In 1942, children’s author Marie McSwigan published a book called Snow Treasure. The story tells how a group of Norwegian children smuggled the country’s riches…gold bullion…to the safety of a waiting ship. They accomplished this daring feat by simply doing with Norwegian children do best…sledding down hill. McSwigan’s children’s book received worldwide acclaim and was even made into a move in 1968. But is the story true? Did Norwegian children use their sleds to smuggle gold right under the noses of Nazi guards?
Although the characters in McSwigan’s Snow Treasure are fictional, the general story was based on actual events. On April 9, 1940, the German’s launched Operation Weserubung, their invasion of Norway and Denmark. The Norwegians, like the French and Belgians before them, were forced to take measures to protect the country’s gold reserves from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Much like the other European countries that came under Nazi occupation during World War II, the Norwegians sought to ship their gold bullions to the United States for safekeeping until after the war was over. The problem was, how do they do this without the Nazi guards noticing?
In June of 1940, a ship arrived in Baltimore laden with gold. Oddly, the small freighter did not have a name painted on its bow. The captain, Henry Louis Johannessen, waited in the harbor for several days and only docked the ship at dusk one night. A group of armed guards then escorted the cargo off the ship…an estimated $9 million in gold bullions…and to an armored truck. Dockworkers were unusually closed-mouthed about the shipment and where it originated, but rumors swirled that the gold was the Norwegian reserves that had been smuggled out of Norway.
The ship, it turns out, was the Norwegian freighter, Bomma, and did appear to be carrying the Norwegian gold. But how were the Norwegians able to get the vast quantity of gold to the ship without the Nazi invaders stopping them? According to McSwigan’s book, Snow Treasure, the gold was secretly transported to the freighter about 12 miles away by a group of daring children on sleds. In the book, the four main characters and the other children in the town transport the gold a short distance to the dock. McSwigan contends, however, that in reality, it took 38 youngsters, with the assistance of their parents, more than six weeks to move the gold over a distance of about 35 miles to the waiting freighter. That much gold bullion would weigh about 13 tons.
In the book, Snow Treasure, the entire town was in on the operation. All children over the age of ten were asked to help move the gold. The hope was that the Nazi guards wouldn’t stop and inspect innocent children at play. The Norwegian children, in a show of patriotic pride, were happy to help, especially because it meant they could stay home from school and spend their day sledding. In the book, the Nazis attempt to re-open the schools that were closed when the invasion happened, but a local doctor feigned an outbreak of illness and ordered that the school remain closed.
It was the captain of the Bomma, Henry Louis Johannessen, who told dock officials and banking officials in the United States how the Norwegian gold was smuggled out of the country. He explained that the work was done by children on sleds. Although some historians claim that the story was fabricated and that there is no proof that children became smugglers, McSwigan insists that the story she told in Snow Treasure was true. She once told journalists that she “tried to be as accurate as possible in describing how the children carried the gold on sleds.”