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 A Summary History of the 99th Infantry Battalion | Norwegian Avengers

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A Norwegian-American Unit During WWII

(Updated 7-14-13)

During the Second World War there were a number of special operations units initially organized for a specific mission or area of operations. Units like the 1st Special Service Force, Darby's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders are examples. One lesser known is the 99th Infantry Battalion, activated for planned operations in German occupied Norway.

Upon the United States entry into World War II, plans for unconventional warfare operations in Norway began developing under the code name "Plough." The goals of these operational plans were to eliminate Norway as an economic asset for Germany, keep large numbers of German troops on occupation duty in Norway, limit German troops deployed in Norway the ability to attack allied convoys headed to supply the Russian port of Murmansk, to prepare for the liberation of Norway, and open a link through Norway to Russia. The unit first envisioned for this mission was the 1st Special Service Force, "the Devil's Brigade," activated on July 2, 1942. The unit began its training with skills in winter warfare like skiing and mountain climbing.

Concurrently, U.S. Army planners knew that they were need soldiers who could blend in with the local Norwegians. It was determined that the Army should recruit native speakers of Norwegian and Americans of Norwegian descent for a special unit. On July 10, 1942 the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) was activated. Many of the men who volunteered for the unit came from Minnesota and the Dakotas. There were also a number of Norwegian merchant seamen who were locked out of their home country when the Germans invaded. All the volunteers were either American citizens or were required to apply for citizenship.

99th Infantry Battalion Shoulder PatchThe 99th Battalion began their training at Camp Ripley, Minnesota on August 15, 1942. The Battalion's first commander was Captain Harold D. Hanson. There strength was 884 men, lead by Norwegian-American officers until native Norwegians could be trained at officer candidate schools. They adopted a shoulder sleeve insignia representative of their native origins: a Viking ship on a shield utilizing the Norwegian national colors of red, white, and blue. The unit's training began with soldier skills and physical conditioning. Fort Ripley was built for summer training, so in September the 99th moved to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, at the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The local Scandinavian immigrant communities in the area made the soldiers feel at home with a number of social events.

On December 17, 1942 the 99th Infantry Battalion moved out to Camp Hale, Colorado for winter training on skis and snowshoes. When the snow melted in the spring the soldiers were trained in rock climbing and mountaineering. The 99th Battalion arguably received the best winter warfare training available to American troops at the time. President Roosevelt, known to champion special ops units of the day, reviewed the Battalion on Easter Sunday, 1943. During their nine months of training in Colorado, the unit took on the nom de guerre of the "Norwegian Avengers."

Click to preview or purchase "The Boldest Plan is the Best" from Amazon.comUnfortunately, in the spring of 1943 the Allied Powers decided to take the Norwegian operation away from the 1st Special Service Force and their attached 99th Infantry Battalion. It was determined that once such a large ground force was inserted into Norway that they could not be supplied or extracted if necessary. Their mission could actually be accomplished by bombers of the Royal Air Force, despite the belief by the Norwegian government that the damaged caused by any of these combat operations would hurt the economy and the people of Norway more than the German occupation. However, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, had an interest in Norway (as well as every other occupied country). In June 1943, about a hundred Norwegian speakers from the 99th Battalion were recruited for OSS operational teams. Some of these men would eventually parachute into Norway with Major William Colby as part of OSS "Operation Rype."

Two months after their mission was scrubbed, the 99th Infantry Battalion was ordered overseas. In August the Battalion moved to Camp Shanks, New York. Then on September 5, they departed for Great Britain on the troopship SS Mexico. While in England the 99th continued to hone their mountaineering skills, but they also trained as armored infantry (infantry that supported tanks). The "Norwegian Avengers" became part of the great Allied army preparing to cross the channel and fight for the liberation of Europe.

The 99th Infantry Battalion landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 21, 1944 and by June 30th was participating in the liberation of Cherbourg. While attached to the 2nd Armored Division in mid August, the commanding general said that the Norwegians were the only infantry unit that his tanks had trouble keeping up with. The last week of that month saw the 99th Infantry Battalion fighting to secure the bridge over the Seine River in the city of Elbeuf. This was one of only two escape routes for the Germans fleeing Normandy. By September the Battalion, still attached to the 2AD, saw heavy action along the Meuse Canal near Maastrict, Holland. October saw the 99th attached to the 30th Infantry Division and engaged in their most intense combat of the war, blocking the German retreat from Aachen by attacking the German city of Wurselen. During November and December the Norwegians served as the U.S. 1st Army reserve against possible German airborne operations.

The day after the German's began their offensive in the Ardennes area of Belgium, kicking off what became known as the "Battle of the Bulge," the 99th Infantry Battalion was ordered forward into a defensive position south of Malmedy. They were part of Task Force Hanson, named for their commander LTC Harold Hanson, which consisted of the 99th along with the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion. On December 21, Task Force Hanson was attacked by Panzer Brigade 150. This German unit, commanded by SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, was intended to operate behind Allied lines posing as Americans. They wore American uniforms and drove captured American vehicles. When their initial clandestine mission failed, they re-entered the fight as a regular armored unit. Their combat mission was to take Malmedy in order to attack the rear of the Americans who were blocking the advance of the 1st SS Panzer Corp at Elsenborn Ridge. The 99th Battalion and other units of the 30th ID stopped Skorzany's attack, inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. However, due to the accents of the Nowegian-Americans, during the Battle of the Bulge more than a few members of the 99th Infantry Battalion were detained as suspected German infiltrators.

After the fight for Malmedy, the Nowegians spent the next 31 days on the line between Malmedy and Stavelot, conducting raids and running combat patrols. When they came off the line they were moved to Tilff, Belgium for several days then on January 22, 1945 the Battalion moved by rail to Barneville, in Normandy. In France, the 99th Infantry Battalion became part of the newly created 474th Infantry Regiment (Separate). The 474th Infantry was a collection of the elements left from deactivated special purpose units. Along with the 99th, the 474th included the 1st Special Service Force, and the surviving members of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions. Backing up the infantry was an artillery company of 105mm self-propelled cannon, and the 552nd Anti-Tank Company with M-8 armored cars and light tanks.

On February 22, 1945 the 474th Infantry was given the mission of providing security for the 12th Army Group rear area. The 474th was then attached to Patton's Third Army. The 474th was tasked with clearing out bypassed German units and demilitarizing civilian populations. In April LTC Hanson was tasked to provide guards and vehicles from his 99th Infantry Battalion to transport Nazi gold and art treasures from the Kaiseroda salt mine in Merkers, Germany to the Reichsbank in Frankfurt. The estimated value of these treasures was 2.1 billion dollars.

The 99th Infantry Battalion arrives in NorwayTwo days after VE day (Victory in Europe, May 7, 1945) the 474th Infantry, including the 99th Battalion, finally received orders to go to Norway. Their mission there was to assist in the disarming and demobilization of approximately 300,000 German soldiers there. The regiment arrived in Oslo on June 8, where the 99th was quartered at Camp Smestad, a former German army camp. By August the 99th had assisted in processing and transporting nearly 100,000 military personnel back to Germany. When King Haakon returned from exile to Norway, he was greeted by an honor guard from the 99th Infantry Battalion. Consequently, the king designated the Norwegian Americans his personal honor guard unit. The 99th also took part in several large parades commemorating the Allied victory in the World War.

The 99th Infantry Battalion had received a large number of replacements due to combat losses. Nevertheless, the unit retained a strong Norwegian presence. Those men were able to take advantage of a generous leave and pass policy to look up relatives and friends with which they had no contact for five years. There was also a great deal of fraternization with the local civilian population. At least fifty new brides followed the 99th Infantry Battalion home.

On October 16, 1945 the 99th Infantry Battalion departed Oslo, Norway aboard the SS Bienville. They arrived in Boston on November 1. The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) was demobilized at Camp Miles Standish on November 2, 1945. The Norwegian-Americans had earned five Campaign streamers for Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe. The Battalion had spent 101 days in combat, losing 52 men killed and 207 wounded, with six unaccounted for. Members of the 99th were awarded fifteen Silver Stars and twenty Bronze Stars.

The 99th Infantry Battalion was a unique unit in American military history. With the origins of the Battalion in the Scandinavian communities of Minnesota, it is not surprising that there is an exhibit honoring their service at the Minnesota Military Museum located at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota.

References:

99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) WWII Educational Foundation: http://www.99battalion.org

Bekke, Maj Doug (Ret), "Norwegian-Americans and the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)," a paper for the Military Historical Society of Minnesota, accessed at: http://www.mnmilitarymuseum.org/files/5613/2261/5287/99th_Infantry_Battalion_Sep.pdf

Minnesota Military Museum Website: http://www.mnmilitarymuseum.org/

 

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