon and the remaining officers would scan the ocean surface, with binoculars, for the presence of mines in their path. They would set a speed of 5 knots and hope for the best.

As commander of a minesweeper in World War I, McHale knew only too well the destructive force that might await his ship and his crew in the icy, coastal waters of the North Atlantic. (Mines could be anchored to the bottom or they could be of the surface type in deep water) Given the weight of their cargo, if they took a hit- at mid ship or in the stern- the Moremacsea could sink in a matter of minutes. McHale worried that the engine room crew would probably not survive such a blast and the chances of any of his crew being rescued from a life raft, at sea, were quite remote.

The skillful, coastal pilot brought the Mormacsea out of the fiord and in line with the Agnese forts. As previously arranged, the skipper was able to drop him on the island of Halton. At that point, Chief Mate, Al McKinnon took the wheel; they adjusted their course for New York and the freighter dug her bow into a foreboding, open sea ahead. The next 6 hours would prove to be the most grueling period of Captain McHale’s entire merchant marine career. He never left the bridge. Hoping that the British might help them through any mine fields, he ordered the radio operator to continually put out the following message, prefixed with the US call sign, ” Kork leaving Trondheim via Halten. Here we come”. There was no response. At 1:05 P.M, Captain McHale made the following entry in the ships log: “Alarm bell rung calling all hands on deck with life belts on. Skeleton crew in the engine room. All remained on deck until 6:30 P.M when danger was deemed to be passed.”

And so it was, that the S S Mormacsea- carrying 800 tons of peat and $4,500,000 in gold ingots- cut an ocean trough into the North Atlantic without a taking a hit. She pinned her survival on the constant broadcast of a radio operator, the visual scanning of the open ocean and the existence of a rusty American flag painted on her hull. The crew had remained silent, on the way out, anticipating the worst. The life rafts had been placed in position and were ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, the order to abandon ship never came.

In later years, Engineer Harold Wood told his brother-in-law that the captain and crew were on “pins and needles” during the night of April 14. A typical ocean storm blew up for 3 to 4 hours lashing the deck with wind and rain. However, as dawn broke over the North Atlantic on the morning of the 15th, the spirits of the men seemed to improve. ” The Germans had laid low all the way out. No ships or planes “. Over the next 11 days, the crew and captain began to relax and attended to the routine operation of their merchant vessel. Captain McHale increased his speed to 12 knots. The radio operator was now in touch with New York. The Chief Engineer and Harold Wood spent much of their time in the engine room due to a medical emergency on board. On April 19th, fireman Herbert Lovell became seriously ill with a temperature of 103. He was placed in the hospital and given caramel and aspirin. On April 23rd, the log notes that Lovell’s “temperature returned to normal but patient is to weak to work”( Herbert Lovell did make a full recovery)

Meanwhile, the powerful, turbine engines of the 390-ft. Mormacsea never missed a beat. Finally, the poker games were back, New York harbor was looking better by the hour, families and press awaited the arrival of the ship, and the gold bars were safely stowed beneath the deck of the freighter. Captain McHale, would later reveal in his personal diary that ” throughout this whole trouble my officers and crew were wonderful. Everybody seemed to want to work together. I think we must all live right! “

Two days out of the port of New York, Captain William A. McHale made his final entry in the official, logbook of the SS Mormacsea. ” April 23rd at Sea – Crew mustered at port lifeboats and exercised in the use of lifesaving apparatus, all of which is in good condition. Watertight doors tested out OK. Lifeboats uncovered. Crew dismissed.” And finally in the terse vocabulary of a merchant officer- for which McHale was well known- this man of quiet integrity ends the story of his ordeal in Norway with his classic signature sign off “All during the present voyage”.

Epilogue

The Mormacsea arrived at the Moore McCormack terminal, in New York City, on April 25, 1940. There is no verifiable record to indicate that $4,500,000 worth of ” Swedish gold ” was ever deposited at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on or about April 25th. Wartime records indicate that the Swedish Enskilda Bank, located in Stockholm, received $4,500,000 from the German Reichsbank in 1940. Sweden was neutral. The gold disappeared! The Enskilda Bank had long been suspected of freely moving looted gold (stolen from the Jews in the 1930’s) and other German “cloaked assets” (identified as Swedish) around the world with a certain impunity.

Is it possible that the valuable cargo, carried in the hold of the Mormacsea, was actually German in origin – rather than Swedish – and that the Nazis were intentionally shipping it out of Trondheim? Did the Moore-McCormack line, the International Red Cross, and the U S State Department function as an unsuspecting conduit for the transfer of tainted gold to the United States in April of 1940? Herein lies an enigma and the end of this story is yet to be told!

Historical Note

This was the last voyage of the (subject) SS Mormacsea under an American flag. The freighter had been previously sold to the Brazilian government. After 2 weeks in dry dock, she sailed for South America with an unknown cargo. Several documents, related to this Norwegian incident, remain “classified” at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The author notes that the Moore McCormack line operated 2 other freighters, by the same name, at various times before and after 1940. This “subject vessel” was 21 years old and had previously sailed as the “Cliffwood “.

My uncle, Harold J.Wood died at sea- in the Bahamas- on Sept.4, 1946. He was 52 years old. Harold was serving as 2nd Assist Engineer aboard the merchant vessel “Irish Splice” at the time of his death.

Acknowledgments

Information contained herein is taken from the following sources that are deemed to be reliable: personal recollections of my father Daniel C. O’Keefe, official log book of the SS Mormacsea, copies of US Department of State documents, i.e. telegrams, letters etc obtained under the FIA, New York Times articles, New York Herald Tribune articles, merchant record of Harold J. Wood, copy of class action complaint relating to looted Nazi assets filed at the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and various AP news articles relating to Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis before and after World War II.

The author, Jim O’Keefe, formerly taught Social Studies in the Norwell, MA public schools. After teaching for 21 years, he made a career change into the field of safety engineering and worked in that profession until his retirement in 2005. He lives in Pembroke, Massachusetts.

Copyright 2005 by James D. O’Keefe
All rights reserved

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