The men with a ship on their shoulders
A celebration of courage and camaraderie in Thief River Falls, Minn.
LESLEE LANE HOYUM
For some, World War II is nearly forgotten; it’s a movie or a history lesson. However, very special, brave men and women fought for our freedoms, and that included a remarkable group: the 99th Battalion, also known as the Viking Battalion. It was a separate unit made up of Norwegian-speaking Americans and Norwegian immigrants and citizens who were assembled to help free Norway from Nazi tyranny.
Through the exceptional efforts of Snorre Lodge, Sons of Norway, Thief River Falls (TRF), Minn., and a grant from the Sons of Norway Foundation, the 99th recently came back to life at the lodge’s 2022 Nordic Fest, May 14 – 28. Snorre Lodge discovered that several 99th Battalion soldiers were from TRF, and that spurred its interest. Under the leadership of Snorre members Jan Strandlie and Faye Auchenpaugh, the lodge planned a three-day celebration, May 26 – 28, an effort that included researching battalion members, involving their descendants, and speaking with two surviving battalion soldiers. Everyone was Norwegian once again.
The 99th was activated at Camp Ripley, near St. Cloud, Minn., on Aug. 15, 1942. Camp Ripley provided only initial training for the recruits, and by the end of September, the 99th Battalion was transferred to Fort Snelling, Minn., and the real physical training began. However, it was merely the honeymoon phase. Before Christmas 1942, the 99th Battalion moved to Camp Hale, Colo., where at 9,600 feet above sea level, the soldiers underwent intensive training in mountain warfare. Thereafter, the troops were off to Scotland for further land training. They were ready for Norway, but the military had another agenda.
In May 1944, the allies feared an impending invasion of Great Britain, and the 99th moved east with many other troops. On June 17, the battalion was on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, and it became attached to the Second Armored Division. Troops were sent directly to the Cherbourg Peninsula, where the 99th experienced its first casualties. This was war! By Aug. 25, the troops were at Elbeuf by the Seine River, where they fought bravely and, despite their losses, successfully held the German advance and took many prisoners. In September, the battalion experienced heavy fighting in Belgium at what was called the “Canal Drive.” They continued on to face battles at Aachen (Battle of the Bulge) near the Belgian border, Malmedy, Belgium, and back to Aachen.
Toward the end of the war, the Norwegian-American battalion had lost many of its own, experienced the horrors of war, retrieved works of art and gold hidden by the Nazis, and faced the unspeakable atrocities of concentration camps. All in all, the 99th spent 101 days in combat. Casualties included 52 killed, 207 wounded and six missing in action. Through it all, individuals received 15 Silver Stars, 20 Bronze Stars, 305 Purple Hearts, 763 Good Conduct Medals, 814 Combat Infantry badges and numerous foreign decorations as a fighting unit.
Ironically, the 99th Battalion did not get to Norway until the end of the war. But on May 13, 1945, it received much anticipated orders: “Proceed to Norway.” Finally! When the 99th first viewed the Norwegian coastline, it was breathtaking. In his book, “Company D, United States Army,” Army Corporal John Kelly said, “The Norwegian coastline was in sight and each man on board pushed and shoved against the railing to get a look at the coast in this weather-beaten, small country. There were smiles and happy looks everywhere. The boys had finally arrived in the specific country for which the battalion had been originally established.”
Howard Bergen said, “The force’s assignment in Norway was to get the 400,000 Germans evacuated … and help the country reestablish itself as a free country.” But there is no question that each member of the 99th Battalion was most honored on June 7, 1945, when His Majesty King Haakon VII returned to Oslo after a five-year exile and the battalion served as honor guard.
There were personal rewards upon arriving in Norway, as well. For example, Norman Tuftedal met both his grandmothers. Alvin Vick visited his grandparents’ home in Valdres. Fritz Carlsen was reunited with an old sweetheart and married her. Otto Wolf met his uncle. Each soldier had his own story. But there is no question that each 99th soldier was recognized as a national hero by the Norwegian people.
There always will be questions as to why the 99th Battalion never made it to Norway during the war, but two stand out:
1. Intelligence determined that there were 300,000-400,000 German troops on the ground in Norway, compared to only 1,001 men in the 99th. Dropping into Norway could have precipitated a bloodbath that would have included soldiers and civilians.
2. The allies were gaining momentum by pushing back the Germans in France and Belgium and needed as many feet on the ground as possible.
However, some believe that, from the beginning, the organization of the 99th may have been a ploy to distract the Germans and keep them guessing. We may never know.
Today, we continue to honor our Norwegian roots, generation after generation. According to The 99th Battalion author Gerd Nyquist, “It was this relationship to the ‘old country,’ this longing and solidarity, this pride in their origin that created the 99th Battalion, not as a conscious thought, because there was nobody who spoke of ‘native country, flag and king, and whatever the symbols be.’” When men were asked to join the 99th, Nyquist continued, “They all became Norwegians again.” The enthusiasm for our Norwegian roots still holds true today. Why? According to Nyquist, we remain Norwegian for reasons only psychologists and anthropologists can explain, and everyone else will accept it.
Note: We give heartfelt appreciation to Sons of Norway Snorre Lodge (m.facebook.com/snorrelodge); Dr. Kyle Ward, associate professor and event lecturer, Minnesota State University, Mankato; Royal Norwegian Embassy, Washington, D.C.; and the 99th Infantry Battalion Foundation (99battalion.org).
This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.