The Greatest Commemoration Part IV

Since we’re spending Saturday commemorating Minnesotans who served in World War II, I’d be remiss as an American of Norwegian descent not mention one unit with a strong regional connection.

Early in the war, when Washington and London were casting about for ways to regain a foothold in Europe, occupied Norway was considered an option.

And one of the things the Army decided it needed was units of men who looked and spoke Norwegian, to go into Norway to mobilize guerillas to prepare the way for an invasion force. 

Which led to the formation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) – a unit of Norwegian-speaking ski troops formed in Minnesota from first-and-second-generation Norwegians from Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan:

[…On] 10 July 1942, the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) was ordered formed by H.Q. Army Ground Forces. The men needed to be able to blend perfectly into the local Norwegian countryside, so requests for Norwegian speaking volunteers were sent throughout the army.  Native speakers were preferred but Americans of Norwegian descent who were fluent in the language were also accepted. Efforts were made to recruit Norwegians stranded in America by the war, and it was hoped that many tough Norwegian merchant seamen would enlist. All volunteers had to be citizens of the United States or must have applied for citizenship. 
As might be expected, many of the men who volunteered came from Minnesota and the Dakotas.  Those accepted were ordered to report to Camp Ripley, where the Battalion’s first morning reports were filed on 15 August 1942. The unit’s first commander was Captain Harold D. Hanson, and it had an authorized strength of 884. Officers were to be Norwegian-Americans until native Norwegian officers could be graduated from officer candidate schools. 

Training in Northern Minnesota, naturally, was interesting:

At Camp Ripley the unit engaged in enhanced soldier skill training and physical conditioning.  
Training went well until all the units tents were collapsed under an unseasonal mid-September snowfall that was very wet, heavy, and deep.  Realizing that the training would be hampered at Camp Ripley, Captain Hanson moved his unit to Ft. Snelling. The battalion’s motor officer, Lt. Lester Carlson from southern Minnesota, had contacts with the State Highway Patrol and was able to make special convoy arrangements for a non-stop motor march to Ft. Snelling.  At Ft. Snelling the battalion continued the training started at Camp Ripley–physical conditioning, long road marches, enhanced soldier skills, and Norwegian language classes. The Twin Cities’ large Scandinavian population made sure that the men were well cared for, and many social events were organized to entertain the men when off duty. 

 Although they were an infantry unit, their mission was not unlike that of the US Special Forces, formed ten years later; infiltrate the target country, using guile and cultural and language skills, and serve as a trained nucleus around which guerrilla groups could form, to prepare the way for a possible Allied invasion. 

On 17 December the battalion was transferred to Camp Hale, Colorado. Getting off the train and realizing that the snow was 6 feet deep, many soldiers wondered what they had really gotten themselves into. They soon found out. Carrying equipment weighing up to 90 pounds, the unit spent much of the winter training in the mountains on skies and snowshoes, and developing winter survival skills. In the spring when the snow melted the men received extensive rock climbing training.

But war’s exigencies being what they were, the 99th was reassigned as a regular line infantry battalion when the powers that be pointed the invasion at Normandy rather than Norway.  The 99th went on to fight in Normandy, and then participated in one of the key actions in the brutal Ardennes campaign, fighting against the best the Nazis had:

 The battalion saw its heaviest combat in the Battle of the Bulge, when it was reinforced with tank destroyers and armored infantry and sent to hold Malmedy against [Nazi commando leader Otto] Skorzeny’s 150th Panzer Brigade. “They were good,” Private Howard R. Bergen recalled later, “but not good enough.”

The Norwegians smashed the SS attack, and held the crossroads for most of January before being sent back to France for re-training as part of the 474th Infantry Regiment, a unit made up of the 1st Special Service Force (the so-called Devil’s Brigade) [from which the US Army Special Forces – the  “Green Berets” – are indirectly descended].

After the end of the war, they finally served in Norway, helping move demobilized German troops back across the Baltic to Germany and serving as King Haakon’s guard until a Norwegian native guard force could be formed. 

The unit, 880-odd men strong as it shipped out, suffered 300 dead and seriously wounded during the war.

I hope some of them show up on Saturday.

9 thoughts on “The Greatest Commemoration Part IV

  1. Mitch, as the Twin Cities’ biggest feminist, how about a couple hundred words on some WACs or WAVs or something?

    (And don’t be shy on the pics if you know what I’m sayin’.)

  2. I always thought the babes with googles and welding tourches at the Superior Wisc shipyards were hot.

  3. Thank you Mitch Berg for doing thia write up on my the Norwegian/American 99th Inf. Battalion (Separate) since I worked in 99th headquarters often as Company “A”s clerk, I am an expert on the 99th Viking Battalion. Our Commander for most of our existance was Harold D. Hansen. NOT HANSON! He was Captain when we formed, promoted to Major and when the regular army Lt. Colonel Robert Turner was severly wounded after having come in above Hansen about 12 months earlier. Hansen was given field battle promotion to Lt. Colonel resuming command of the 99th.

    The initial order forming the unit set the strength at 931, but when training was finished and we were a special separate secret force for Roosevelts and Churchills Norway invasion plans our official table of organization was put at 1,000. The War Department told our dentist that he was not on the official table of organization and had to stay in the states. Being from Minnesota with Scandinavians representing him as Senators and and congressman Dentist Capt. Gustav Svendsen asked them to get it changed. Never being permanent part of any larger unit 99er had no access to a dentist. The Senators & Congressman were in powerful positions and told the War Department if our Boy’s don’t get what they need, how fast do you suppose we will get you want? Our 99th dentist was flown across to catch up with us in Great Britain since our ship had landed.
    Thus the 99th became the US Army’s largest battalion at 1,001 men. One more than the Army’s official table of organization for a separate battalion that is to lead an invasion into central or northern Norway.

    99th “A” Company’s corporal HK Hanson now President of the 99th.
    Links to 99th official WEB sites: and

  4. Corporal Hanson,

    I’m glad you wrote! Thanjks! I’m glad you found my piece from two years ago!

    I wrote this for the dedication of the MN World War II memorial. We did a live broadcast from the dedication. As an American of (mostly) Norwegian descent, I’d hoped some of the Vikings might have stopped by our booth.

    But thanks for writing. You made my day!

    Takk igjen, and God bless!

    Mitch Berg

  5. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » Every Once In A While…

  6. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » The Unit

  7. Pingback: Weserübung | Shot in the Dark

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.