‘Viking Battalion’ remembered for efforts in World War II
Manned with soldiers of Norwegian heritage, 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) fought to bring WWII to an end.
GRAND FORKS — Edward L. Olson was 24 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1942, committing himself to service in the nation’s epic military campaign against Germany and Japan.
Olson, who later became a prominent banker in Grand Forks, served as a lieutenant in the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), otherwise known as the Viking Battalion. (It was termed “separate” because, although it was attached to the First Army, it was not attached to a specific regiment.)
The battalion’s members, numbering about 1,000, were mostly of Norwegian descent, who could read, write and speak Norwegian, or Norwegian immigrants. Many were from the Dakotas and Minnesota.
“Dad’s grandparents emigrated from Norway,” said Mary Loyland, of rural Thompson, North Dakota. “He spoke Norwegian a bit, but he didn’t consider himself proficient” in the language that was spoken in his boyhood home in southern Minnesota.
“There was a sizable Norwegian population in the U.S.,” said Kyle Ward, a professor at Minnesota State University Mankato who has studied the battalion’s history. “Most Norwegians came to the U.S. between the 1860s and the 1890s,” and many of them settled in the Upper Midwest.
At the beginning of WWII, the Army was looking for young men like Olson to serve in the 99th Infantry Battalion, which was originally organized to help free Norway from Germany. That mission later changed, however, and instead the unit fought in Germany, France and Belgium.
Some of the battalion members were Norwegian seamen who had been on boats that were torpedoed in a surprise German attack on April 9, 1940. Despite the attack and subsequent occupation of Norway, some managed to get to the U.S. and join the struggle to free their homeland. Norway’s King Haakon VII had evacuated the country, along with government leaders, and formed a Norwegian government in exile in London.
The Army also established similar “ethnic units” – recruiting men with Filipino, Japanese, Greek and Austrian heritage – to bolster the war effort, Ward said.
Call of duty
After Japanese forces bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Olson — then a banker in Minneapolis — enlisted in May 1942.
He applied for and was admitted to Officer Candidate School in Georgia, where about one-quarter of the candidates routinely flunked out, Loyland said. He wrote that his graduation from the school “was one of the proudest days of his life.”
Responding to the Army’s recruiting effort, Olson joined the 99th Infantry Battalion, which initially received training at Camp Ripley and Fort Snelling in Minnesota before moving to Camp Hale in Colorado for training in winter and alpine warfare. To build up their physical stamina in the mountains, they carried rucksacks, weighing 70-98 pounds, that were filled with ammunition, cooking utensils, stove and winter gear, along with rifles, Ward said.
In “Operation Mincemeat,” the government widely publicized the battalion in an effort “to trick Hitler into thinking we were going into Norway,” Ward said. Instead, in 1943, the battalion was sent to Scotland and later to England for more training and to prepare for action in several military campaigns in Germany, France and Belgium.
For a time, Lt. Olson and A.K. “Duffy” Stromme, from Fargo, were the only original officers of the battalion. Olson was in charge of a mortar platoon, Stromme said in a Fargo Forum story by Bob Lind published Sept. 24, 1989. Most of the soldiers in their unit were 18-24 years old, said Loyland.
On June 21, 1944, the battalion landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and took part in the battle for Cherbourg. At the end of that year, the battalion joined other U.S. forces in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, six brutal weeks of fighting from December 1944 to January 1945 in the Ardennes region of Belgium. It was Hitler’s last major offensive on the Western Front, and the Army’s success there paved the way to victory for the Allies.
On June 7, 1945, the 99th Battalion received one of its greatest honors, Stromme remembered. It served as the honor guard for King Haakon VII and his family when they returned to Norway after five years in exile.
Remembering the sacrifice
Olson was discharged from military service in October 1945. He moved his family to Grand Forks in 1948, when Loyland was 6.
Loyland did not really know much about her father’s military service, she said. “Young people just don’t care” about such things. And, like many veterans, Olson didn’t talk about it.
“Never,” she said. “Maybe once in a while with his buddies.”
For many vets, talking about wartime experience “is too painful,” she said. “It brings up too many demons.”
The messages she’s found in her father’s correspondence from that time reveal a man carrying the burden of war. At one point, in 1943, he wrote that “Mary Jennifer had her first birthday,” and he was not around to share that moment.
“He had a child at home, and a wife at home, and life was pretty darn bleak,” she said.
“Dad was a hero. It took me a long time to believe that.”
She has lovingly framed memorabilia of her father’s service. Under glass in a shadow box are the Bronze Star, National Defense Service Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Victory Medal and an Occupation Medal. Another, with crossed rifles, symbolizes his participation in the infantry and yet another represents his service in the European Theater.
Her father and other WWII veterans “were patriotic young men who put their lives on the line to save this country,” Loyland said. And not only the soldiers, sailors and airmen, but “what the whole family did – the parents, mothers, kids left at home. People shouldn’t forget.”
Over time, the call to arms has spread broad and deep in this country, touching families everywhere.
“Everyone has a story,” Loyland said. “Everyone who has been in the military – and every wife who stayed home – has a story.”
Maj. Edward L. Olson died in 1995 at age 77. At his funeral, Stromme, the battalion’s company commander, said Olson “was the best officer he ever had,” Loyland recalled. “He said, ‘To me, a giant oak has fallen.’ ”
Celebrating the battalion
Loyland was among dozens of family members of veterans who brought photos, uniforms and memorabilia to a Nordic Fest event held earlier this year in Thief River Falls.
The event, celebrating the 99th Battalion, featured a photo display showing dozens of members from this area, including Edwin Hestad of Shelly, Minnesota; Martin Hanson, Thief River Falls; Gerhard Groven, Portland, North Dakota; and Dale Jensen, a Norwegian native raised in Brantford, North Dakota. Jensen became jeweler in Thief River Falls.
The display also included a photo of Allen Lindholm, Grand Forks, who, upon his death in August 1944, was believed to be the first battalion member killed in action.
The 99th Battalion spent 101 days in combat – 52 members died, 207 were wounded, and six were missing in action. The wounded men received Purple Heart medals.
Loyland said her father’s military experience as a young man provides an important lesson for younger generations, Loyland said. She reminded her son of that recently when he was coping with a disappointing farming outcome.
“I tell my son, when life doesn’t go the way you want it to go, think of what this young man went through,” she said. She told him, “Don’t give up. And do the right thing.”
Loyland is determined that her grandchildren understand the challenges her father faced, and how he faced them, during wartime.
“I really want my grandchildren to know about my dad, what a hero he was,” she said.
And on Veterans Day, it's important to remember the many sacrifices of those who have served defending this nation and others.
“Our elders made this country what it is,” she said. “We have to remember that and give them their due. Without them, we wouldn’t have what we have – and we have a lot.”