Biography of Bjarne Thorsen - MidshipmanViewers able to provide more information (stories or photos) are asked to contact Dan Delong.
Extracted from the photo of the Crew of the Nene on deck taken March 1945
Photo from the book "NENE LIVES The Story of H.M.C.S. Nene & her Crew" - 1993
Thorsen - Midshipman
After the War, Bjarne spied on the Russians. Read on for the details, as supplied by Jim Burns - a cohort. Find out why they hunted seals for the heads only, and try, if you can, to explain why they boiled a human head.
First e-mail from Jim: I spent the summer of 1955 in Svalbard with Bjarne. I can provide stories about that. I visited with him briefly again in 1960 and in 1997. I have a good picture of him from 1955, and could possibly get hold of two less good ones of him from 1997. He was not in good health in 1997, so my first question, now in 2006, is: Is he still alive, and if so what is his condition? I have always admired him and am anxious to follow through with this. My e-mail address is: email@example.com
Second e-mail from Jim:
In the summer of 1955, Bjarne Thorsen was the expedition leader of a joint Norwegian-American intelligence mission aboard the sealing vessel Godønes. Fifteen men took part: five from the Norwegian intelligence establishment, five from American intelligence agencies, and the crew of five including Skipper Leiv Isaksen of Tromsdalen, Norway. One purpose of the mission was to detect and observe Soviet radar activity at Russian mining settlements in Svalbard and along the Murmansk coast, Novaya Zemlya, and Franz Josef Land. A second purpose was to put teams ashore in Svalbard to investigate conditions for the possible construction of large airfields and port facilities to supply them. Overall, the mission was successful, but a planned return to Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya had to be canceled when the ship was disabled with a bent propeller shaft in heavy ice in the Hinlopen Strait between West Spitsbergen and Northeast Land.
I (Jim Burns) was one of the five Americans on that expedition, and based on that experience, the following is one of the stories I wrote concerning Bjarne:
"But the best source materials of all were in the persons of Bjarne Thorsen and Tore Snefjellå, two staff members who were old Svalbard hands. Both had been active in the Norwegian resistance during the German occupation. Bjarne was now a lieutenant commander in the Norwegian navy, and was to be overall leader of the expedition. Tore, a full commander, was not scheduled to go with us but clearly envied us the adventure. Each of them was easygoing and jovial, a pleasure to be with and surely the life of every party. But when the time came for decision or action, their eyes flashed with intensity and insight, and they showed their canniness at moving and surviving in at least three worlds: the sea, the Arctic, and the world of military intelligence. They had learned to preface every plan for action in the Arctic seas with the incantation 'If weather permits...'
"Tore was in his mid-thirties, a bachelor seemingly intent upon remaining so. Bjarne, about the same age, had been engaged for several years; it was common then for marriage to be deferred until the couple reached the top of a waiting list for scarce housing. The two men had shared several intelligence assignments in Svalbard, watching Germans in the early years and presumably Russians later on.
"Of the many wild stories with which Tore and Bjarne regaled us,
their quest for a human skull was the most unforgettable despite my earnest
efforts to forget it. During much idle time on a Svalbard assignment,
they searched for a skull in the shallow graveyards of old whaling stations
that had been fairly common in the area a couple of centuries earlier.
As I would later see for myself, these graveyards abounded in human bones,
but nary a skull; all had been collected already. Tore and Bjarne had
the fortune to find one deeper grave, so deep in fact that the permanently
frozen ground had preserved the entire body, flesh and all. Undeterred,
they hacked the neck, carried the head to their cabin, and there boiled
it in a cauldron in an attempt to remove the flesh.
In a letter dated October 6, 1997, Bjarne gave some insight as to another mission he had completed earlier that same year. He wrote: "I came on board the Godønes from another boat and another assignment that were much worse. The Russians exploded the first atom bomb in the sea off Novaya Zemlya early in 1955. My job was to collect seal heads so that scientists could study the seal's jaw muscles for content of radioactivity. An American told me later, 'That was a really dirty bomb.' And we lived on seal liver cakes! The Godønes was like a cruise ship for me."
Photos of Bjarne are rare. In his teens, when he began underground activities against the Germans in Norway, he destroyed all his pictures so that they could not be used to identify him. For the same reason, he continued to avoid having new pictures taken throughout the Cold War, during which he got involved in espionage activities against the Soviet Union. The attached snapshot, taken by his close friend Tore Snefjellå during the 1955 expedition, was presented by Bjarne to Jim Burns in 1997.
The Godønes expedition remained a closely guarded secret for more than 40 years. Then, starting in 1996, a number of Norwegian newspaper articles and books told the story. At this moment, I am aware of one book in English that devotes two pages to the mission, and identifies LCDR Bjarne Thorsen as the leader. That book is "The Norwegian Intelligence Service 1945-1970" by Olav Riste, published in Great Britain in 1999 by Frank Cass Publishers.
Also in English, "The Cold Coasts" by Jim Burns, scheduled
for publication about the end of August 2006, is entirely devoted to the
Godønes expedition. This book is the source of the story related
above and of the attached picture.
Best regards, Jim Burns JaqJimBurns@cs.com
Note: "The Cold Coasts" has now been published, as of September, 2006 - Website: http://www.jasperburns.com/coasts.htm
Webmaster: Dan Delong - Updated: November 30, 2002