Story tells of gold-shipping during WWII

Way Back When

July 14, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As German forces overran Europe in the spring of 1940, massive gold shipments began arriving in the United States from England, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway for safekeeping.

As the May invasion of Oslo began, Norwegian officials played a cat and mouse game with some 600,000,000 kronor, which they successfully managed to spirit away from the Nazis aboard a British troopship and deposit in a London bank vault.

The next month, a shipment of gold estimated to be in excess of $500 million arrived in New York from England and France, shipped by way of Canada. And as Nazi forces swept into the Low Countries, Dutch officials hastily prepared to transfer some $3 billion to the Bank of Canada and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Madeline Lippman of Bethany Beach, Del., in a recent letter, recalled a mystery gold shipment to Baltimore in the early war years that later served as an inspiration for a popular 1942 children's fiction book, Snow Treasure, by Marie McSwigan.

McSwigan, who had been a Pittsburgh journalist and later was director of public relations for the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in the book's foreword, "This story is based on an actual happening. On June 28, 1940, the Norwegian freighter Bomma reached Baltimore with a cargo of gold bullion worth $9,000,000."

She claimed that the gold had been smuggled past unsuspecting Nazi sentries aboard sleds pulled by Norwegian children to a waiting freighter hidden deep in a fiord.

"Two changes were made in the scant account given in the news dispatches that accompanied the disclosure of the cargo of gold. The Bomma, a coasting motorship, became the Cleng Peerson, a fishing smack. Also, the distance the gold was sledded was not twelve miles but actually thirty-five miles. Otherwise, how the Norse children set about eluding the German forces of occupation is here reconstructed as well as possible from what brief facts were permitted," she concludes.

However, there is some conjecture among historians and maritime experts that the story of the book, which is still in print, isn't quite true.

Published reports in The Sun at the time stated that the Bomma, "a little gray Norwegian `coasting' motorship,' is the central figure in a mystery shipment of $9,000,000 in gold which moved in an out of the port Monday night."

The ship, a small freighter of 1,000 tons, under the command of Capt. Henry Lois Johannessen, arrived in Baltimore in late June. The ship waited several days before tying up at Canton Railroad Pier 3 at dusk on July 1.

Oddly, there was no name painted on her bows or stern. And adding to the secrecy swirling around the ship was no mention in The Sun's shipping columns of her arrival in local waters.

"The Bomma docked and three heavily guarded trucks arrived at the pier simultaneously. While guards kept a sharp lookout, the trucks were piled high with cases said to contain foreign bullion," reported The Sun.

Once loaded, the armored trucks trundled off the pier and traveled through deserted city streets at midnight accompanied by a squad of police on motorcyles and in radio cars. They were en route to Camden Station where a B&O train stood waiting to receive the valuable shipment.

Arriving at the station, the gold was quickly loaded aboard a car and departed for New York at 1:28 a.m. where it was stored in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

"Custom House officials said they would give no information regarding the shipment if it were at their command. It was considered significant that they, however, declined to make a flat denial of the landing of the bullion," said the newspaper.

The ship's officers were equally closed-mouthed about the incident.

O.C. Holm, an expert on World War II Norwegian shipping, states categorically that "many think the story is true. It is not."

He claims the gold from the Bank of Norway was packed in 1,503 boxes and 39 barrels, filled 25 trucks and weighed 13 tons. It was later transferred to a train, which took several circuitous routes, attempting to elude capture by the Nazis.

British troops managed to land at Andalsnes, Norway, while under heavy aerial attack by German planes. However, a third of the gold was loaded aboard the British cruiser Galathea, which sailed for England.

Unable to move the remainder of the bullion, railway officials backed the train up a valley and were able to successfully camouflage it from the enemy.

Later, some of the gold was loaded aboard another cruiser, the Glasgow, and shipped to England, while the remainder was placed aboard fishing vessels which rendezvoused with another cruiser that landed the cargo at Plymouth.

On June 15, 1940, the Bomma left England with the first shipment of gold bound for the United States. She was the first of 14 treasure ships.

However, there is no mention in either Holm's or newspaper accounts of children saving the Bank of Norway's gold from capture.

When the book was published in 1942, a questioning reader suggested in a letter to the Pittsburgh Press that the book be re-titled "McSwigan's Fairy Tales."

McSwigan, who died in 1962, stood by her story, claiming it took 38 children, aided by their mothers, some six weeks to move the gold a distance of 12 miles.

In 1997, when Snow Treasure was reissued by Scholastic Paperbacks, it carried a note that said "for many years the story was believed to be true. But more than 40 years later, there is no proof it ever really happened."

Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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