An article by STEINBJOERN MENTZONI in a provincial Norwegian newspaper provides new insights into the men of MS Herstein trapped in the fall of Rabaul in 1942. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr

When Norway was occupied, orders came from the ‘new’ Norwegian government that all ships were to go to ports under German control. Not many officers followed this order; most ships instead heading to Allied ports, and became part of the fleet which fought against the Germans.

No one knows with certainty what happened to the crew of the Norwegian ship MS Herstein. The captain survived and came home to his family in Norway. The relatives of the rest of the ship crew still wonder today what happened to their loved ones.

When Herstein left Port Moresby harbour the Japanese forces were on the march, even though no one knew when they would attack. Captain Gotfred M Gundersen guided his ship along the New Guinea coast, navigating as close as possible to reefs to keep any Japanese submarines at bay.

Herstein had barely come into harbour in Rabaul before cargo booms were raised so that the loading of copra could begin. A new message from the authorities gave ordered Gundersen to take a full cargo of copra on board: 6,000 tons instead of 2,000 tons. The additional time in Rabaul was to have disastrous consequences for ship and crew.

Captain Gundersen was at naval control for final orders before departure from Rabaul. The crew began to make the ship seaworthy, even though loading was not complete. Rumours had it that the attack on Rabaul was not far off. There was nervousness in the small Australian garrison.

Herstein was still in Rabaul when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 20 January 1942. Captain Gundersen ran towards the ship to get on board. There was no chance. The ship was far from naval control and there was total chaos in the area. About 100 aircraft approached at low altitude.

Bombs and incendiaries hit the ship, which quickly caught fire. Anti-aircraft artillery fired on land and on the ship. The crew struggled to limit the fire. They connected all available fire hoses.

On deck the first mate Møller tried to extinguish the fire. With him was second mate Benn Bolt. But the heat and flames had become so intense that Møller gave orders to abandon ship. Left on deck was steward Karl Thorsell from Sweden. He was killed in the battle. Some other crew members were injured, but managed to get ashore. The crew also got Thorsell’s body ashore. It lies in an unknown grave.

Source: Extracts from ‘Where is my son, my husband and my brother?’ by Steinbjoern Mentzoni, Helgelands Blad, 13-14 February 2002. Translated by Benn Bolt Jr, July 2009.

Continued: Passage denied