The Viking Batallion

Book review

Viking BattalionTerje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

As editors, Olaf Minge, Kyle Ward, and Erik Brun have put together a welcome anthology of the writings of members of the 99th Army Battalion, nicknamed the “Viking Battalion.” Two of the editors of this book, Minge and Brun, are sons of men who served in the 99th Battalion, while the third is a noted scholar of World War II history at Minnesota State University in Mankato. All three are dedicated to the mission of getting the story of the 99th out to the public so the role of this unit in World War II can be better known and appreciated.

The 99th Battalion (separate) was established at Camp Ripley, Minn., on July 10, 1942. The appellation “separate” meant that the battalion would not be part of a larger regiment but serve as an independent battle group that could operate alone or be temporality attached to a larger military unit if and when needed. The U.S. Army recruited only Norwegian Americans who could speak Norwegian or native-born Norwegians for the 99th. Any Norwegian national was eligible for the unit if he had begun to apply for citizenship. At its founding, the 99th Battalion had a full strength of 1,001 men, and roughly 300 to 400 of these were native-born Norwegians; the rest were American citizens who were fluent in Norwegian. Only later, when 99th began to take serious casualties, did men with non-Norwegian backgrounds join its ranks as replacements.

Originally, the 99th was formed to conduct unconventional warfare against the Germans in Norway, and their training was designed so they would be proficient in that intended task. To that end, they were sent from Minnesota in December 1942 to Camp Hale at an elevation of 9,600 feet in the mountains of Colorado. Here they were subjected to rigorous training in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and mountain climbing. They learned how to fight and camp in the snow and carry packs that weighed between 70 and 90 pounds. The men of the 99th did so well in their training that the U.S. Army chose them for a special review at Fort Carson, Colo., by President Franklin Roosevelt on Easter Sunday, 1943.

However, it was also in the spring of 1943 that the U.S. Army decided that military operations in Norway would not help the war effort, and the 99th was assigned to hit the beaches in Normandy, France, as part of the second wave of soldiers. The unit left for England and then Wales for more training in September 1943 in preparation for Operation Overlord. On June 21, 1944, a very fit and battle-ready 99th Battalion landed at Omaha Beach and began a long slog against the Nazis at Cherbourg. They then saw heavy action at Elbeuf, France, followed by fierce fighting in Holland. After Holland, they had a hard fight at Wurselen, Germany, near Achen. Next the men of the 99th took up defensive positions near Malmedy, Belgium, and during the grueling Battle of the Bulge, they stopped Panzer Brigade 150, a Nazi unit that was commanded by the notorious SS commando Col. Otto Skorzeny. After the Battle of the Bulge ended in January 1945, the unit was assigned to Germany to protect a convoy of stolen art treasures and gold bullion worth over $2 billion from the Kaiseroda salt mines near Merkers to Frankfurt.

The men of the 99th finally got a reward for their heroism when they were sent to Norway after the close of the war to help disarm and demobilize the some 300,000 German soldiers there. Stationed near Oslo, they were feted by the grateful Norwegian people and served as King Haakon’s personal honor guard when he returned to Norway. In October, the 99th returned to the United States were demobilized as a unit in November of 1945.

During the war, the 99th had 52 of their number killed, six were listed as missing in action, and another 207 wounded, some several times in the course of the fighting. They were known as a tough and able battalion. As one officer of the 2nd Armored Division commented approvingly: “This is the only damned infantry outfit in the world that tanks have to worry about keeping up with.”

What is engaging about this book is that you get to hear the authentic voices of the soldiers through their memoirs, journal entries, and letters. Some are long, some are short, but all are worth reading for the insights you get into the minds of the ordinary soldier and what catches his eye. What I found particularly interesting were the details the various writings reveal about the soldiers’ daily lives during the war years. You get their perspective rather than some military historian’s viewpoint and interpretation. Most of the authors come across as very nice men who enjoyed visiting with the locals in England and France, and they especially had a good time with the pubs and women of Wales. Their outlooks are clearly Scandinavian, and one of their more common sayings that betrays their optimistic fatalism was, “Nothing is so bad, but it couldn’t be worse.” There are some “blood and guts” remembrances, but not too many. The majority of the accounts deal with the everyday aspects of being a Norwegian-American soldier in World War II: the rigors of training, the misery of a foxhole in winter, the food (good and bad), the fun of leave in Paris, and the joy of visiting with relatives in Norway after World War II is over.

If you are at all interested in what it was like to be a soldier in World War II, particularly a Norwegian-American one, this book is for you. It was just recently published on July 31, 2023, by Casemate, which is well known for their books on military history.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.