By TYLER ORTON
Paul Jacobsen says he’s one of the lucky ones.
Sitting deep on his couch with one foot up on the coffee table, the 93-year-old veteran is at ease talking about his experiences during the Second World War.
“I think I went through the war without any scars,” he says.
The types of scars he’s talking about were left to others he knew such as a merchant sailor reduced to uncontrollable shaking after being torpedoed three times.
But Jacobsen says he never spent time as a young man contemplating the danger he faced as the Nazis ravaged Europe.
An array of wood carving awards and ribbons drapes the wall behind him as the Aldergrove man thumbs through an old photo album. He points to a black and white picture of a freighter.
That’s where it all began.
As a teen Jacobsen hoped to sail the world as a chief engineer in the merchant navy.
Over the next three years, he took jobs on ships whenever possible and occupied himself as a metalworker in months seafaring gigs were scarce.
Just 20 years old in 1939, Jacobsen was serving on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico when Germany invaded Poland. He was promptly conscripted into the Royal Norwegian Navy to serve on a patrol boat built in the previous century.
“To see the Norwegian Navy at that time, it was really outdated,” Jacobsen says with a smile.
That ship cruised along the coast laying mines for the next few months while the country remained neutral.
When the boat docked on land in April 1940, a Norwegian man calling himself The Sheriff greeted the four-man crew by telling them they were prisoners of Germany.
“The skipper just told him, ‘Kiss my ass. We’re going to England,’” Jacobsen recalls.
They left the harbour with enough fuel in the ship to make it across the North Sea, however, the patrol boat ran aground during the evening and sank.
Jacobsen says the four of them convinced a farmer to let them trade their lifeboat for his row boat.
They then spent the next 10 days paddling south in an effort to go home.
During that 300-mile trek down the coast they mostly encountered people confused about what was going on and what the invasion meant. Some didn’t even understand who had attacked them.
Upon reaching Oslo, Jacobsen discovered some of his friends in the army had been taken prisoner and made to sign papers agreeing never to bear arms against Germany.
Still, a Norwegian army lieutenant was organizing underground forces and Jacobsen joined up with a group of soldiers, where he was the sole navy man.
Norwegian commandos began training the men how to demolish heavy machinery and sabotage railway lines in order to disrupt German war efforts. Meanwhile, the underground forces armed themselves with munitions and guns that had been parachuted down to the nearby mountains.
It wasn’t long, however, before London command ordered the resistance fighters to take to the bush and hide when one of their comrades was captured by the Gestapo.
But after a few weeks, seven of the men had enough of hopping from cabin to cabin in the wilderness.
“They said the Germans have forgotten us now,” Jacobsen recalls.
His friends were wrong.
The Nazi secret police immediately rounded up, tortured and executed the resistance fighters upon their arrival home.
Meanwhile, Jacobsen and another member of the underground crossed the border into neutral Sweden to evade their pursuers.
He bided his time for a few months by taking a metalwork class before finding passage on an unarmed cargo plane bound for Scotland.
A postcard sent from Stockholm was the last his family heard from him during the war. Using a fake name and writing obliquely, Jacobsen conveyed to his parents his plans to travel to Britain to join the war effort.
Although he managed to evade the Germans in Norway, his arrival in the U.K. coincided with the Blitz – a sustained air bombing campaign that left much of London and other major British cities in ruins.
“You never knew. All of the sudden there was an explosion and a whole building came down,” Jacobsen says, adding many people took part in seemingly never-ending pub crawls to cope with the ordeal.
Despite the threats he faced, he was still determined to serve in the military.
He went to a training camp north of London, but a British officer quickly realized the former resistance fighter already knew more about guns and explosives than any of his instructors.
Because his grasp of English was so strong, Jacobsen was reassigned to Scotland to take a signal course. It was expected he would re-join the Royal Norwegian Navy as a communications operator.
He then spent about two months unsuccessfully shuffling back and forth between London, Devonport and Liverpool in search of a Norwegian ship in need of a signalman.
“I said to an officer, ‘If you guys don’t send me aboard a boat now, you’ll have to send me back to Scotland (for training). I’m forgetting all the things you taught,’” he says.
His superiors obliged and Jacobsen was assigned to a Bangor-class minesweeper. Stationed just outside Edinburgh, he served on a ship with a double set of officers – one Norwegian for every Brit – and a crew made up of 90 per cent his own countrymen.
Despite literally navigating through minefields each day, Jacobsen says he didn’t think he faced any real danger.
Some of this composure may be attributed to advice from the captain of his old Norwegian mine-laying vessel.
“’He said, “You shouldn’t be (nervous), because in this trade you only do one mistake,’” Jacobson recalls with a laugh.
But he remembers one precarious incident on the minesweeper when they raised the ship’s paravane – a device used to cut a mine’s mooring cables – only to find a live explosive hanging from it.
The second-in-command carefully used a knife and bolt cutters to free the mine from the paravane.
Right before the mine plunged back into the sea, the ship’s captain told the crew to bend their knees in case of an explosion.
Jacobsen later told the commanding officer he didn’t think it mattered whether they stood with straight or bent legs.
“(The captain) said, ‘I know that, but I had to say something.’”
Jacobsen served two years on the minesweeper before making his way home to Norway in December 1945 a few months after the war ended.
Back home he resumed work as a welder before getting married and immigrating to Canada in 1959 along with his wife and two daughters.
Not long after his arrival in Vancouver, he walked into a downtown travel bureau to find a Norwegian newspaper. In it contained a list of Norwegian ships out to sea, one of which was docked just north of Main Street.
He made his way onto the boat to find its captain reading a paper.
“’Paul, is that you?’” Jacobsen remembers hearing.
The captain had lifted his eyes above the broadsheet – it was the skipper from the Norwegian patrol boat. After nearly two decades and a permanent move to another hemisphere, Jacobsen still found himself on a ship with his captain.
And even as the years since the war have gone by, his experiences have not been forgotten. Just last November Jacobsen travelled back to his motherland where King Harald V of Norway presented him with a certificate honouring his service in the navy.
He pauses a bit when trying to summarize his experiences.
“It has been a strange life,” he says simply.