Kalevi A. Olkio

World War II mer­chant mariner worked on the restora­tion of the Lib­erty ship S.S. John W. Brown

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Fred­er­ick N. Ras­mussen

Kalevi A. Olkio, for­mer owner of a Bal­ti­more ships chan­dlery and a World War II mer­chant mariner who sur­vived the sink­ing of his ship by a Ger­man U-boat, died April 9 9 at St. Agnes Hos­pi­tal of com­pli­ca­tions from de­men­tia.

The Charlestown re­tire­ment com­mu­nity res­i­dent was 97.

“All his life, Kalevi cham­pi­oned the mer­chant ma­rine, Lib­erty ships, the Al­lied sea­men he had sailed with and Amer­i­can democ­racy,” said Ernest F. Imhoff, a re­tired Bal­ti­more Sun edi­tor and au­thor of “Good Ship­mates: The Restora­tion of the Lib­erty Ship John W. Brown.”

“He liked the ships and es­pe­cially the peo­ple who sailed them. He was a se­ri­ous guy in ev­ery­thing he did,” Mr. Imhoff said. “When he was pas­sion­ate about some­thing, his mood usu­ally did not in­clude a sense of hu­mor about the sub­ject or an­other pos­si­ble view­point.”

The son of Oskar Olkio, a mer­chant, and Lahja Olkio, a home­maker, Kalevi An­tero Olkio was born and raised in Vi­ipuri, Fin­land, a sea­port city that was taken by the Soviet Union dur­ing World War II and is now Vy­borg, Rus­sia.

“I went to sea when I was 16. I was try­ing to get away. I had dealt with boats and ships since I was 14,” he once told Mr. Imhoff.

“I thought the sea would be a good way to get an ed­u­ca­tion, save some money and later do what I wanted. There were lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties in Fin­land dur­ing the De­pres­sion. Jobs were hard to find,” he told Mr. Imhoff.

When Mr. Oliko was 14, he started a busi­ness sell­ing knives, gloves, caps and to­bacco to vis­it­ing ships and their crew­men, with his younger brother han­dling the row­ing.

Mr. Olkio be­gan his mar­itime ca­reer in 1935 as a mess boy work­ing on a Fin­nish steamer and by 1938 had signed on to the cargo liner, the MS Vala­pariso, as an or­di­nary sea­man.

He was serv­ing aboard the Nor­we­gian steam tanker Min­is­ter Wedel, part of a nine ves­sel con­voy sail­ing from Trinidad to Gi­bral­tar, when in the early hours of Jan. 9, 1943, while Mr. Olkio was asleep in his ham­mock, a U-boat fired a tor­pedo that suddenly ex­ploded on the ship’s port side.

“It took five min­utes from the sleep­ing to the lifeboat in the water. The ship was burn­ing, but the fire went out and she was still float­ing,” he told Mr. Imhoff. “The cap­tain went back to the ship and got more cloth­ing for the en­gine room men. He also got his kit­tens. The kit­tens were adopted by the es­cort ves­sels.”

The next day, the ship was still float­ing but had been again fired upon by the U-boat, so con­voy es­corts sunk the ves­sel so it would not be a haz­ard to nav­i­ga­tion.

Of the nine tankers in the con­voy, seven were sent to the bot­tom, with a loss of 12 lives.

“Be­fore your ship is sunk, you don’t think it will hap­pen to you. For six months af­ter, you think it’ll hap­pen ev­ery day,” he told Mr. Imhoff.

Taken to Scot­land, Mr. Olkio later shipped out as an able sea­man on the SS Tris­tram Dal­ton, a Bull Line steamer and his first Lib­erty ship, which was car­ry­ing a cargo of bombs to the Mediter­ranean.

At first, he told Mr. Imhoff, he thought that the idea of a vast fleet of Lib­erty ships be­ing built to re­place lost Al­lied ship­ping was noth­ing more than pro­pa­ganda, but a visit in 1942 to San Pe­dro, Calif., where he wit­nessed a yard of the ships in var­i­ous states of con­struc­tion, con­vinced him oth­er­wise.

“I knew we were go­ing to win. I thought so highly of Lib­erty ships,” he told Mr. Imhoff.

Af­ter at­tend­ing nav­i­ga­tion school, he earned a sec­ond mate’s li­cense and shipped out on the SS Gen­eral Ge­orge Sim­mons, an Army trans­port.

He first vis­ited Bal­ti­more in 1946 when his ship was laid up for two months for re­pairs.

When it sailed for Fin­land, he in­tended to pur­chase a farm and be­come a farmer, but he kept think­ing about Bal­ti­more.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a U.S. visa, he set­tled in Bal­ti­more in 1949 and founded K. A. Olkio Co., his chan­dlery busi­ness, at 28 S. Gay St. He op­er­ated the busi­ness un­til he re­tired in 1999.

“I didn’t like the wa­ter­front much,” he told The Sunday Sun Mag­a­zine in a 1972 ar­ti­cle, re­call­ing his first visit to the city, “but the city it­self I found fas­ci­nat­ing. The peo­ple were very nice, very friendly com­pared to most other U.S. cities.”

Mr. Olkio, who lived on Holder Av­enue in Hamil­ton be­fore mov­ing to Charlestown in 2008, be­came a U.S. ci­ti­zen in 1951.

“Ev­ery­one on the wa­ter­front knows him, and he has gained a rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty and re­li­a­bil­ity that is in stark con­trast to that of some dis­rep­utable sales­men who prey on the sailors in other ports,” re­ported the mag­a­zine.

Largely self-ed­u­cated, Mr. Olkio was flu­ent in Fin­nish, English, Nor­we­gian, Dan­ish, Swedish, Span­ish and Ger­man, which was es­pe­cially help­ful given the na­ture of his work.

Mr. Olkio, who em­braced his adopted city, was a pro­lific writer of let­ters to the edi­tors of city news­pa­pers, and of­ten wrote in fa­vor of cer­tain projects or sug­gested how to im­prove life for Bal­ti­more res­i­dents and vis­i­tors.

“On Mr. Olkio’s let­ter­head is the homily that ‘Ev­ery man should give some­thing of him­self to his com­mu­nity — and to his fel­low man,’ ” ac­cord­ing to The Sun Mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle.

One of the causes he em­braced and de­voted much time and en­ergy to was pre­serv­ing one of the Lib­erty ships that helped the Al­lies win World War II.

To that end, Mr. Olkio be­gan writ­ing in 1973 to politi­cians and the mar­itime com­mu­nity, and in 1978 joined Project Lib­erty Ship in New York City.

“He was one of the early cam­paign­ers to bring the Bal­ti­more-built Brown back to Bal­ti­more in 1988,” Mr. Imhoff said. “With many other ag­ing mariners, he helped re­store her so she could sail again as a his­toric tourist ves­sel in 1991.”

Mr. Olkio later be­came cu­ra­tor of the Brown’s mer­chant ma­rine mu­seum.

He also headed the All Na­tions Foundation, which spon­sored eth­nic fes­ti­vals at Hop­kins Place and other down­town venues, and was the founder of the Bal­ti­more chap­ter of the Fin­lan­dia Foundation.

He was an ac­tive mem­ber of the Sons of Nor­way and was the au­thor of “Jern­skip og unger menn,” — “Iron Ships and Young Men” — which was pub­lished in Nor­way.

His long­time wife, Juta Olkio, died in 2010.

Funeral ser­vices for Mr. Olkio will be held at 10:45 a.m. Wed­nes­day at Gar­ri­son For­est Veter­ans Ceme­tery, 11501 Gar­ri­son For­est Road, Owings Mills.

He has no im­me­di­ate sur­vivors.

Kalevi Olkio op­er­ated a ship chan­dlery on Gay Street for half a cen­tury.

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