A true hero among us
Resistance hero Gunnar “Kjakan” Sønsteby dies at age 94
Norway’s most highly decorated citizen, Gunnar Sønsteby, died May 10 at the age of 94. Also known as “Kjakan” and “Number 24,” Sønsteby embodied the importance of the Norwegian Resistance of World War II, and spent the rest of his life educating people, especially young people, about the costs of war.
Born Jan. 18, 1918, in Rjukan, Norway, Sønsteby grew up in Oslo. During the Nazi occupation of Norway, Sønsteby joined the Norwegian Resistance movement. He was a member of the Norwegian Resistance’s Kompani Linge, a group of volunteers trained in Britain for secret missions during the 1940 to 1945 Nazi occupation of Norway, as well as the famous Oslogjengen (The Oslo Gang). The group carried out spectacular sabotage raids against factories, railroads and fuel supplies to hamper the German war effort.
He claimed his ability to switch identities and slip under the radar of the Gestapo was due to his “average” looks.
After the liberation of Norway in 1945, both the British and Norwegian intelligence services tried to recruit Sønsteby, but he refused. “I didn’t want any more war. I had had enough. I’d lost five years of my life.” Instead, in 1945, he left Norway for the U.S. and Harvard Business School.
In 1946 Sønsteby was awarded the War Cross with Three Swords, and he remains the only Norwegian to have received the honor. He was Norway’s most highly decorated citizen.
In May 2007 a statue of Sønsteby on Solli Plass in Oslo was unveiled by King Harald of Norway. Sculpted by Per Ung, it portrays a 25-year-old Sønsteby standing next to his bicycle.
In 2008 the wartime biopic Max Manus, Gunnar Sønsteby was played by Knut Joner. The film ignited a fresh debate about how Norway and ordinary Norwegians had responded to the German invasion and subsequent occupation. Sønsteby attended the premiere with his wife, Anne-Karin, and the film became the most successful in Norwegian history.
“Sønsteby was Norway’s most decorated resistance fighter, but he did much more than that,” King Harald said to NRK. “He constantly sent out the message ‘never again,’ and spent so much time speaking in schools.”
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said: “Gunnar Sønsteby was a war hero for five years, and a peace hero over the next 60 years.”
This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.