Erling Arthur Sortland Oral History Interview, 1982  PDF

Overview of the Collection

Sortland, Erling Arthur
1982 (inclusive)
3 file folders
2 photographs
2 sound cassette
Collection Number
An oral history interview with Erling Arthur Sortland, a Norwegian immigrant.
Pacific Lutheran University, Archives and Special Collections
Archives and Special Collections
Pacific Lutheran University
12180 Park Avenue South
Tacoma, Washington
Telephone: 253-535-7586
Fax: 253-535-7315
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Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Erling Sortland was born on August 28, 1911 in Bremnes, Sønhordaland, Norway, which is an island south of Bergen. His parents were Lars and Karine Sortland, and there were eleven children in the family. Lars was a fisherman, and the family lived on a small farm where they produced all of their own food. Erling began school in 1918 and continued until 1926. He was confirmed on September 5, 1926, after which he went herring fishing for several years. Erling wanted to immigrate to America but did not have enough money, so he began working for Knutsen Ship Company in Haugesund in 1931. Knutsen Ship Company was the biggest private company in Norway at the time, and Erling was hired as an engine boy. He made 33 krone a month ($5.70) and traveled throughout the world. In 1938, Erling returned to Norway for six weeks and became engaged to Svanhild Knutsen. They were married July 15, 1939, and Erling built a house for her in Norway before he went out sailing again. When the war broke out, Erling was put on a tanker with the world's largest gasoline tank and went to Texas, New York, Spain, and Beirut. Later in the war, a German plane dropped a bomb on Erling's ship, and a German submarine also chased them. In 1942, Erling went to New York and enlisted in the Army. On January 15, 1943, Erling was put on the Queen Elizabeth. There were 18,500 soldiers on the ship, and they went to Glasgow, Scotland. Erling then spent three years on the a base in England, where he worked as a mechanic. After he had spent four months in the Army, he took out US citizenship. For this, all he had to do was renounce his Norwegian citizenship. After the war, Erling went back to New York, and Svanhild got to come over as a war bride. On April 30, 1947, his son Egil was born. They rented a flat in Brooklyn, and Erling fished until 1948. The family then went to Ohio and bought a small farm. Erling found a mechanic job building crane trucks and worked there for sixteen years. On March 13, 1953, his daughter Evelyn was born. By this time, Erling was tired of living in Ohio, and they went to Norway for two months. In Norway, however, Erling observed many changes and was not interested in living there either. Erling had a brother in Seattle, Washington and decided to move to the West Coast of the United States also. In Tacoma, Erling found a job rebuilding engines and then got a license as a diesel engineer. In 1958, he got a job at Puget Sound Hospital and stayed there until 1966. He then obtained employment at Reichold Chemical Company and remained there until retirement. In Tacoma, Erling has been active at Christ the King Lutheran church and involved in the Sons of Norway. His family has returned to Norway to visit relatives and friends, and both of his children can speak the language. Erling is very proud of his Norwegian heritage.


Full Name: Erling Arthur Sortland. Father: Lars Knutsen Sortland. Mother: Karine Olsen Sortland. Paternal Grandfather: Knut Olson Sortland. Paternal Grandmother: Johanne Margrethe Staveland. Maternal Grandfather: Ole Nilsen Risøy. Maternal Grandmother: Kari Nilsen. Brothers and Sisters: Two twins died in 1901, Conrad Sortland, Oskar Sortland, Maren Sortland, Berner Sortland, Nelly Sortland, Knut Sortland, Alfred Sortland, Ludvik Sortland. Spouse: Svanhild Knutsen Sortland. Children: Rev. Egil Arthur Sortland, Evelyn Ann Robbins.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

This interview was conducted with Erling Sortland on January 12, 1982 in Tacoma, Washington. It contains information on family background, occupations, enlistment in the US Army, marriage and family, and Norwegian heritage. It also provides an article from the Western Viking, which includes a picture of Erling, and photographs of Erling and his wife Svanhild at the time of the interview. Also see Svanhild Sortland. The interview was conducted in English.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

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There are no restrictions on use.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

The partial interview transcription highlights important aspects of the interview. Numbers may be used as guides to important subjects. Two numbers separated by a slash indicate that the first number is for cassette and the second for CD.

Container(s) Description
124, side 1 005: ERLING SORTLAND
Born in Bremnes, Sønhordaland, Norway on August 28, 1911. This is an island south of Bergen. 5,000 people lived on the island.
124, side 1 024: PARENTS
Erling's father was a fisherman and a small scale farmer. Had three cows, pigs, and sheep. His name was Lars Sortland. His mother was Karine Olson, she was from Fitjar, Island of Stord inside Bremnes.
124, side 1 033: CHILDHOOD HOME
Small farm with various animals. Grew food for the family. Eleven children in the family.
124, side 1 038: FATHER WENT TO AMERICA
North Dakota in 1896. He stayed there three and a half years. Was married when he left Norway. Went to America to make money and build a house. He worked on farms. Made $1000 in four years.
124, side 1 049:
Had twins when father returned to Norway. They both died the first year. Conrad was born in 1902 and immigrated to America and lived in Brooklyn, New York for many years. Worked for Goodrich Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio. He immigrated in 1923.
124, side 1 058:
Oskar immigrated to the U.S. in 1923. He went to Akron, Ohio too and worked for the rubber co. Berner went to Ohio in 1926. He went back to Norway in 1936 and took over the farm. He is still on the farm.
124, side 1 070:
Maren, Erling's sister still lives in Norway. She married when she was 50 to a sea captain. She was a nurse in Haugesund for 25 years. She went to nursing school in Stavanger. She married Asten Kolster in 1954. He was one of the greatest sea captains in Knutsen Company had at Haugesund. He was a captain for a whaling shipping in the Antarctic. Made lots of money.
124, side 1 086:
Nelly lives in Bergen. She is not married. Lives in an old folks home. Knut died accidentally in New York.
124, side 1 093:
Alfred immigrated to the U.S. in 1957. Came to Tacoma and worked for Western Farmers Boat Building Co. in Tacoma. He went back to Norway in 1960 and brought his wife and three sons back.
124, side 1 103:
Ludvik emigrated in 1946 from Cuba. Came from Havana to New York. He lives in Ballard, Washington.
124, side 1 113:
Six in the family went to sea. Berner never went.
124, side 1 117:
After the war, Ludvik took passport to Cuba and immigrated right into America. He got legally into the U.S. by going through Cuba.
124, side 1 127:
Erling started school at home in 1918, WWI had just ended.
124, side 1 130: GRANDPARENTS
Paternal grandparents were Knut Olson Sortland and Johanne Staveland. Erling has books that go back to 1400s that trace his family roots.
124, side 1 145:
Many Sortlands were from this island. People had lived here for over 400 years.
124, side 1 149:
Grandfather was a fisherman. Fished for cod, mackerel, brisling, sardines, sei, herring, lobster, and crab.
Ole Risøy. They come from Fitjar Stord. Grandmother, Kari Nilsen died when Erling's mother was 8. Ole remarried and had 4-5 other children.
124, side 1 174: SCHOOL
Started grade school in September 1918. Went until 1926. Walked in wooden shoes, nobody had leather because it was too expensive.
124, side 1 205:
Teacher did not know much. Went to school for seven years then two years of teaching school to become a teacher.
124, side 1 210: SCHOOL
School first three years it was three times a week then one year twice a week. One year it was four days a week, 9-3 o'clock. Took their lunch to school. Had a wood stove to keep the school warm. Old fashioned school house.
124, side 1 228:
Always had food living on the farm. Had cows for butter, cream, buttermilk. Had potatoes. Wool from sheep for clothing. Mother made everything. No money in those days.
124, side 1 238:
Mother was always busy. Did housework and outside chores. Farmer's wives were slaves in those days. Kids helped some on the farm, dragging hay in and cleaning the fish. Erling began fishing when he was 10 or 11.
124, side 1 250: CONFIRMATION
Went three months for the minister. Church was close by. Always went to church, people used to go more than they do today.
124, side 1 256: CHURCH
Built in 1896. Beautiful church made of wood. Erling's father was the first boy baptized in the church in 1896. Erling was baptized in 1911. Confirmation was on September 5, 1926. Married in the church on July 15, 1939. Met his wife in Norway.
124, side 1 272: CHRISTMAS
Very important. Big celebration. Bedehus, prayer house, had Christmas trees, food, all the students were there.
124, side 1 278: ROSINA BRØD
Ate it with goat cheese on it. Cost one krone to get in for the Christmas feast.
124, side 1 288:
Never had Christmas fest or trees in the church. Had a service in the church on Christmas Eve. Did not have electric lights, used kerosene.
124, side 1 297: CHRISTMAS AT HOME
Bought extra food at the store, oranges and apples. Not any presents or plastic junk. Fruit was a nice gift. Had pig soup, meat, risengryngraut with sugar on it, and smør in the center for decoration.
124, side 1 320: CHRISTMAS DAY
Ate pork for dinner. Got extra clothes as gifts.
124, side 1 330:
No talk of trolls or the Julenissen. Christianity taught in the home. Teacher and parents were strict when it came to learning the Bible.
124, side 1 342:
After confirmation went out herring fishing for a few years. 1931 took a trip to Iceland on an old wooden boat that was 62 years old. Had 520 barrels of slat to go herring fishing. Spent two months there before they got a load. Went about six knots, seven miles an hour.
124, side 1 364:
Brought herring into Bergen to sell. They found out the price was down to nothing. Russia and Poland did not buy any herring that year. Went to Kopervik on Karmøy. Put salted barrels on the dock, got 13 krones or 2 dollars for each barrel.
124, side 1 390:
Erling decided to immigrate to America. Consulate in Bergen told him he needed 5,000 krones. He did not have the money. Went to Knutsen Ship Company in Haugesund, biggest private company in Norway. Had thirty ships in 1930s. Erling was hired here.
124, side 1 404:
December 12, 1931 shipped out from Haugesund. He was an engine boy. This was a dirty job with low pay. Made 33 krone a month ($5.70 a month). Worked seven days a week. Paid 13% in tax, three krone a month in unions dues.
124, side 1 430:
Went to Kristiansand by boat to Aalborg in Denmark. Crossed Denmark by train to Copenhagen. Norway's biggest tanker was here. It weighed 13, 400 tons and was built in 1926 in Scotland. Erling worked like a slave on this ship seven days a week.
124, side 1 441:
First trip on this tanker was from Copenhagen to Stockholm to Goeteborg to Curiso in West India to Buenos Aires back to Curiso through the Panama Canal to Wellington, New Zealand to San Pedro, California. They were shipping heavy oil.
124, side 1 455:
From Welling, New Zealand to San Pedro, California was 5,800 miles and took 28 days. Ship went 11 knots half the speed of today. Erling sailed with this ship until 1934 it then went to Sweden for classification. He also sailed to Peru, Buenos Aires, Venezuela, and Le Havre, France and then to Sweden for dry dock. Stayed with the ship until 1939.
124, side 1 476:
In 1938 Erling went home for six weeks and got engaged. Bought two rings for 20 krones, $5.00 a piece. Married on July 15, 1939.
124, side 1 482:
Built a house in Norway on the island. Wife was Svanhild Knutsen. Paid cash for this place. Erling went sailing again. Worked days loading and unloading ships.
124, side 1 506:
1939 the war came. Ships Company called and wanted men to sail. Paid good wages. Erling went out in December 1939 on a tanker with the world's largest gasoline tank. Ship built in Hamburg, Germany 1938. Nice cabins.
124, side 1 530:
Mines planted all over. Stayed close to inland Norway because it was still neutral country. The North Sea had many mine belts. Went to Texas, New York, Spain, and Beirut. Took oil from Texas.
124, side 1 561:
Took trip to Italy on April 9, 1940. This is where he heard about the evacuation of Oslo. Germans were all over the country. "Wouldn't believe it was going on." Finished unloading in Napoli, Italy and left.
124, side 1 612:
Stopped by French ship, told to go to Iran, Morocco, French Colony. They heard over the radio that Germany was going into France. There was a fear that they would get a hold of French war ships. The harbor blew up. Erling and his ship took off quickly.
124, side 1 660:
Italy went to war June 10. They stopped the Suez Canal right there. They went up the Red Sea to get oil and make a connection with London. Got orders to go to Java.
125, side 2 TAPE 125; SIDE II:
125, side 2 010:
Went from Java to Sydney to Melbourne, Australia. Got order in Sydney to get guns on the ship. Got electric cable around the ship to make it anti-magnetic. Went sailing up the coast of Africa. The South Atlantic was full of German warships, submarines in the North Atlantic.
125, side 2 037:
A German place dropped a bomb on the ship. Missed them by five yards. Shot machine guns at the ship. German sub chased them and threw a torpedo. Erling describes this. The subs blew up many ships. They had lifeboats in the convoy up the coast.
125, side 2 075:
German bombers came from Stavanger, Norway, 500 of them. They bombed for 17 hours. Erling's boat went to Belfast for an escort. Erling gives a good description of this.
125, side 2 109:
Came to New York in 1942, enlisted in the army February 22, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. Erling was 31 years old.
125, side 2 126:
America had just gotten into the war when Erling was drafted. Erling did scallop fishing during the summer in New York. Made a few bucks. December 7, 1942, the army called him. Erling went in right away. He describes the places he went with the shipping camp.
125, side 2 146:
January 15, 1943 the army sent him on the Queen Elizabeth from New York. There were 18,500 soldiers on one ship. Did not know where they were going. Headed to Glasgow, Scotland. Took four days and eleven hours to get there. Went 34 knots an hour. Hitler had put up a bid of $1 million to anyone who would sink the Queen Elizabeth or Queen Mary, both were big ships.
125, side 2 168:
Started learning English from the American soldiers who came from many different states. Erling was in 17 different companies when he was in the service. Erling did not fight because his paper said that he was a diesel mechanic. He worked as a mechanic. Young soldiers fought.
125, side 2 197:
Spent three years at the same base in England, never fought.
125, side 2 200:
Wife was in Norway. He received three Red Cross letters from her in his three years in England. People in Norway helped each other out during the war. Those on the island were at an advantage for growing food and fishing.
125, side 2 217:
Televaag, Norway was burned down by the Germans. All the citizens were arrested and put into concentration camps.
125, side 2 227:
Equipment was sent to Shetland, guns, grenades, etc. So civilians could fight back against the Germans. The Germans found this out and killed many people.
125, side 2 243:
Erling stayed in England until after the war was over. Came back to New York on February 27, 1946. Took 13 days to get from Southampton to New York because of engine trouble.
125, side 2 257:
Went to shipping camp in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Erling had no money when he came home. Army gave him $270 for discharge.
125, side 2 274:
Citizenship taken out in London in 1943. Had to be in the army for four months to be a citizen during the war. 250 people took out U.S. citizenship the same day from 27 different countries. Did not have to know anything just renounce Norwegian citizenship. Two people signed for him.
125, side 2 294:
Could not find a room in Brooklyn when he first arrived. Stayed with a friend.
125, side 2 303:
Hard to find a job. All the service men came back by the millions to find work. Got a job as an engineer on a ship.
125, side 2 320: WIFE
Wife came over as a war bride, was a free ride over. Very difficult to find an apartment in New York.
125, side 2 336:
First Americans Erling's wife saw were drunken men on the sidewalk.
125, side 2 344:
They rented a friend's flat for two months. Erling describes renting a place for such a high price. He finally bought a place.
125, side 2 372:
Son born on April 30, 1947. In 1948, Erling was tired of fishing and Brooklyn. Sold place and furniture to another Norwegian from Haugesund for $1200.
125, side 2 400:
Went to Ohio and bought a place with 17 acres, a small farm. Erling found a job as a mechanic building crane trucks. Worked there until 1954, became tired of the cold/hot weather. Decided to go west. Had a brother in Seattle. Erling had been in Vancouver in 1925. Sold home to Ohio, auctioned off things.
125, side 2 442:
Daughter born in 1953, Evelyn. She is married to Mr. Robbins who is a carpenter in Tacoma.
125, side 2 450: TOOK A TRIP TO NORWAY
Drove to New York and took the Stavangerfjord. Went to Kristiansand. Had a terrible snow storm March 1954. No transportation to get to Stavangerfjord, no trains, taxis, or buses.
125, side 2 498:
Stayed in Norway for two months. Noticed many changes. Expense was more. Erling was not interested in Norway anymore. His mother died in 1953.
125, side 2 523:
Took Stavangerfjord back to New York on July 16. Picked up car and drove to Pennsylvania. Had car trouble on the way. Drove to Akron, Ohio in second gear. Visited relatives in North Dakota. Came out west and found house in Renton to rent for two weeks.
125, side 2 570:
Hard to find a house and work. Found a place on 34th and McKinley. Got a job at Team Engineering, rebuilding engines.
125, side 2 592:
Bought the place where they are now on November 22, 1954.
125, side 2 606:
Went to engineering school 1955-57 during the winter. A diesel vocational school. Got a license as a diesel engineer.
125, side 2 618:
Got a boiler job on the tide flats in 1955. Worked at Consumer Heat and F.S. Harmond who made furniture. Worked at a big radio station on Fort Lewis, a $54 million plant. Got a job at Puget Sound Hospital in 1958. Stayed there until 1966. Worked as an engineer.
125, side 2 676:
Got a boiler job with Western Farmer on the tide flats for three years. He worked the night shift.
125, side 2 684:
Worked at Reichold Chemical Company at the tide flats. Started February 1969, stayed until he retired. Kicked him out when he turned 65 then they changed retirement age to 70 and wanted him to return to work. He refused.
125, side 1 TAPE 125; SIDE I:
125, side 1 002:
Active in church, Christ the King Lutheran. His children were raised in the church. He helped build the church here. Was a member of Trinity Lutheran in Parkland for a while. Built a new church in 1957.
125, side 1 020:
Has been involved in Sons of Norway since 1958.
125, side 1 022:
Family has bought 15 tickets to Norway since 1954. Went back to visit family and friends.
125, side 1 048: PROUD TO BE A NORWEGIAN
Not much crime in Norway. Norwegians have a strong back.
Speak the language, eat the food. Children speak the language. Spoke it in the house when they grew up.
125, side 1 070: SPEAKS IN NORWEGIAN
Tells about his war medallion.

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • Christmas
  • Confirmation
  • Education--Norway
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Family--Norway
  • Fishing
  • Marriage service
  • Naturalization
  • Norway -- Social conditions - 1945-
  • Norway -- Social conditions -- 1945-
  • Norwegian-Americans--Ethnic identity
  • Norwegian-Americans--Northwest, Pacific--Interviews
  • Norwegian-Americans--Social life and customs
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Personal Names :
  • Nilsen, Kari
  • Risoey, Ole
  • Robbins, Evelyn (Sortland)
  • Sortland, Johanne
  • Sortland, Erling--Interviews (creator)
  • Sortland, Egil
  • Sortland, Karine
  • Sortland, Knut
  • Sortland, Lars
  • Sortland, Svanhild
  • Corporate Names :
  • Christ the King Lutheran Church
  • Puget Sound Hospital (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Reichold Chemical Company (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Sons of Norway (U.S.) Norden Lodge No. 2 (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Trinity Lutheran Church (Tacoma, Wash.)
  • Family Names :
  • Knutsen family
  • Nilsen family
  • Olsen family
  • Risøy family
  • Robbins family
  • Sortland family
  • Staveland family
  • Geographical Names :
  • Bremnes(Norway)
  • Brooklyn (New York)
  • Haugesund (Norway)
  • Ohio
  • Tacoma (Wash.)
  • Form or Genre Terms :
  • Oral histories
  • Occupations :
  • Mechanics