My good fortune has allowed me to meet and speak to several people who were there when our maritime history occurred. I listened as a woman described being rescued from the Andrea Doria when she was a young girl. I tried to keep my jaw from dropping as a US Navy vet talked about spending D-Day driving his landing craft back and forth all day to Utah Beach. I laughed when a Coast Guard pilot described having to ditch his helicopter in the surf on Avon Beach due to sudden overheating. He then “walked” his chopper out of the water and up on the beach among hundreds of sunbathers so that mechanics could come and make repairs. Several visitors to the museum remember their childhood family trip to Asbury Park to see the Morro Castle stranded in the surf. These people witnessed the events we have on our museum walls.
Last week good fortune struck again when I communicated with Bjorn Arne Kleppe, citizen of Norway. Bjorn offered to share his experience and we readily accepted.
When Bjorn graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Royal Norwegian Air Force. Bjorn found a program that allowed him to serve more than 18 months in another NATO Member State. He decided to go to USA, got his immigration papers sorted and landed in Los Angeles on April 21st. 1963. During entry the immigration officers asked him “what is the purpose of your visit Mr. Kleppe”?. I informed them that I was here to join the US Navy, they looked at each other, smiled and replied, “you are most welcome to the USA Mr. Kleppe”! “
Bjorn went to boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station, with approximately 60 others. At the end of the recruit training 20 persons passed all tests. Bjorn was one of them.
(Bjorn’s words) “After boot camp, I was assigned to HU-2 squadron at Lakehurst NJ. I worked hard and finally made Air Rescue Crewman. I served on USS Shangri-La, USS Roosevelt, but mostly on the USS Independence.
“During the morning of 26th. November, Thanksgiving Day, I participated in a successful rescue operation at sea involving the Israeli Cruise Ship M/S Shalom (25000TDW) and the Norwegian M/T Stolt Dagali (19500TDW)
“From the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten 26th. November, 33 crew-members were flushed overboard from the aft part of the ship. They were fighting for their lives in the cold sea (3-5 degrees C?). A total of five were rescued by the M/V Shalom, and one was rescued by another vessel in the area. The news of 27th. November reported 19 dead. Early morning, as daylight broke, the fog lifted and the first thing the rescue helicopters found was 8 sailors in a lifeboat. The helicopters rescued them first. 10 crew-members were located in the floating bow section and in a non-critical situation.
“I do not recall how many survivors we pulled up. I remember that we flew many hours. I recall our cook had prepared turkey for us, and we had our lunch/dinner on and off.
“After a long rescue mission I visited all the survivors (20-60 years old) in the sickbay on the base. I recall spending most of the day and the following night trying to comfort those who survived. Many were in shock, some just scared. They told me they were confident they would be rescued and when they heard the helicopters after less than 30 minutes they were sure. When I asked one of the younger crew if he would sail again he replied: “just get me a new ship, I am ready”! The older crew-members seemed calm, but did not speak a lot, they appeared very thoughtful reflecting on the incident I think.
“For me it was a long watch, just doing what the US Navy had trained me for, rescue missions. I was happy I could save lives that day and comfort the crew from my homeland! I remember my CO at the time, Lt.Cdr. Sapp, a fantastic Navy Pilot, a great officer and a gentleman.“
Let the above narrative sink in for a moment. A Norwegian citizen serving in the US Navy participates in the rescue of 18 Norwegian crewmen from the Stolt Dagali. When his mission is complete, human kindness kicks in and he spends the next few days visiting and comforting these men in the Lakehurst sickbay. Try to imagine how much these men benefited from being able to relate their experience and fears with someone in their home language.
What was the award Bjorn received for his rescue efforts and thoughtful attention to the crewmen? “I remember being interviewed by a journalist, he told me that the Norwegian Embassy had been contacted by the ship owner and that they would contact me with some kind of appreciation for my participation in the rescue operation, but I have not heard from them yet.”
The accounts of the collision of the Shalom and the Stolt Dagali are well documented at our museum along with several artifacts recovered by divers on the “Stolt”. This first person account of the rescue is a unique and fascinating addition to the drama that took place that Thanksgiving day. Thank you Bjorn Arne Kleppe for sharing your adventure.
(Note: Bjorn’s narrative , his photos and rescue certifications will be on display at the NJ Maritime Museum. Not sure where yet. But we will find space.)