Nordic Fest organizers seek to contact members of WWII 99th Infantry Battalion for special recognition
Veterans who served in the battalion of Norwegian-Americans will be honored during the annual Scandinavian festival next month in Thief River Falls
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minnesota – Organizers of the upcoming Nordic Fest in Thief River Falls are looking for veterans, family members of veterans, who served in a special battalion of Norwegian-Americans during WWII.
These veterans, members of the U.S. Army’s 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), will be honored during the Nordic Fest, a “celebration of all things Scandinavian,” in May. The battalion was attached to the First Army, but was labeled “separate” because it was not attached to a specific regiment.
Organizers of the Nordic Fest, sponsored by the Sons of Norway Snorre Lodge, have tracked down and communicated with some of these veterans or their relatives, but hope to reach and invite more of them to this event, said Jan Strandlie.
“There are 10 right here that we know of,” Strandlie said. “But we know there are families from North Dakota, too, who have relatives who were part of the battalion.”
She and other event organizers have been searching for names and addresses of battalion members. But records kept by the 99th Infantry Battalion Educational Foundation don’t include their original hometowns, making it more difficult to contact them or their descendants with an invitation, Strandlie said.
“We’ve sent invitations to 160 postal addresses and to about 80 emails of people who are on our list” that includes veterans, and their family or friends, she said. “We want to include any family that should be included.”
Five invitations were sent to men who are veterans of the 99th Battalion, Strandlie said, noting that she recently received a letter back from one of them, Donald Curtis, 98, of New York, “who said he thinks he’s the last living member. He’s not Norwegian, he said, but he got in because he could ski.”
Leonard Furuseth, a longtime Thief River Falls resident, was also among those who served in this battalion, Strandlie said. His story is captured in a book, “Furuseth in the 99th Infantry Battalion (Sep),” written by Gretchen Beito, of Thief River Falls, in collaboration with Leonard's widow, Mildred.
Anyone who is a veteran or who knows a veteran’s family who should be honored at the event may contact Strandlie at (218) 686-7740.
In 1942, the Army recruited 1,000 soldiers who could speak, write and read Norwegian for this battalion, Strandlie said. Many who joined were from the Upper Midwest, primarily Minnesota and the Dakotas. Some had already joined the military; others were new recruits.
They were part of the War Department’s “Foreign Legions” initiative to establish special units of U.S. citizens from certain ethnic groups for operations in countries occupied by the Axis powers.
As members of a separate battalion, the men were sent first for training at Camp Ripley and then to Fort Snelling in Minnesota and later to Camp Hale in Colorado.
“It was kind of a secret mission to begin with,” Strandlie said. The battalion was initially “supposed to go to Norway, but that didn’t work out.”
In the fall of 1943, the battalion shipped out of New York bound for Scotland, where they trained for infantry purposes as D-Day approached in June 1944.
Members of the 99th Infantry Battalion saw extensive combat service in several critical European missions during WWII, including battles in Normandy, northern France, Germany and the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Hitler’s last major offensive against the Western Front.
The battalion spent 101 days in combat. Fifty-two members were killed in combat, 207 were wounded, and six were missing in action. Some of these 207 men were wounded multiple times and so they, as a group, received 305 Purple Hearts.
At the war’s end, the 99th Infantry Battalion served as the Honor Guard to Norway’s King Haakon VII, upon his return from exile.
Honoring battalion members
During Nordic Fest, the 99th Battalion veterans and their families will be honored in the Hall of Honor in the lobby of Lincoln High School auditorium. As part of the festivities, the veterans and their family members have been invited to bring pictures and other memorabilia of wartime experiences, which will be displayed on tables in the school lobby.
Special presentations on the battalion’s history, by Kyle Ward, associate professor at Minnesota State University Mankato, are planned for May 26 and 28 for the public, and on May 27 for high school students.
Dignitaries from the office of the Norwegian ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C., and the International Sons of Norway Foundation and Norway House, both based in Minneapolis, are expected to participate in the Nordic Fest, Strandlie said.
The annual Nordic Fest, formerly known as Norwegian Heritage Week, begins May 14 and continues through May 28. It features an assortment of activities for all ages.
The event was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.