Kalevi A. Olkio, merchant mariner who worked on restoration of Liberty ship

Kalevi A. Olkio, former owner of a Baltimore ships chandlery and a World War II merchant mariner who surived the sinking of his ship by a German U-boat, died April 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 Societ 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.

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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 Tristam 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.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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