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Latvia Sailors Who Fought in WWII Honored

May 9, 2003

RIGA, Latvia (AP) _ Scores of Latvian sailors who defied Soviet occupiers to join U.S. Atlantic convoys during World War II were honored for the first time Thursday.

The 163 men were aboard eight Latvian freighters that remained at sea after Soviet troops seized control of the Baltic nation in 1940.

Their story of joining the American convoys in evading German submarines in the North Atlantic only came to light this year. Soviets had banned the saga from the media for more than five decades.

``It was a tremendous injustice that these men were never known in their own motherland, Latvia,″ said Alex Krasnitsky, an organizer of Thursday’s memorial.

Commemorations were held in the Gulf of Riga Thursday as well off the North Carolina coast, where one of the ships, the Ciltvaira, sank in 1942. A plaque honoring the sailors was also unveiled in the capital, Riga.

Only one of the sailors is believed to still be alive. Officials said that the Boston resident was too frail to travel. They declined to release his name.

The commander of the Latvian navy, Ilmars Leshiskis, led the ceremony in the Gulf of Riga from the deck of the frigate Virsaitis.

``This is a very emotional day for me,″ Leshiskis told The Associated Press. ``Those merchant sailors made a dramatic choice to go to war (alongside) the Americans _ something they didn’t have to do. They were very brave men.″

Leshiskis lowered brightly-colored wreaths into the calm, gray Baltic Sea. As the wreaths broke apart, sailors and officers aboard the ship saluted.

He said commemorations will be held annually.

After annexing Latvia, the Soviet Union ordered all Latvian vessels to return home, and threatened to punish families of any rebellious sailors. Most complied but crews on the eight ships refused.

After America entered the war, the ships ferried coal, rubber and other raw materials needed by the United States to wage war in Europe. By this time, the Latvian nation had already been seized by the Nazis, an occupation that would last until 1944.

The Ciltvaira was the first of the Latvian ships destroyed. Within nine months, five others sank _ the Everasma, Abgara, Everalda, Regent and Everelza. Only the Everagra and Ke’gums survived the war.

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