by John Konrad (gCaptain) As a US Merchant Marine captain, Merchant Marine veteran advocate, and the husband of a decorated Merchant Marine war veteran, I find myself deeply moved by Netflix’s new series, War Sailor (Krigsseileren). This three-part Norwegian drama is a haunting and profound journey through the turmoil of war at sea. It delves into the two most profoundly important and unreported stories of World War II, the crucial role of allied merchant shipping and the long-lasting effects of PTSD on post-war generations.
The series, which debuted as a feature film for the Oscars’ international category, is the most expensive Norwegian movie ever made. Yet, it avoids ostentatious displays of wealth, instead opting for a raw and immersive experience. The stunning cinematography transports viewers to the open sea, where the true cost of war is palpable. The narrative is reminiscent of the vivid realism in two of my favorite war dramas, Greyhound and Das Boot, but shows the third side of the Battle of the Atlantic, the target of U-boat attacks.
War Sailor follows the lives of Alfred (Kristoffer Joner) and Sigbjorn (Pal Sverre Hagen), two dockworkers from Bergen who find themselves thrust into the brutal world of cargo shipping during the war. Director Gunnar Vikene masterfully crafts a tense and sparse atmosphere, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the visceral imagery. The actors’ expressive faces evoke the timeless and rugged spirit of Norse mythology.
This is not a happy film. Alfred is reluctant to leave his wife and promises his Daughter to return at any cost, but those costs are unimaginable to even the most weather-hardened sailor. “Alfred and Sigbjorn are sucked into the escalating horror, depicted in a series of almost hallucinogenic vignettes,” said acclaimed movie critic James Delingpole, writing for The Spectator, who lauded the series as one of the most remarkable television experiences of the year. “Drowning mariners pleading for help as the vessel speeds cruelly past because the convoy cannot stop to pick them up; a crowded cellar in Malta, sheltering from another air raid; a dockside in New York patrolled by MPs whose job is to frustrate merchant crews’ understandable urge to jump ship, especially when they’ve heard that their next port of call is the suicide destination of Murmansk.
Unlike traditional war stories, War Sailor refrains from taking sides. Instead, it delves deep into the human experience of suffering and resilience in the cruel sea during the war. The series pays tribute to the men, women and children who risked their lives to protect the world’s oceans and highlights the importance of honoring their sacrifices.
In the shadow of World War II, the Norwegian Merchant Marine emerged as a vital force, the unsung heroes whose selfless service fueled the Allied war effort. With resolute determination, these courageous sailors navigated treacherous waters, bearing the weight of their mission to deliver indispensable supplies and troops to the front lines. They faced the ever-looming threat of German U-boats, predators lurking beneath the waves, ready to strike without warning. Amidst the thundering cacophony of torpedo explosions, the icy waters of the North Atlantic swallowed ship after ship, leaving a chilling trail of destruction in their wake.
The toll on the Norwegian merchant fleet was monumental. Thousands of Norwegian sailors perished in the unforgiving tempest of war, their lives extinguished by the insatiable appetite of conflict. More than half of Norway’s pre-war fleet was consumed by the raging inferno, a testament to the harrowing losses they endured. Yet, through the heartache and devastation, the Norwegian Merchant Marine’s unwavering dedication served as a beacon of hope and resilience. Their sacrifices, forever etched into the annals of history, illuminated the path to the ultimate triumph of the Allied forces and the power of working jointly with allies on logistics. The indomitable spirit of these unsung heroes is a stark reminder of the power of perseverance in the face of adversity, a legacy that will forever be intertwined with the story of World War II.
The Problem Continues Today
As the series unfolds, it weaves in these powerful and critically important themes but also serves as a warning for future generations. First, the film does what no other North Atlantic war drama has… it fast-forwards to decades after the drama to illuminate the lack of recognition and support faced by Merchant Marine veterans. This reality is sadly very true. US Merchant Marine veterans of World War II were finally awarded the Congressional gold medal only in May 2022, and Allied Merchant Marine sailors are still awaiting their recognition today. Philippine Boy Scouts of World War II have been awarded Gold Medals but not Philippine or Norwegian or Dutch or other allied Merchant Mariners who played equally critical roles.
This film also highlights lingering medical issues and PTSD but even as Congress just last year acknowledged the sacrifices made by Merchant Mariners during World War II, they failed to recognize the ongoing struggles faced by those who have served in subsequent wars. These brave individuals continue to be denied even the most basic VA medical benefits and have received little support from even the most vocal and progressive veteran advocates like Gary Sinise and Jon Stewart. For example, over 20 years ago, my wife Cindy donned CBRD protective gear to dock her US-flagged containership in Iraq, unloading explosive munitions and life-saving medical supplies while under the looming threat of scud missile attacks. Yet, not a single person from the Veterans Administration or Department of Defense has ever contacted our family to inquire about her well-being or potential PTSD. Not one. This glaring oversight is not only a disservice to the dedicated men and women who have risked their lives for their country but also a call to action for us to address and rectify the situation. It’s been two decades since she served but her sacrifices – and that of her shipmates – have already been forgotten. It is our responsibility to ensure they receive the recognition and basic medical support they so rightfully deserve.
Allied Merchant Marine Support Have Also Been Forgotten
War Sailor also emphasizes the need for stronger collaboration between the US and its allies in maritime affairs. Despite the US Navy’s top admirals acknowledging the importance of working jointly with allied forces, the US Merchant Marine and foreign merchant navies remain overlooked. This includes highly trained sailors from the Philippines and Ukraine merchant marines, whose talents and expertise could greatly contribute to the maritime community in future conflicts.
History Repeats Itself
Lastly, the series is a stark reminder of how rapidly the global maritime landscape can shift. Historian Sal Mercogliano points out that China is currently executing the largest shipbuilding plan in history, producing as many ships in a single year as the US emergency shipbuilding plan did in 1942 and 1943 combined. This fact underscores the necessity of maintaining a strong and adaptable merchant marine force in a fast-changing world and investing in joint training and support between merchant navies and allied navies. But how can we expect any merchant mariner who has seen this movie – and knows full well that the US Navy provides no VA, GI Bill, or even basic insurance to Merchant Marine families today – to volunteer for the next fight at sea? How will allied merchant mariners sign up knowing that previous generations were treated by criminals on the docks of New York and still are not welcome to train jointly with the US Navy today?
I wholeheartedly recommend War Sailor, not because it has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but because it’s a deeply authentic war drama that completes the Battle of the Atlantic trifecta started by Das Boot and Greyhound. This series is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by the unsung heroes of the sea and a call to action to recognize and support the Merchant Marine veterans who are still denied the basic benefits they deserve. Let us remember the lessons War Sailor imparts and work collectively to address the challenges faced by our brave merchant marine sailors. Let their stories resonate with us and inspire American and Allied lawmakers to ensure they receive the recognition and VA PTSD medical support Merchant Marine war veterans of all ages have rightfully earned.
More importantly, the final episode vividly exposes how families of Merchant Mariners continued to struggle with the effects of war two decades later. Unfortunately, this has not been rectified at all. Last month was the two-decade anniversary of Allied sealift efforts in Iraq and US Merchant Marine veteran families like mine are still waiting for our first call from the Veterans Administration. How many more decades will my wife and children wait for the US Military to ask if they are ok? How many more Merchant Marine families like mine have been forgotten?
War Sailor is not a story of years long forgotten. It is also the story of how we treat veterans today.
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