Dockside Classic: MS Gripsholm – The First Diesel-Powered Transatlantic Liner

(first posted 4/3/2017)    The MS Gripsholm, a passenger liner built in 1924 for the Swedish American Line, was the first diesel powered transatlantic liner, a very significant first.  Modest in size (18,000 tons) and speed (16 knots), and not preserved or officially recognized at the end of its 42 years of existence, the Gripsholm was nevertheless a historic ship in numerous ways: for its design, for its achievements at sea, and for becoming an unlikely national symbol long after it had ceased to exist.

The Gripsholm was powered by diesel engines made by the Danish firm Burmeister & Wain (no connection to Volvo Penta, to answer a question that occurred quickly to me and probably to many of you) drove the twin screws of the Gripsholm.  It was a significant step in motors replacing steam as the power source of ocean-going commercial shipping, which began in 1912 with the diesel-powered 6,800 ton Danish liner Selandia, which served a coastal route from Denmark to Asia and was not considered truly trans-oceanic.  Comparable developments occurred in warships at around the same times, with Germany launching the first diesel-powered submarine, U-19, in 1912, and constructing the first diesel-powered major surface combatant, the pocket battleship Deutschland, in 1929-31.  Diesel would replace steam as the predominant power source for commercial shipping after the Second World War, becoming universal by the 1960s.

The Gripsholm for its first decade and a half served as one of the premier passenger liners of the Swedish American Line (Svenska Amerika Linien, renamed in 1925 from the less euphonious Rederiaktiebolaget Sverige-Nordamerika).  Its main duty was transatlantic liner service on the Gothenburg to New York route, with many voyages also calling at Halifax, Nova Scotia.  It had a capacity of 1,557 passengers in first, second and third class accommodations.

In addition to its usual transatlantic duty, the Gripsholm was the first ship that the Swedish American Line used for its pioneering winter cruise service to the Mediterranean and the tropics, making the Gripsholm a milestone ship in service as well as in design.  Its first winter cruise embarked on February 1927.  This map shows the course of the 1934 winter cruise, which took vacationers through the Suez Canal and around the Indian Ocean, all the way to Bombay, Colombo and Zanzibar.

The Gripsholm carried an impressive 321,213 transatlantic passengers during its service as a Swedish American Line passenger liner.  The passengers were a mix of business travelers, tourists, Swedes visiting relatives living in America, Swedish-Americans visiting the old country, and some immigrants, although the wave of Swedish immigration to North America that had begun in the mid-19th Century had largely subsided by the 1920s.  An additional 23,551 passengers sailed on the Gripsholm on winter cruises.

The Gripsholm offered luxurious accommodations for its transatlantic and cruise passengers, including a “Pompeian swimming pool,” “Finnish Baths” (sauna), “Electric Light Baths” (for the sun and Vitamin D deprived) and “expert Swedish massage.”

These luxury accommodations would provide badly needed comfort during wartime in the Gripsholm‘s second life in World War II.  The Swedish American Line suspended passenger service after the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939 and took its ships out of service, but the Gripsholm and the older steam-powered liner Drottningholm took on a new role as mercy ships after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The U.S. government chartered the Gripsholm and Drottningholm for the special task of transporting Allied and Axis civilians, under neutral flag, in exchanges of civilians for repatriation to their respective countries.  The Drottningholm served under U.S. charter for two voyages to Europe and back in March and May 1942, then under U.K. charter for similar purposes.  The Gripsholm served the United States for the duration of the war starting in June 1942, under a U.S. Department of State charter managed by American Export Lines, a shipping company with operations throughout the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

The outbreak of war had stranded thousands of people in now-hostile countries or in occupied territories, and despite the state of total war that existed, the United States and Japan agreed to return the other side’s civilians in exchanges conducted on neutral territory.  The exchanges occurred infrequently, and most interned Allied civilians languished in prison camps for the duration of the war, but thousands returned home early thanks to this arrangement.  The Gripsholm became the lifeline for American missionaries, businessmen and journalists interned in Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines, as well as Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians and others who had the misfortune to be caught in the war zones.  The ship spent the war years sailing from New York to the Indian Ocean to exchange Japanese citizens for Americans and other North and South American civilians, and to Europe for exchanges of German civilians and prisoners of war for Allied citizens.

At a time when warships and merchant vessels alike were painted grey or in camouflage and sailed blacked out at night, to hide from enemy aircraft, submarines and surface combatants, the Gripsholm traveled as conspicuously as possible to ensure that it would be recognized by both sides.  White with large stripes in blue and white Swedish colors, and with “GRIPSHOLM SVERIGE” and “DIPLOMAT” in huge letters on each side of the ship, the Gripsholm also sailed with maximum lights blazing at night, illuminating the ship and the names on its sides.  The ship’s lights were so bright that they sent other ships scattering to avoid being lit up and made vulnerable to being spotted by German U-boats.  These measures were effective, as the ship and its civilian passengers were never attacked accidentally by either Axis or Allied forces.

On its first voyage, the Gripsholm left New York on June 18, 1942 with 1,083 Japanese civilians, then took on another 417 in Rio de Janeiro before crossing the South Atlantic and rounding the Cape of Good Hope.  At the port of Lorenco Marques in Portuguese Mozambique, the ship rendezvoused on July 22, 1942 with the Japanese liner/troopship Asama Maru, with more than 800 Allied civilians from Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Philippines, and the Italian Far East Line’s Conte Verde, with over 600 civilians from Shanghai.  A total of 1,510 boarded the Gripsholm for the journey home.  They included U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew; Judge Milton Helmick of the United States Court for China, the extraterritorial U.S. court in Shanghai; and U.S. Marine Corps Major Gregon Williams, Assistant Naval Attache in Shanghai, who as a diplomat with immunity was repatriated instead of becoming a prisoner of war, later commanding the 6th Marine Regiment in the Battle of Okinawa and serving as chief of staff of the 1st Marine Division during the Inchon landing and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War.

Many of the interned civilians had endured months of starvation in Japanese prison camps, with one American journalist measured weighing 64 pounds when he boarded, having lost almost 100 pounds to starvation.  On the main deck the crew greeted them with buffets that sent many to their knees in prayers of thanks.  The long journey home took them first to Rio de Janeiro on August 10, then to New York on August 25.

The second mission of the Gripsholm was to Mormugao in Portuguese India, a small coastal enclave near Goa that was neutral Portuguese territory surrounded by the British Indian Empire, where it met the Japanese naval transport Teia Maru.  (Originally the French passenger liner Aramis, converted to an armed merchant cruiser in 1939-40, the Teia Maru had been seized in Saigon and was being used as a cargo ship and POW transport.)  In this even longer voyage from New York, with stops at Rio de Janeiro and at Port Elizabeth in South Africa, the Gripsholm again transported approximately 1,500 Japanese civilians in exchange for 1,500 Americans, Canadians and other citizens of North and South American countries.  Embarking from New York on September 21, 1943, the Gripsholm returned three months later on December 1.

In 1944 the Gripsholm stayed in the Atlantic, making three voyages to Europe for exchanges of civilians and prisoners of war with Germany.  The ship called at the neutral ports of Lisbon, Barcelona, and the ship’s home port of Gothenburg, where it exchanged German civilians and prisoners of war for American diplomats, other civilians, and prisoners of war.  The voyage to Gothenburg also recovered American airmen who had landed their aircraft in Sweden and been interned there, and returned Swedish sailors from the liner Kungsholm who had been stranded in New York since 1942, when their ship had been purchased by the U.S. government for use as a troopship, appropriately named John Ericsson, after the Swedish-American engineer and naval architect who had designed the first screw propeller warship and the USS Monitor.  The return to New York of the Gripsholm‘s fourth wartime voyage on March 15, 1944, with 663 Americans who had been diplomats to Vichy France (including Douglas MacArthur, nephew of General Douglas MacArthur), journalists, and wounded prisoners of war, is shown in this newsreel.

In 1945 the Gripsholm returned to the Indian Ocean for exchanges with Japan.  The ship went on four missions in 1945, again rescuing missionaries, businessmen, journalists and others who had been held in terrible conditions in Japanese prison camps, now after two further years of captivity.  In this video the ship is shown calling at Rio de Janeiro to disembark citizens of South American countries and give its remaining passengers shore leave before the final leg of the journey to New York.

After the war the Gripsholm continued in U.S. service into 1946 to make three further voyages to repatriate civilians and prisoners of war.  A February 1946 voyage to the Mediterranean was unusual in transporting several hundred prison inmates for deportation to Italy and Greece, including the famous gangster Lucky Luciano.

During its service to the United States from 1942 to 1946, the Gripsholm made a total of 12 voyages in which it transported 27,712 passengers.

Between voyages, the Gripsholm spent long periods docked in the New York area for refitting and to wait for its next mission.  After the 1942 voyage, the ship sailed up the Hudson River to dock in Yonkers, New York, likely the reason for it passing under the George Washington Bridge in this photo.  During other periods it docked in Jersey City, New Jersey.  The crew were officially considered to be with the U.S. Merchant Marine and received the same shore leave privileges given to sailors who were U.S. citizens.  Like the ship, they spent over two years continuously abroad, at sea or in New York, before returning home to Gothenburg briefly in 1944.  Crew members had been originally hired under six month contracts in 1942, but they served through 1944, and many continued to the end in 1946.

The ship and its crew were rightly lauded for their work during and after the war.  The arrival of the Gripsholm in New York with Americans returning from captivity was always a newsworthy event, and the ship and its crew regularly received praise from the New York press.  Reporting the ship’s arrival on December 1, 1943, the New York Times said, “The Gripsholm completed her second round voyage on the day set for it.  She has a right to be proud of herself … We all like her.  She is a happy ship.  No other has brought home so many rejoicing passengers.”  After the war, the U.S. government officially thanked the Gripsholm and its crew, with the Secretary of State sending an official letter of commendation and the entire crew receiving the U.S. Merchant Marine Victory Medal in recognition of their exceptional wartime service.

The crew of the Gripsholm had done their jobs for an extraordinary purpose during the war, and many veterans of those years wore their medals proudly for the rest of their careers at sea.  Shown here wearing his ribbons for wartime service on his uniform jacket is ship’s bartender Uno Karlholm, who no doubt helped many to unburden themselves and prepare for the task of returning to their lives in the United States and elsewhere.  Their honors were well deserved, as they and the ship had exemplified the humanitarian and maritime traditions of their country.

At the end of its service to the United States in 1946, the Gripsholm resumed its passenger service with the Swedish American Line and then achieved another first.  In 1954 the Swedish American Line sold the now 30 year old ship to Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL), a major German shipping company since the 1850s which had lost its entire fleet during the war.  The Gripsholm, renamed MS Berlin, became the first passenger ship of the reconstituted NDL and Germany’s first postwar transatlantic liner.  The Berlin served NDL’s transatlantic route from Bremerhaven to New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

As the Berlin, the ship again became the passage to a better life for many people, this time for Germans and other Europeans immigrating to the United States and Canada.  From 1955 to 1966, the ship arrived 33 times at Pier 21 in Halifax (shown), the immigration and customs facility that was the Ellis Island of Canada from 1928 to 1971.  According to Canadian Museum of Immigration information, in those 33 voyages more than 3,832 immigrants arrived in Canada (the numbers were actually significantly higher, because passenger records are missing for several of these voyages).

The distinguished career of the Gripsholm/Berlin finally came to an end in 1966.  The 42 year old ship, now considered too old for passenger liner service, went to La Spezia, Italy to be scrapped.

Not considered for preservation as a museum ship, like the grander SS United States and RMS Queen Mary, and not the subject of a memorial anywhere as far as I have been able to determine, the Gripsholm nevertheless has lived on in spirit in an unusual way.  In 2012, 46 years after the ship’s demise, the government of Canada selected a photograph of the ship visiting Pier 21 as MS Berlin to serve as the central image of Canada’s ePassport, representing Canada’s history of welcoming immigrants.  Millions of people traveling the world carrying the Gripsholm‘s image used in this way is as fitting a tribute as any to this remarkable ship that achieved many firsts at sea and did extraordinary wartime service that changed tens of thousands of lives.  It has made the Gripsholm a ship that was born great, achieved greatness, and finally had greatness thrust upon it as well.


This story is a sort of Outtake on a grand scale, which I mentioned in two recently published books but was unable to give more than one photograph and a brief paragraph in either.  The books are “American Pyongyang: The American Christian Community of the North Korean Capital, 1895-1942,” and “Project Eagle: The American Christians of North Korea in World War II.”  Both are currently available on Amazon.