Lyle Bonkrud of the Greatest Generation has turned 100
Gratulerer med dagen!
Lyle Bonkrud was born Feb. 11, 1920, to Dave and Thelma Bonkrud. Both of Lyle’s parents were of Norwegian descent.
Growing up near Dallas, Wis., talking and hearing Norwegian was commonplace. Most of the people who settled around Dallas and Ridgeland, Wis., were from Norway or of Norwegian descent.
Things were rather slow in the winter of 1940, but the draft was on, and Lyle had a suspicion that his number was going to come up soon. Lyle was working in Minnesota, so he decided to beat the draft and joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in January 1941.
A month later, on Feb. 10, his unit was activated for federal service. Lyle became part of the Army 34th Infantry (Red Bull) Division. This was the first American army unit sent to the European theater during World War II. Lyle was a second-generation Norwegian, as were so many of the men in his outfit, so it was like an extension of the Sons of Norway.
On Jan. 14, 1942, Lyle boarded a boat for Northern Ireland, where he was trained. The journey from the United States across the stormy winter waters of the North Atlantic was on the “luxury” cruise ship RMS Strathmore. The 34th was then sent to North Africa in November 1942. During Operation Torch, Lyle served as a driver for the division commander. On one occasion in Tunisia, Lyle drove Gen. George S. Patton to a spot so he could watch the battle on Hill 609.
Lyle had a lot of cousins in Norway during the war. One was in the Norwegian Army, but most of them were in the underground, resisting the German occupation. Lyle knew of an all-Norwegian speaking unit that was training to go into Norway but was eventually sent to France. While in France, they were mistaken for Germans in American uniforms, because they were in the habit of talking to each other in Norwegian. Fortunately for all concerned, the error was discovered before any mishap occurred.
The first airplanes Lyle saw while in North Africa were pretty silver planes way up in the sky. Then they came down and strafed him. It turned out that they were German and not so pretty after all.
Lyle and his unit invaded Italy in September 1943, landing at Salerno and later hitting the beach at Anzio. The Anzio beachhead had a metal-planked airfield with British RAF Spitfires based at it. This served as a magnet for the German artillery. The Germans brought in a big railroad gun that would shell the entire beachhead. Unfortunately, this was very deadly, and the field hospital was hit a couple of times. Lyle thinks the fight at Anzio would have gone much better if Patton had been in charge. Lyle was with the 34th when they nearly captured Monte Cassino. The division took 80% casualties in their infantry battles there.
Lyle boarded an old transport troop ship in Leghorn (Livorno) in the summer of 1945 and was on his way home.
The 34th saw more days of frontline combat than any other outfit in the war—517—and had the highest casualty rate of any U.S. Army division. Lyle Bonkrud was with them every step of the way.
After the war, Lyle returned to Wisconsin and married Doris. The couple made their home in Buffalo, Minn. While living in Buffalo, Lyle had careers in finance and insurance. Lyle and Doris raised their two daughters while residing in Buffalo.
They also hosted a foreign exchange student named Per Nygaard from Oslo. Per proved to be a lifelong friend and is in touch with Lyle to this day. Lyle has made 10 trips to Norway to visit relatives, and Per is always there to pick him up at Gardermoen and help him get around.
In the 1970s, Lyle returned to Wisconsin and built a house just west of Cameron. He and Doris resided there until she passed away. Lyle rekindled a friendship with an old school friend named Deyonne. Soon this friendship evolved into marriage. Deyonne has now also passed away, and Lyle is living in a senior living facility in Barron, Wis.
Lyle is still active in his church, Faith Lutheran, in Cameron, Wis., and his Sons of Norway lodge, Dovre 5-353. He attends the annual Christmas party and still enjoys more than his share of lutefisk. And he still plays his harmonica at this event and his church.
Still going strong, Lyle Leonard Bonkrud even planned his own 100th birthday party. Lyle is a living example of a great Norwegian American of true Viking stock.
Submitted by Dennis and Florence Weise.
This article originally appeared in the March 6, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.