Remembering the 99th
Shared memories of the Norwegian-American 99th Infantry Battalion
By Roy Everson
Norwegian American Weekly
Editor’s Note: This was shared with us by one of the subscribers to the Norwegian American Weekly, whose husband served in the 99th Infantry Battalion. The battalion was inducted into the Scandinavian Hall of Fame at the 1989 Norsk Høstfest. This article revived memories and an appreciation for their history. In honor of the 65th anniversary of the Norwegian liberation on May 8, we thought this would be interesting to share with our readers.
A special chapter in the history of Norwegian-American relations is the 99th Infantry Battalion, the Viking battalion — 1,000 men of Norwegian ancestry assembled in 1942 to train for a possible invasion of Nazi-occupied Norway. The invasion never happened. Instead, the battalion’s three-year history included rigorous ski-combat training in Colorado and Britain, exhaustive and costly fighting in some of the landmark battles of the European theater, and a four-month friendly occupation of post-war Norway.
When it was all over, only half of the original members remained— the rest were either unable to withstand the training or were war casualties. As a unit, they were inspected by President Roosevelt, won plaudits from Generals Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower, and were later used in an honor guard for the return of Norway’s King Haakon.
Chosen for a special, secretive purpose, the 99th was the only ethnic battalion in the U.S. Army except for an all-Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe. The original 99ers weren’t all Norwegian-Americans. Many were Norwegian merchant marines who were at sea when the Germans invaded in 1940, or Norwegians who fled their homeland and eventually found themselves in the U.S. Army. Still others, they jokingly acknowledge years later, were Swedish-Americans trying to pass themselves off as Norwegians.
These factors of common history, secretive training, and experiencing the hardships and horrors of war drew the men of the 99th so closely together that they have had 44 reunions since peace was declared. “We were like brothers,” said one of the vets, John Magnusson.
In 1989, the 99th Battalion was among the inductees to the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at the annual Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D. The Hall of Fame includes such luminaries as author O.E. Rolvaag, Vice President Walter Mondale, and sports legend Knut Rockne. Accepting the honor for the battalion was 99er Olaf Haaland.
They don’t dwell on their achievements— but they don’t want their legacy to be forgotten either. As battalion historian Morten Tuftedahl said about preserving their heritage: “If we don’t do it now, then who’s going to do it?”
Prodding veterans to write about war experiences is not easy when it forces one to conjure up memories of hell. To relive the horrors of the snipers in Cherbourg, the Malmedy Massacre, Battle of Elbeuf, and Nazi death camps is not as relaxing as a nine holes of golf or an evening of television. Indeed, the 99er’s nostalgia is more likely to stem from ski training at Camp Hale, being toasted by Scandinavian culture groups while at Fort Snelling near Minneapolis, drinking the local ale in Wales, or celebrating peace with exuberant Norwegians in Oslo.
Still, humor crops up in many unlikely situations. Many of the Norwegian nationals didn’t speak English when they joined. at first, the Army tolerated its soldiers with speaking a language that sounded similar to German. But later, Norwegians and Americans were ordered to speak English, a necessity when attached to other units near the front lines.
The 99th’s poet, Yngvar Stensby, recorded this incident of soldiers trying to dig a trench in france after the D-Day invasion:
“Exasperated over the lack of progress, some of the men resorted to verbal tirades to vent their ire. Momentarily forgetting where they were, they salted their commentaries with Norwegian profanity. That led to the natural desire to speak Norwegian amongst themselves.
“Noting unusual activity in its midst, the 2nd Armored Division sent a recon patrol to investigate. As the area between Domfront and Alencon to the east was still in danger of German attack, the strange jabbering on the hill was suspected to be that of Krauts who had wandered into the Division’s front yard. They lost no time relaying the information to Division Headquarters.
“Within minutes, every artillery piece within range had zeroed in on the terrain manned by the 99th. Then at a most opportune time, the recons heard someone rip into a tirade of profanity such as only a Yank could muster. After the 99th had been identified, an officer asked: ‘Where the hell did you guys come from? You sounded just like a bunch of damn Krauts!’ The incident of near annihilation of the 99th throttled the habit of talking Norwegian in a combat zone!”
The prospect of liberating Norway was the attraction, the purpose of the 99th. It was the preferred strategy of Winston Churchill. But when Army Intelligence determined that the Germans had over 300,000 troops in Norway, the Prime Minister relented. “That really saved our necks,” said 99er Arnold Everson of Minnesota. “The invasion could have been a suicide mission.”
Rather than invade Norway, the 99th fought through France, Belgium, and Germany to the war’s end in April 1945. Their long-awaited trek to Norway occurred in early June, when most of their American comrades in Europe were headed back home.
“We missed all of the hoop-de-doo back in the States,” said 99er Everson, “but we got enough of a royal welcome when we got to Norway.”
With so many Nazi soldiers garrisoned in Norway— one German for every 10 Norwegians— it took a special Allied task force to root out the enemy. It included a British division in central Norway and an American regiment— in 474th— in the south. The 99th, back to full strength with the addition of replacement troops, comprised one of the 474th’s three battalions and was assigned to the Smestad Camp on the edge of Oslo.
First Lieutenant Norman Berg of Washington State, one of the original 99ers, was separated from the outfit after being wounded at Elbeuf and then hospitalized for nine months. Having family in Norway, he wanted to return to the 99th. He became a liaison officer among all British and American forces going to Norway. Berg and five Norwegian resistance fighters were in charge of cleaning out a German camp at Drammen, forcing 3,300 prisoners to do the work.
At first, the Germans were disrespectful, trying to sneak out items such as toilet paper and soap. Berg made it clear that he required more respect than they gave their own commanders. “They clicked their heels together and acted like robots. After that, I had no trouble with those guys,” Berg said. There weren’t enough rags for the job, but a big stack of Swastika flags was available. “We used the Swastika flags to scrub with,” Berg recalls.
The Allies found stores of furniture to furnish officer headquarters in Oslo and, Berg recalls with a twinkle, vast supplies of liquor— the best cognacs, liquors, and champagne from France— which the Germans had shipped to Norway. “A big GI truck came once a week, filled to the brim (with liquor). It didn’t take long to find out what were the best vintages.”
The 99ers received “royal treatment” in Norway. “It was the best duty any GI ever had,” said Berg. “You couldn’t sit down on a park bench on Karl Johan because they’d all come over and want to speak English.” They were impressed to find Yankee soldiers who spoke Norwegian. A non-Norwegian 99er, Bernard Weatherby of New York, said, “They loved us. They called us in to have dinner with them on the weekends.”
With the horrors of combat behind them, the Nazis tamed and with the war winding down in the Pacific, duty in Norway was like a long party, with military regulations bent quite a bit. For some 99ers, it was a time to meet distant cousins. Norway had waited years for the Allies, especially Americans, to arrive. Those contacted by the GIs they were related to show their special appreciation. Some relationships developed that have continued and grown through subsequent generations, even when the family connection is quite distant.
Berg, with access to food denied to norwegians during the war, would deliver good to his relatives in Trondheim, including young children who had never known such wonders existed. “I went to my father’s home with three cans of peaches. Those kids tasted peaches for the first time in their lives. You couldn’t have given them anything that tasted better than that.”
For several 99ers, the stay in Norway had an unexpected, extremely vital impact on their lives— they got married.
A young woman named Magna was working as a sales clerk in a gift shop on Klingenbergveien when liberation came. “You cannot describe how that feeling was,” she says. She was there for the return of King Haakon from England in June, with 99ers among his honor guard, and when the GIs paraded on July 4. Among the 99ers was her first cousin, Edvart, who introduced her to a lot of “lovely Americans,” including Staff Sgt. Julian Flaaten of Minnesota.
“We went out and had good times,” she said. Julian recalls anti-Quisling songs were popular. Among the social events was a boat trip which included 99ers and local young ladies. The Flaatens married in September and moved to America a year later. Magna was aware of many other weddings between 99ers and Norwegian women. “The whole bunch are really nice girls who went to America.”
But the cruel irony of war is that, just as humor arises from combat, tragedy can occur at any time. Sid Thorsen, born and raised in Norway, one of the seamen who ended up in the 99th, survived the war to be among the native Norwegians who enjoyed wonderful reunion with their families. But he was killed in a jeep accident while still serving in the Army.
Thorsen, and hundreds of others from the 99th who died during and since the war, are fondly remembered by their comrades. Men who rarely shed tears became moist-eyed and quiet during their traditional moments of silence.
Legacy: Written in commemoration of the 40th reunion of the 99th Infantry Battalion in Denver, Colo.
By Yngvar Stensby
Beneath the Colorado sky I breathe a deep and fervent sigh,
as fond reflections quickly reappear.
I have no need to justify emotions, as they beautify the sentimental moods of yesteryear.
I feel the calm serenity of rugged mountain majesty
revitalizing heart and soul anew.
And in my mind again I see the 99th in reverie,
as though the past were marching in review.
I hear the piercing bugle calls reverberating off the walls,
of solid rock that cradled our Camp Hale.
I visualize the water falls that come each year as spring installs
its wonderment of change o’er hill and dale.
I traveled well-known trails today, until a clearing showed the way
toward the Shrine I came again to see.
Beyond the trees that gently sway, I felt the streams and mountain say:
“This ground be hallowed through Eternity!”
A tribute be glorified, the Monument inspires pride
befitting of our unit’s history.
And on this weathered mountain side we honor all who now abide
in everlasting peace and harmony.
Around the Monument I lay my wreaths of love, thus to convey
profound respect that prompts this apt refrain:
May ceremonies on this day inspire us to humbly pray
their sacrifices shall not be in vain!
My heart again begins to weep for comrades in Eternal Sleep;
it matters not the country where they live.
The lasting peace they fought to reap becomes our legacy to keep—
a sacred trust until the day we die!
Two Monuments near Cooper Hill depict the patriotic will
that won the peace of forty years ago.
Thus freedom-loving people thrill to hear the stirring codicil:
“May Freedom’s Torch forever brightly glow!”
For more information, visit www.99thinfantrybattalion.org.
This article was originally published in the May 21 and 28 issues of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.