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The Heroism of Captain Carlson


[by Earl Blacklock] Perhaps the first news event to capture the rapt attention of a world-wide audience was the sinking of the freighter Flying Enterprise. In December 1951, the ship left England for New York carrying 10 immigrants and a mixed cargo, including Volkswagens and pig iron.

On Christmas Day, rough seas and gale force winds caused the cars and pig iron to shift, and the ship began to list to port. By the following morning, a crack had appeared in the hull and, despite valiant efforts by the crew, it was clear the ship was in trouble. On December 28, an SOS was issued, and the crew and passengers were ordered to abandon ship. They were forced to jump into the sea, where all but one were rescued.

Meanwhile, the Danish ship captain, Henrik Kurt Carlsen, stayed behind to assist in salvage efforts.  More than 400 newspaper and radio reporters from 12 countries rushed to cover the story. It was, indeed, a compelling one – a single man alone on a ship with a list so great, it was impossible to stand on any deck.  The only ocean-going tug capable of towing the ship was days away.

As reporters watched from planes and nearby ships, every word of Carlsen’s radio messages was captured, every event analyzed. Asked for a statement, Carlsen said “The thought of those toward whom I have responsibilities and of my loved ones keeps me going.” When an attempt to get him food failed, to avoid risking the lives of his rescuers, Carlsen asked that further efforts wait until clearer weather. His unselfish attitude endeared him even more to people, and they couldn’t read or hear enough about his plight.

Finally, on January 4, the tug Turmoil came alongside, its mate Kenneth Dancy swung over, and the Enterprise was taken under tow. Hopes for a successful conclusion were dashed, however, when five days later the line snapped. A day later, Carlsen and Dancy were forced to abandon ship. Within twenty minutes after the Enterprise sank, news bulletins were issued around the world reporting the loss.

Attention now focused on the story of the self-effacing captain. He was offered $250,000 for his story by the British Daily Express newspaper, a half million dollars by Hollywood. Endorsement offers also came in. With riches his for the asking, Carlsen declined all offers. He said “I don’t want a seaman’s honest attempt to save his ship used for any commercial purpose.” After honours from his king and a ticker tape parade in New York, Carlsen returned to the sea where he spent the rest of his career. He died, unnoticed, in 1989.

Carlsen’s attitude to service stands in sharp contrast to that of many Christians. He declined reward. He only wanted to do his duty. Jesus called on His followers to have the same attitude. In Luke 17:10 He said “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

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