Note the Polish white eagle in the clouds of the background of the photo.

As far back as I can remember, my Polish grandmother had a picture on her living room wall of a beautiful sailing ship. She told me that the picture was of the Dar Pomorza and had been sent to her from a friend in the old country. It commemorated the escape of the ship from the Nazis in 1939. If you look closely, you can make out the Polish White Eagle in the clouds in the background. She gave me the picture before she passed away.

In researching the history of the escape, I found that as the country was being overrun, the Poles realized that they would inevitably be conquered and tried to keep anything that could be used in warfare out of the hands of the Nazis. They managed to get several submarines, a few destroyers, and picket boats to England where they formed the Free Polish Navy, which fought alongside the Royal Navy. The Dar Pomorza was too big and noticeable, not to mention slow moving to make it to England through Nazi occupied waters, so she sailed to neutral Sweden, where she was interned for the remainder of the war. The crew eventually made it to England where they also joined the Free Polish Navy.

You might wonder how a sailing ship could be an asset to 1940s era weaponry. Well, they made good sub chasers. They moved silently compared to machinery driven vessels. Since they were so quiet, their sonar equipment was more efficient. They could also sail at twice the speed of a submerged submarine and drop depth charges on it. A surfaced submarine was no match for a large deck gun, and finally, since they didn’t need fuel, they could stay at sea for long periods of time.

Fast forward 37 years to 1976: the USA was celebrating the Bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The celebration included a gathering of Tall Ships from all over the world that would meet in Boston Harbor and then sail down the East Coast visiting major cities, including New York. I was fortunate enough to be living in New Jersey at the time in a little town 19 miles due south of the city, the port they would visit on July 4th! They planned to anchor in Sandy Hook Bay for two days, then parade through the Narrows then up the Hudson River past Manhattan. Most of the ships sailed down through Long Island Sound, but the ones that were too tall to fit under the Brooklyn Bridge had to come along the outside of Long Island and anchor in the ocean about a mile offshore from my house! On the morning of July 2nd, we looked out the bedroom window and it was like waking up in the previous century with the sun coming up behind the tall masted ships!

The Coast Guard had closed off the bay to the general public until all the ships were safely anchored, then they opened it up so everyone could view them “up close and personal.” It was estimated that around 10,000 boats were there over the next three days! Of course, we were there with a boatload of friends and spent about 24 hours in total on the water that weekend, taking about five rolls of film! (Remember when you needed a camera to take a picture, then had to wait until the film was developed?)

A rendering from when the Dar Pomorza visited Sandy Hook Bay.

Among the ships anchored there was the Dar Pomorza, in company of her sister ship, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter “Eagle.” They had both been built at the same shipyard in Germany in the early part of the last century. The Eagle, originally named the “Horst Wessel,” after WWII was taken by the U.S. as part of war reparations. She is now used as a training ship by the U.S. Coast Guard to teach cadets the organization and operation of a ship at sea.

On the morning of the fourth, the Coast Guard again closed off the bay so the ships could raise sail, weigh anchor, and head north for the grand parade of boats, past the Statue of Liberty, and past Manhattan Island, followed by the enormous spectator fleet. That evening there was a spectacular fireworks display in front of the Statue of Liberty which could be viewed for miles around.

It was the largest gathering of tall ships until that time, surpassed only by the one in 1986 celebrating the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. What made it so special to me was to actually see the Dar Pomorza up close bringing back happy memories of my grandmother.

Images: provided by Vinnie Mendes