The US Army’s “Viking Battalion” in World War II, By Erik F. Brun

In July 1942, one of many classified plans was put into motion in Washington, DC. After a year and a half of preparation and mobilization since the Pearl Harbor attack, the US Army had swollen from 269,000 to over 2 million personnel, all while also undergoing a nearly complete reorganization of its equipment and tactics. As part of all that, the War Department personnel arm had given it attention to an estimated 380,000 resident aliens of service age living in America.

The linguistic, cultural, propaganda, political and military aspects involved in forming units of foreign nationals were evaluated and debated. A series of proposals were moved forward, and the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), made up of Norwegians, emerged from the “Foreign Legion” debate as the first such experimental unit.

By mid-December 1942 the 99th took up station at Camp Hale, Colorado. The unit was entirely made up of a mix of Norwegian-Americans and citizens of Norway. They were sent to Camp Hale, located 15 miles north of Leadville, Colorado, to receive training to become ski troops. They began conducting a grueling schedule of training at elevations between 10,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level, which regimen lasted until August 1943.

The battalion was shipped to the United Kingdom in the following month, where it was eventually assigned to Gen. Omar Bradley’s First Army in preparation for the invasion of the continent (“D-Day”). For the next six months, the 99th conducted more training in preparation for that campaign.

The soldiers of the 99th began boarding ship on 17 June, and they arrived in France on D+16. The battalion was kept assigned directly to First Army Headquarters to be attached to other commands from there as needed. Their first assignment was to the “Provisional Ranger Group,” which was already in Normandy, and in it they took part in the final capture of the port city of Cherbourg. The 99th subsequently moved across northern France attached variously to the 2nd Armored and 30th Infantry Divisions. In that way they fought at Elbeuf, France, the Willens Vaart Canal in the Netherlands, until finally forming part of one of the pincers that closed around Aachen, Germany, in October.

During the crisis period the Battle of the Bulge that December, the 99th distinguished itself as the first combat unit to arrive in the key defensive sector of Stavelot-Malmedy, Belgium. Thereafter they were engaged for over 30 consecutive days to repeated attacks by SS panzer units.

In late January 1945 the 99th was moved back into France to become part of the newly formed 474th Infantry Regiment as its third battalion. That regiment had been created for a classified mission anticipated since late 1943. It was formed by combining the 99th with 1,700 men of the 1st Special Service Force (a.k.a. the “Devil’s Brigade”). The unit also included some 400 Rangers who’d survived the Battle of Cisterna, at Anzio, early in 1944.

In early April 1945, the 474th was assigned to Gen. George Patton’s Third Army headquarters, where it was immediately tasked to assist with the famous “Monuments Men” mission. Their first job was to move two convoys of liberated Nazi loot that had been hidden in a salt mine in eastern Germany to the security of the Reichsbank depository in Frankfurt. In that role, the 99th escorted to safety over 484 tons of gold and 30 truckloads of art treasures. The gold alone would fetch some 18.5 billion USD on today’s market.

With the capitulation of Germany on 8 May, the whole regiment was alerted for what would become its final mission: to ensure the smooth transition of what was still German-occupied Norway back to independence. On 29 May the regiment was sent to Oslo aboard amphibious landing ships as part of “Operation Nightlight.” There the 99th served as the honor guard for King Haakon VII upon his return from exile in England. The 99th also assisted in disarming and processing into captivity the almost 400,000 German occupation troops, along with helping to repatriate to their own countries some 100,000 civilian forced laborers and Allied POWs.

As a side note, in the summer of 1943, 100 men from the 99th had been recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of today’s CIA) for clandestine operations in their ethnic homeland. After being given further specialized training in clandestine warfare techniques, those men formed the bulk of the OSS’s “Norwegian Operational Group” set up in the United Kingdom. The group was only finally sent to Norway, however, in April 1945 as part of “Operation Grouse.”

Two teams were landed in Norway, where they linked up with the resistance, and began to conduct sabotage missions aimed at slowing the redeployment of German forces from there southward to the main front in Germany. Tragedy struck during that deployment when two of the transport aircraft crashed, causing the loss of 11 team members. Even so, the mission went on, led by then-Major William Colby, who later became head of the CIA.

During the final weeks of the war, they managed to destroy enough north-south railroad lines to effectively isolate large elements of the elite German Twentieth Mountain Army. They continued in that mission until V-E Day. Their final activity as a separate unit was to stand as honor guard for Crown Prince Olav when he landed at Trondheim on 9 June.

The 99th Infantry Battalion was returned to the US and deactivated at Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts, in October 1945. While in Europe the unit earned five battle stars: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe. During 101 days in combat, the battalion suffered the loss of 54 killed in action and 207 wounded. Fifteen of its members received the Silver Star, and another 20 the Bronze Star, for heroism in combat.

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