Fifty-two years after our last correspondence, at the age of 80, I discovered while delving into an old bureau a box of sepia-colored love letters—42 in all, with addresses from different parts of the world over a space of four years, 1955 to 1958, from Bengt Birgander, a very blond Swedish seaman whose fervent love for me was undeniable.
We had tried so desperately to get married after a shipboard romance on the freighter MS Mangalore where I was the only female on board carrying my Fordomatic car from New York through the Panama Canal to LA and across the Pacific to Manila—or a total of one month and a week.
In my soon to be published autobiography, I have a chapter on “My Super-blond Swedish Love” where I recount how I finally opened my cabin door to him but refused to give up my virginity. One of Bengt’s letters gives his views on that.
At sea, on the way to S-pore
Sunday, May 7th 1956
Aida, my only one!
How shall I ever be able to thank you for the wonderful days in Manila. I wonder what I have done that so much happiness was given to me. The last night was more as a dream, although I was very nervous the first dance with you. It was as if all the folks around us were watching and I felt their eyes on my neck when we went up to the floor (green as the spot in the middle). But after that dance I felt more easy and just sitting beside you was a piece of paradise. I loved you very much and today without drinking anything but water I still love you. When I came on board I reread your short story and I found many new things in it. I think it is lovely not only because you wrote but because it is true. Would I be very wrong if I changed the name of that girl to Aida? Aida, there is something I must confess for you. You probably think that I am angry because I haven’t got you (really) yet but I am not. I am happy that you have been the way you have. The reason is not that I want you to be virgin but that if I can’t marry you one of the “seven” would be very surprised if you weren’t. I know that if I married you and you wasn’t, I should know that you loved me with your heart and that thing wouldn’t matter. Well, we have talked about it before and you understand my point of view and I yours.
Please try to understand my horrible English! Since I read your story I feel ashame to write to you with my simple words.
We came to S-pore today the 7th and will remain here for nine days. Had a letter from my sister and she wrote that my father wasn’t too good. He will undergo an ulcer operation and they are very doubtful about the result. Well my love until I receive a letter from you (any day I hope)
I am yours, Bengt.
Aida! Please don’t show my letters to anyone!
After Bengt had gotten permission from his pastorage in Sweden for us to get married, he gave notice to the new captain of the “Mangalore” to take leave in Manila. But unfortunately, the whole episode turned into a nightmare:
Port Said 6/12-55
My dear Aida!
Received your letter in Colombo, but in the last minute so I couldn’t write from that place. Thank you so much for the lovely photo you sent me. I have it in the bulkhand in my bed and I talk with you everynight before I go to sleep. In my dream I don’t only talk but also feel you. Last night when we came to Suez, I got your second and I am sure that no letter could make me happier.
About the telegram, the same day I sent you the wire about the five months, I also sent one to KLM in Tokyo which said I was refused to live the ship and I cancelled the ticket. Afterwards when we came to Kobe and I had that “accident” I thought the ticket was useless. You wanted me to tell you what really happened in Kobe. Well, by that time my nerves were all in a very bad condition and I had to do something. I couldn’t stand the Mangalore any longer. Three hours before the ship was due to sail, I went out on deck with a razor in my pocket and when I found a place where nobody could see me I cut my left underarm. I had to do it twice because it wasn’t deep enough the first time. I ran to the Chief Officer and told him that I had an accident and was brought to the hospital immediately. Well, I haven’t told anyone yet but when you asked me, you have the right to know. My clothes are at home in Sweden – these were left in Mangalore. I had to buy some in Genoa because it is getting colder everyday.
Closing for this time with all my love to you Aida.
Another letter describes the horror of the aftermath of the “accident.” This was after our attempt to fly him back to the Philippines, but Bengt had already been shipped off.
Singapore Nov. 6th, 1955
My dear Aida,
What a surprise for me wasn’t it when I came to Singapore and received two telegrams from you. Now let me start from the beginning. I wrote to you on the first day I came to the camp in Yokohama. I couldn’t send any wire due to the poor situation. Well I hope that I soon should have an answer and I took the day as it came. Finally the agent suggested that I should take a Swedish ship but I refused. I was still waiting for an answer from you. The time in the camp was horrible. The last week we all refused to eat and it was cold like hell in the big room. We were about 20 different men in that room and nearly every nationality was represented. One day the officer in charge told me that there was a Swedish Captain looking for me so I was brought down.
By that time I had been in camp for nearly three weeks and I felt very uncomfortable. I went down to the captain and I recognized him immediately. He was the old man on the “Bali” when I was ordinary seaman there. Naturally he asked a lot of questions why why and why again and at last he asked me if I want to go on board his ship as third mate Jr. I said “Yea.” I couldn’t stand it any longer. So I went on board and the ship will be in Sweden around X-mas. The adventure in Yokohama cost a great deal and they will take it from my salary. It will be finished the time we are in the Sweden.
Have you got the papers from Sweden yet about our marriage? I don’t’ know if you want to wait for me, you have had so much trouble the last time, and I shouldn’t be surprised if you were made by this time. Closing for this time with all my love to the loveliest girl in the world.
The following letter of Bengt has a scene that is the reverse of the “Titanic.”
April 6, 1955
Kisobatu – Saigon
Aida my Queen
We are at sea again and this is the first opportunity to answer your letter. I reviewed it in Kisobat and I felt so nervous all the morning. I knew that something should happen, but what? When the radio operator gave me your letter I found the reason and I was so calm as a cow. Many thanks! Had been waiting and wondering if you were going to write. “Maybe you don’t want to,” I thought. But I was wrong. When you debarked in Manila I felt as a bird without wings. The days there were terrible. Was working very hard (believe it or not) in order to forget but when the evening came I didn’t know what to do. One evening our superintendent invited chief off. 2nd and me to drink ashore. We went, had a few drinks and after a while there were some girls at our table. Our host asked if I would like to have a girlfriend but I said “NO”! I couldn’t. Don’t be ashame, he said, nobody will get news about it. What should I say. All efforts had been made to satisfy us and I hadn’t any reasonable excuse why I shouldn’t take that girl. I knew that I wouldn’t find any pleasure but at the same time I didn’t like to make him sorry. At least I got an idea. Between Baccus and Venus I preferred Baccus. So I started drinking. After a few drinks (whiskey and water) I told them that I was sick and wanted to go aboard again and they seemed to believe me. It was around eleven o’clock when I came down to the pier and my heart was striking as if I had run several miles. Slept very bad that night… was it due to the drinks?
Next port Iloilo. We came in at dawn and went out at 5 p.m. Nothing remarkable. Cebu!!!! I will never forget that place. That the “Fate” could be cruel I know, but that much…no it’s unbelievable. To the fact! I was on the bridge that very day and I saw “Jolo” but I couldn’t imagine you were on board. As you remember, my place on the bridge is on the port side and naturally that was the wrong one that time. I remember looking at the bridge on Jolo and I was wondering what all the officers did there. It seemed to be at least ten, well dressed with a lot of higglepiggledy. I said to myself: That ship will never make any mistakes. “Full ahead!” said one pilot and I forgot about Jolo for a while. An hour later the 2nd officer came to replace me and when he told that he had seen you and waved to you … well what to do? Another restless night. We were bound for Hongkong and made a fast trip.
Hongkong! Ching chang chong ping pong and so on. I like that place. You can’t imagine how it looks on deck an hour after our approach. Ten million Chinese selling almost everything, making food, washing and painting. Shoemakers, tailors, yes even a dentist is available. The strange smell of camphor, Chinese food and in addition to that music screaming out from the radio in our kitchen; that’s something new. There is a special company making different works such as painting masts, cleaning up into hatches and so on. The chief for that gang has a son, a very good friend of mine. He took me ashore to eat Chinese food one evening and I must agree with our 1st mate that it is something special. There were so many different kinds and they were all so good, but the one I liked the most was a soup made of shark. Ha! I looked as a drunk when we were all through. I was thinking of you all the time as I know that you are very fond of food. There is always an end of everything and one morning we saw H-K jumping down the horizon astern. Next stop Kisobatu. Green on the storage plan but black in reality. We came to that place white as snow and now after having discharged the coal … they say that Hell is black so there is only one explanation. Hell and Mangalore must be the same thing. Saigon will be our first loading port in the East-bound voyage if we ever reach that place. Just now you could call the sea phenomenal. It’s raining cats and dogs and the sea waves are mighty. Mangalore is dancing as a feather in the waves. I don’t think anyone on board enjoy that kind of dance. Bang! There goes the lamp. Everything helter-skelter in the cabin.
Well Aida I hope we will be able to see Saigon sometime in the future so I can mail this letter. The next place will be somewhere in the Philippines and according to Third Mate’s dream it must be Davao. If so, I will send a wire and I do hope someone will be there to see.
Stockholm 6/5 – 57
My dearest Aida,
Your letter came yesterday and warmed my heart. It was a wonderful letter, your description of the “Safari” was really real.. I adore you Aida, I could not believe that you were that brave, only woman in an adventure like that. I am sorry that you can’t join me here, but I understand the reason. We have been transferred to Stockholm and back on the seas again. The nature around here is wonderful. The station is situated 35 kms. from the city and it costs a lot of money to go there by bus. We have started a bridge club and every afternoon we run about 4 kms in the terrain. Went home for Easter and had a wonderful time. Next time after the holiday I will go to Gothenburg again on board a sweeper until Sept. 19th. That day I will rush up to the company and ask for a ship “home” again. I have dreamed many times lately that I was mate on board a ship which was going into the harbour of Davao and you were waiting on the wharf. As soon as we came alongside I rush down the gangway right into your arms. I do hope it will not be too far away in the future. To get this letter mailed before close I close with the best of all to my dearest love,
M/S Ceylon Batabac 7th – 57
Received your letter in Sweden just in time to leave the Royal Navy and proceed to the Merchant Navy and start the human life again. I don’t know if you are married yet, anyhow I congratulate you and your husband and wish you all the best of this leife. I do understand your point of view of the whole thing but there is one thing I want to make clear. I will never forget you and I am really glad that I met a personality as you are. You are worth a good man and a happy life from now on. I think I will be happy with my sailing and as you said a sailor shouldn’t get married. So Aida I am sure you made the right thing. I wouldn’t mind say “hello” to you, but we are only going to Manila and Cebu this trip. Well, Aida God bless you and your family.
Bengt’s last letter in 1958—the year I got married to Donald Ford, Director of United States Information Service in Davao and later in Korea:
MS Mangalore 19/2 – 1958
First of all a hearty thanks for the letter. It was kind of you to write! Many things has happened this last days. I have been transferred to “our” old ship “Mangalore! Do you remember that vessel? We are on our way to India and after having unloaded there we will proceed to the Philippines and start on the dela Rama Line. Two or three years out of Sweden again. My parents are sorry but they understand me. I have not yet any family of my own to think of. Aida, have I ever told you that if I would stay ashore, I would have many children at least twelve. Right now my future dream is to buy a small cottage at the coast in Sweden, where I can stay when I am retired. Aida, I am happy that you have found a man who loves you and I do hope that you both will not have the same troubles as we had. You are the best girl in the world and well worth a happy life. How is your mother? I always think that she is a wonderful woman and am sure you agree with me. My brother is out on dela Rama Ship. Also, he took his captain’s ticket to X-mas and flew to New York. Hope we will see each other! Is your sister still traveling around? She is married, isn’t she? It’s funny, but I must confess that I am very happy now when I am going back to well-known waters. Manila will be my “home-town” and the trip across the Pacific is something to long for. Well, Aida, I hope I will see you some day (even if your are engaged) and have a “Ice on the rock” with you. Remember “Here’s how”?
Aida Rivera Ford’s memoirs should come out within the year.