Walnut Voyage Story
headlines of the newspapers around the world in 1948 read as follows: "Halifax
Opens Heart to 350 Refugees Who Fled Russian Domination in Tiny Converted
Minesweeper" and "Refugee Laden Walnut Reaches Halifax".
prompted this dangerous journey to Canada
60 years ago?
World War II had ended and many
Estonians had escaped to
Sweden. This, however, did not seem far
enough away from the Russians who had taken over their country.
The Russian government wanted the people, whom it considered its
citizens, back. It was demanding the
return of refugees who had fled to Sweden.
One Walnut spokesman stated that the political
trend in Sweden
made it advisable to leave the country because the Swedish government had
handed 140 Estonians back to the Russians.
Walnut passengers had spent time in Russian concentration camps.
“A man cannot even talk unchecked to his best friend,”
explained chief mate Arvid Berendson, an Estonian seaman.
Captain Linde related that a sister, who was a harmless housewife, was
taken to a Siberian camp and had not been heard from since.
“With my own eyes I saw things happen to my countrymen that you
would only believe if you saw it yourself,” he said.
He remembered how his old navigation teacher at the merchant naval
college had been tortured by the Russians. Victims had their limbs broken and were lowered into a sixty
foot well. “They were drowned
‘like rats'”, he said.
The refugees had watched in horror as fellow Estonians were dragged from
crying, into boats and back to the
Soviet Union. Rather than face the same fate,
they decided to flee -- to Canada.
They began looking toward the other side of the ocean.
It was Alexander Kalbus
who began soliciting funds for the purchase of a boat with which to
escape to Canada. It was nearly impossible to purchase a decent
ship for the ocean voyage. He found, however, the S.S. Walnut. Built originally in England as a
Royal Navy minesweeper in 1939, she was now up for sail by a Swedish company
which had converted her into a cargo ship. She had an overall
length of 164 feet and a width of 28 feet.
With retrofitting, would she be able to carry a human cargo to freedom?
co-operative was formed to get together the monies necessary for the
purchase. Known as the Compania Maritima Walnut S.A., shares of the
ship were sold as well as adult and child fares. The ship was found to be
seaworthy and purchased for a price of 225,000 kr. -- $63,000.
It took three
months to refit the Walnut for her voyage to the new world.
Originally designed for
a crew of 18, the Walnut was being prepared to give passage to over 300 individuals. So crowded
was she with her human cargo, that the interior resembled a honeycomb. Bunks were
stacked 24 x 24" and in some cases three high with very little room to move.
Roiser recalls that she and her husband slept with their backs to each other and
their knees wedged against the walls to try to prevent rolling with the
waves. Every inch of space was utilized for accommodation in order that as
many people as possible could make the voyage.
letters were sent to passengers indicating what they were allowed to bring and
where to they were to meet. It was imperative that they drew little
attention to their preparations.
there were 347 passengers who boarded the Walnut for their voyage to
freedom. They ranged in age from nine months to 80 years and were composed
of eight different ethnicities. All knew that they faced illegal entry into
Many ethnicities were aboard the Walnut. The great majority were
ensure secrecy, the ship was moved from Göteborg to Lysekil. Even
here, her departure was in jeopardy.
There weren’t enough life preservers. 60 passengers were told to
get off the ship. Customs officers
and police asked all to get off and re-board using a shorter passenger list.
re-boarding, an urgent telegram arrived for port officials from the Russian
authorities – the boarding was to stop immediately!
The Swedish port officials suspected what the telegram said and decided
to open it AFTER the Walnut had sailed.
left behind at Lysekil.
happened to the missing 60 people? Some
newspapers wrote articles saying that they suspected they had gone to
international waters and met up with the ship there. This supposition was
incorrect. But no, they were
not left behind -- they had been hidden -- sealed in a room in the bottom of the
ship. The Swedish port authorities
had decided to turn a blind eye to room behind the pile of suitcases – the
room they knew was there – but purposely decided NOT to investigate.
a 1966 article in the Toronto Estonian community newspaper "Meie Elu",
a Walnut passenger thanks the port authorities. He
explains that both the police and the port authorities knew of our intent to
hide the extra people. They did not trust each other and both separately gave
us a warning concerning
the other. Both knew we had stowed away the extra people and turned a
blind eye. "I sincerely thank, herein, the friendly Swedish
17th, 1948, the
vessel traveled from
Sweden, through the
North Sea, to the West of Ireland before the oceanic journey began.
“We sailed north of
to avoid the Russians, whom we suspected were attempting to re-capture us,
stated the skipper of the Walnut."
voyage was met immediately with strong winter storms. What have been described
by passengers as
monstrous, ocean waves crashed over the decks and washed away the reserve
coal. The next morning, only a few passengers partook of the breakfast
coffee -- all the rest were too seasick to leave their bunks. Koidula Roiser and Nelly Lind
both state that they were completely bedridden during the entire voyage.
Nelly had two young sons aboard who were running around the decks and in and out
of the coal storages -- she was unable to look after them -- she was so sick.
Trouble with the ship’s pumps resulted in three feet of water
laying in the hold. Another foot of
cold ocean water hitting hot boilers would have spelled disaster for all on
With high waves crashing around them, men held on for their lives and bailed water. Someone
came up with the idea of using fat to seal the deck openings thus sealing the
keeping out the water.
Right: The crew
at work in the engine room.
Below left: Passengers in Sligo.
route of the voyage took them North of Scotland through the Orkney canal. They
turned toward Northern Ireland
and put in to the port of Sligo to pick up more coal.
The ship remained here for four days. This
was the end of their Walnut voyage for four passengers who disembarked at
A marine engineer and his wife left the ship and berthed on a British
ship to sail to Australia because they had Australian visas. One
Finnish woman, married to an Estonian, became gravely ill with appendicitis and
was taken by the Red Cross to hospital for surgery. The Red Cross promised
to send the patient to Canada upon her recovery. The Captain himself put a German
passenger off the ship because he didn’t trust him.
The arrival of
the Walnut caused quite a sensation for the residents of the small Irish town.
All passengers remember their hosts as being very hospitable and friendly.
The refugees were invited into homes for
meals and baths. Food was brought onboard for the passengers and treats
given to the children. Doctor Murphy of the Red Cross provided medical
supplies. Being sympathetic to their plight, the local police allowed all
passengers to disembark without checking passports.
resuming the voyage, three local priests conducted religious services at the
pier. They blessed the ship and spiritually prepared the passengers for
the difficult and dangerous voyage they were about to undertake. The
promised to pray for each soul during the next few days so that they might have
a safe journey.
local priests in Sligo blessed the ship and passengers
so, the dangerous Atlantic crossing began. There were sunny days, but many more
stormy ones. Many
perils awaited the Walnut on her long voyage.
winter ocean waves washed over the deck of the tiny ship forcing passengers to
cling to the railings or be washed overboard.
With the number on board, the number of children, how no-one was lost to
the sea -- is a wonder.
Only two other ships were spotted during the
voyage. The radio mast had broken during the storms and the Walnut was
only able to receive radio signals, but not able to respond to them. At
one point, the Canadian air force signaled that they were off course and needed
to turn south.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity –
seasick, suffering and hungry,
the passengers spotted a strip of land off in the distance.
It was the land they longed for and dreamed of – the saw Canada.
first arrived in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Immigration officials came on board,
but decided to have the shipload
of passengers disembark at Halifax
because the facilities there were better. The
first passengers to step ashore on December 13th, were the Captain August Linde, his wife Hilda and their two
small daughters Heili, aged 11, and Luule, aged 7.
All in all, including their stop in Ireland, the voyage had lasted a month.
passenger recalls how sweet the Canadian bread tasted after eating the molding
bread that they'd had on board.
refugees found themselves at Pier 21 -- now
called the "Gateway to Canada". Over 1.5 million immigrants and
Canadian military personnel have passed through these doors.
authorities at Pier 21 placed the passengers in Immigration Detention Quarters and at Rock Head
– all were carefully screened and interviewed. Some reports indicate that only the
Captain and his family had visas to Canada, other reports indicate that there
were visas for 15. It was estimated that it would
take six weeks time to screen all candidates for citizenship.
Ultimately, of all the passengers, only two were refused entry - one
tailor and one shoemaker.
passengers await their fate at Pier 21 in Halifax
Walnut voyage changed the views of immigration officials. As a result of
the Walnut's voyage and arrival, a special
immigration officer was sent to Sweden and the doors for legal immigration were
The voyage had
been dangerous and uncomfortable – but no one had expected comfort.
All they wanted was to get across the sea – to safety.
This brave group of immigrants would have put up with anything to get to
a free homeland. One immigration
officer told a Walnut passenger, “You came to a good country – there is
room for you here.”
How the Walnut carried its human cargo –
so much greater than it had ever been designed to accommodate
is still a wonder. The only answer
– God had a plan and was looking out for these people.
based on newspaper articles and first hand passenger accounts.
English translation of the following original newspaper article is not a verbatim exact
of the Estonian text, but
rather a very close English version of the original.
also, that translated newspaper articles from various sources appeared
after the Walnut voyage
and were also written many years later. Many news articles
contain factual inaccuracies, but are presented
as published and written by their
"Onboard the Viking
Ship Over the Atlantic"
Originally published in the Estonian community newspaper „Vaba Eestlane“.
Although undated, it can be estimated to have been written approx. Sept. or Oct.
Photographs have been added by the webmaster and were not part of the original
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
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
difficulty, successfully crossed the Atlantic and the refugees had been accepted
in the United States and Canada despite arriving illegally.
Stories about the
Stories about the
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.
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, 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
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
On the 18th of September in
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
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.S.
The Walnut, docked in Göteborg - Nov. 12, 1948.
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
left and right:
Last views of Lysekil, Sweden.
We are on the North Sea - destination
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
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
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
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.]
Taking on necessities at Sligo.
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
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 ja
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 Rock Head 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
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
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 Rock Head 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,
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
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