SNAASA, Norway (Maj. Scott Ingalsbe) – Airmen and Soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard participating in the 42nd American – Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange (NOREX) retraced the steps of U.S. and Norwegian special operators 70 years ago who, during the final months of World War II, waged a successful sabotage campaign against German forces occupying Norway.
The U.S. service members, along with their Norwegian counterparts, completed a 12-mile trek on skis through mountainous terrain, as well as a reconnaissance of the Jorstad bridge and simulated demolition using signal flares. The field training exercise concluded, Feb. 19, 2015, with a ceremony in honor of those who destroyed the bridge to stop the movement of German troops through Norway and a wreath-laying in memory of the 80 people who perished, Jan. 13, 1945, when a train derailed into the icy water several hours after the demolition.
“We mourn the loss of life due to war and we honor the families who survived that great and terrible loss,” said U.S. Army Chaplain (Maj.) Buddy Winn. “We also remember that sacred text tells us that peacemakers are blessed. We are blessed to recommit ourselves to strong defense as a deterrent from repeating this calamity, and to strengthen our resolve to that end.”
In January of 1945, after nearly five years of occupation, several hundred thousand German troops were still positioned in Norway, and Allied commanders wanted to contain them there rather than allow them to be used as reinforcements in central Europe. With the waters off the coast of Norway controlled by the Allies and with mines still lingering in many areas, rail lines connecting northern and southern parts of the country were vital to any German plans at that time, according to Norwegian Col. Ebbe Deraas, commander of the Norwegian Home Guard in District 12.
Soldiers from the 99th Infantry Battalion, a unit comprised of Norwegian speaking Americans, many from Minnesota and the Dakotas, volunteered to train with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, to infiltrate into Norway and conduct unconventional warfare operations alongside Norwegian special operations forces. It was these small, OSS teams that were tasked with sabotaging the Norwegian rail lines to halt the movement of German troops.
Acts of sabotage such as those carried out by the OSS teams and the Norwegians, were remarkable in part because they were not common during the occupation of Norway. According to Norwegian 1st Lt. Liz Clapero, the movement was defined much more by peaceful acts of civil disobedience and symbols of solidarity with the exiled Norwegian royal family. A paper clip worn on the lapel – eventually banned by the Nazis – symbolized that the wearer was bound to their king. A red hat also became a symbol of unity, and when red hats were banned it became popular to wear no hat at all during cold weather. There was also a strong desire by the Norwegian government to liberate the country without destroying the infrastructure on which its future well-being depended.
The memorial at the Jorstad bridge in Snaasa was put into place in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bridge demolition and train derailment. In the 20 years since, it has stood as a strong symbol of reconciliation that began not only at the end of the second world war, but even in the moments after the trainwreck in which two Norwegian citizens perished alongside the Germans. A third Norwegian citizen died in the rescue and recovery effort, and more than one hundred injured German troops received medical treatment from the people of Snaasa, in many cases in their homes. The train derailment remains the deadliest railroad incident in Norwegian history.
“Peace is not something that comes easy. It takes will and hard work,” Deraas said. “Reconciliation is even harder. Forgiveness, understanding and love are the keys if you are to be successful. However, standing here at this site with the German, the U.S. and the Norwegian flag hoisted together, I feel confident that peace and reconciliation are possible no matter how dark the history.”
“Today I stand here – a German officer – with great respect for the strong will and dedication those men and women showed and the sacrifice they were ready to give,” said German Defense Attache Lt. Col. Oerter. “I stand here with very deep and honest gratitude to the Norwegians and the Americans. Both of you were – very soon after the war – willing to accept the new German nation and give democratic Germany a chance. You were able to see the people left behind by a defeated, reckless, and brutal regime. You reached out more than hand to us, as hard as that might have been.”
For the Minnesota National Guard Soldiers and Airmen in attendance, the ceremony offered an inspiring look into the relationships between the U.S. and its allies and the reason behind the enduring bonds built through NOREX – Partners for Peace.