Friday, May 08, 2009

Norway and the Price of Freedom

Some old gnarled trees on the grounds of Akershus Fortress in Oslo Norway still bear bullet holes and contain bullets fired by Nazi soldiers to execute Norwegian resistance fighters. A simple sign in the grove reads, “De kempet og de falt, de ga oss alt.” (They fought and they fell, they gave us their all.) Today marks 64 years since Norway was liberated from Nazi occupation.

Norwegians today still recall with bitterness the date of April 9, 1940 when German forces occupied Norway in a rapid operation. Many Norwegians still harbor a certain degree of animosity toward neighboring Sweden, which was officially neutral throughout WWII, and yet allowed German forces to use Swedish rail lines to invade across Norway’s eastern border in the early morning hours of April 9, 1940 (and subsequently permitted German rail shipments to and from Norway through Sweden throughout the war).

Norway had also been officially neutral even from WWI days. It had neutrality treaties with the UK and Germany. But Norway was also strategically important. The Gulf Stream gives Norway ice free harbors throughout the bitter winters. Its location allows relatively open sea access to the UK and North America. We now know that both the Axis and the Allies had contingency plans for operations in Norway. Hitler decided early on to put Germany’s plans into action.

Norway’s population was (and is) only a fraction the size of Germany’s. Germans maintained strict control by overwhelming the hapless Norwegians. There was one German occupier for every eight Norwegians. During this time my own grandfather, an officer in the German Naval Reserve spent time in Norway, where he said everything tasted like fish. (Having lost all trading partners except Germany, the Norwegian economy contracted, causing them to turn to heavier fishing. Fish products were used to extend many other foods and were included in most animal feeds.)

Even today Norwegians harbor harsh feelings for Nazi sympathizers. The term Quisling, which is synonymous with traitor, refers to Vidkun Quisling. He was a Norwegian politician and army officer that founded Norway’s equivalent of the Nazi Party and secretly worked with German planners to implement their plans to invade Norway. The Nazis made Quisling the head of Norwegian government during the occupation. Following the war he was executed for high treason.

One of Norway’s claims to fame is that a Norwegian invented the paper clip. (It turns out that Johan Vaaler had obtained German and U.S. patents for a version of the paper clip around 1901, despite the fact that a superior version of the paper clip about which he knew nothing already existed. His patented version was never manufactured.) During the German occupation, many Norwegians began wearing paper clips on their lapels as a show of patriotism and resistance against the occupation.

Resistance Fighters
Many Norwegians worked in the home front resistance forces, which used both active and passive methods. My mission president, Arthur Halvorsen (Wilford) was in the Norwegian underground and engaged in clandestine activities, including smuggling, distribution of illegal newspapers, and message transmission. Eventually he became part of a four-man team that sent secret encoded radio messages to the UK.

Arthur’s team often used a secret upper room in a building near the city hall in Bergen. The city hall had been appropriated to be Nazi headquarters in that area. This room permitted a good view of HQ activities. On one occasion, an important German official was visiting Bergen incognito. A member of Arthur’s team was able to get a good photograph of this man along with other German officials standing on the steps of city hall. The film was quickly smuggled to Allied officials in the UK. The next day, a large print of the photo was reproduced on the front page of a British newspaper.

Arthur was never sure how or why the photo had been leaked to the press. It was a morale builder that demonstrated the capacities of Allied spy efforts. But the publishing of the photo was a critical mistake that endangered Norwegian underground operatives. It didn’t take the Nazis long to figure out the vantage point from which the photo had been taken. The next time Arthur’s team met in the room to make a radio transmission, they were suddenly attacked by soldiers. Arthur remembered being whacked on the head and losing consciousness.

Prisoners
Arthur was one of the lucky ones that survived the attack. But he ended up in a prison camp in another part of Norway. Eventually he and other hard nose prisoners (especially those caught attempting escape) were shipped to a serious prisoner of war camp in the eastern part of Germany. News was hard to get in the camp and often came only when new prisoners were brought in. But as the war wore on, it became apparent that things were not going well for the Germans. The prison guards of prime age were sent out to the front and were replaced by both older and younger men. Food became worse. The prisoners were suffering from malnutrition.

One day an officer came and asked for four volunteers that knew how to work a dairy farm. Arthur talked three other Scandinavians into stepping forward with him for the detail. At the time, they didn’t realize that they would never return to the prison camp. They ended up on a dairy farm out in the countryside, where they did all of the work. They were constantly overseen by an armed guard. They slept in the barn, no matter how cold it was. They were prohibited from approaching or having interaction with the residents of the farm house, but they knew that all of the men folk were off to war.

In many ways, this situation was preferable to being in the prison camp. They got better nutrition and exercise. They had something to do. They developed a working relationship with many of their guards. As the weeks passed, they began to regain much of their normal strength. The guards were regularly replaced by even older guards. The four Scandinavians began to formulate escape plans.

One part of the plan was to gain the confidence of guards and make so that no flight risk would be suspected. They found ways to pick up on every possible tidbit of information because they didn’t really know for sure where they were or what the best route to freedom was. Eventually everything was ready.

On the run
Arthur said that he felt badly about tricking the guard, knocking him out, and securing him in the outhouse, because this particular man had always been kind to them. They then crept up to the farmhouse and disabled its communications. They used the guard’s weapon to hold the residents at bay while they stole as much food and clothing as was feasible. They had already saddled the horses by then. They knew it wouldn’t be long before the residents alerted the authorities, so they made their escape as quickly as possible, driving the horses hard and moving eastward.

After many days of traveling by horse (mostly at night), they were running low on supplies. They decided that they would have to trust someone in order to get supplies, so they tied up the horses at what appeared to be a small grocery store and sent two men inside. They discovered that they were in Poland, but the shop owner could speak German as well. He was more than happy to trade supplies for their horses. He also told them all of the news he had about the war.

After talking to the shop proprietor, the escapees determined that going further east and into the arms of the advancing Soviet forces was probably not a good idea. Using a crude map provided by the proprietor, they plotted a route westward through remote areas that they figured would steer them as clear of military activity as possible.

Traveling by foot turned out to be harsh. Although spring had arrived, there was still plenty of rain, mud, and cold. The men were in good shape at the beginning of their foot trek, but they could carry relatively minimal supplies and those supplies were rapidly expended. The further they got into Germany, the more they had to travel under cover of darkness. Because they stuck to outlying areas, resupplying (even by theft) was difficult.

Weeks went by. The four once-hardy men were emaciated, filthy, and clad in rags. One day as they slept in a ditch, their lookout man awoke the others. He could hear the approach of vehicles, including heavy vehicles. It had to be a military operation. The escapees had been out of touch with news, so they didn’t know for sure what this meant. They assayed their options and determined that trying to backtrack away from the area would likely get them spotted, so they decided to lay low in the ditch.

Finally it sounded as if the heavy vehicles were very near them. They were afraid that if anyone even stuck his head up above the ditch bank, it would get shot off and would expose the others. But eventually they decided that one of them would have to carefully look. One of the men took a deep breath and carefully raised himself up enough to peer over the bank, and then he carefully lowered himself. “What did you see?” asked the others. “Tanks and vehicles. Each has a big white star on the side,” he answered. It had to be Allied forces.

One of the men ripped off part of what had once been a white shirt and fastened it to the end of a long reed. The men slowly stood up with their hands and the flag in the air and started walking toward the road. In very short order they found themselves being fed rations and being checked by medics. It was still months before the men were back home in Scandinavia, but their ordeal as prisoners and fugitives was over. They were safe once again.

Liberation
Norway was officially liberated from Nazi rule on May 8, 1945 when German forces in the country surrendered to the Allies as part of the surrender of German forces in Europe. The leadership structure developed by the resistance movement proved to be highly useful in restoring order in the ensuing weeks. Crown Prince Olav (later King Olav V) returned to Norway from exile in the UK amid the wild cheering of adoring crowds on May 13. The rest of the royal family returned on June 7. The five-year night of Nazi occupation was over.

Having learned that neutrality does not ensure peace or safety, Norway soon joined NATO. All Norwegian males are required to fulfill a year of military service between ages 18 and 26 and remain on reserve call until age 44. Attitudes have changed somewhat with the passing of generations and the influx of significant numbers of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, but the five-year Nazi occupation of the country has left a deep impression on the Norwegian psyche that will not soon go away. Many Norwegians still remember the captivity of their fathers (see Alma 29:11-12, Alma 36:2,28-29).

4 comments:

Bradley Ross said...

That was a remarkable (and well written) story. As I read, I was carried off to an imagined scene in a future place where prisoner and captive will meet. I hope they will embrace and weep for the wrongs they were both forced to commit and rejoice in their salvation together in Christ.

BJORN said...

Thank you for sharing this. I wept as I read and reflected upon the love I have for this wonderful freedom fighter.

Brother Art H. Wilford lived in my ward in Chicago from about 1969 to 1971 when he was a sales manager for Panasonic. He was my neighborhood commissioner in the Boy Scouts of America. He is to this day my all-time most important mentor. His life was remarkable not just in the Norwegian Underground in WWII, but as a Scouter. He had no children of his own. I lived virtually next door to him in Glenview, Illinois and became one of his adopted sons. He made sure I got my Eagle Scout and Duty to God. I reported to him each week on my scouting advancement. We got together all the time and he spoke Norwegian with my parents for hours at a time. I saw him again in New Mexico in 1985 and renewed our friendship. He was a true many of God and blessed my life in countless ways. He loved me very much, and I knew it, and I loved him so much, and always will.

IF ANYONE EVER WRITES A BOOK OR A MOVIE ABOUT HIS REMARKABLE LIFE......Please contact me and I can share some meaningful stories about this great man. Bruce Rognan 435-659-1857 or 435-640-9200

I understand his friend LDS Prophet Gordon Hinckley spoke at his funeral. If anyone has any information on that please let me know.

Reach Upward said...

Bjorn,

I can absolutely verify that President Hinckley spoke at Arthur Wilford's funeral on July 17, 1990. You can see a copy of the funeral program at this FamRoots link. Pres. Hinckley at that time was the first counselor in the LDS Church First Presidency.

One of the first things Pres. Wilford did when he became the mission president in Norway was to apply to have the LDS Church become an official sponsor of Norges SpeiderForbund (Norway's Scouting Organization). However, he was rebuffed because the NSF did not consider the LDS Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to be a "Christian" organization. Pres. Wilford was also surprised to discover that scouting units in Norway are mixed sex groups. Church rules would not permit that kind of sponsorship.

So, Pres. Wilford started his own LDS Scouting organization. It was a stripped down version of the BSA program. I spent part of my mission helping implement the program. This included going on campouts and training adult leaders.

We once camped out on a frightful night on the island of Fr√łya, which is the birthplace of LDS apostle John A. Widtsoe. We had winds in excess of 70 mph. It was a rough night and some of our equipment was damaged. But we all survived OK.

Pres. Wilford enjoyed showing home movies to the Norwegian young men leaders. He had films of Klondike Derby events that he helped put on when he lived in New Mexico. Many of the boys in New Mexico had never seen snow before attending one of these events. They had to travel four hours to get to a spot where they could do winter camping.

I'm not sure what became of Pres. Wilford's LDS Scouting organization following my mission. But I can tell you for sure that Pres. Wilford was a died-in-the-wool Scouter.

nimbus said...

This is great. Arthur Wilford was my neighbor and Patriarch in Alliance, Ohio in the 1960's. He and my dad both worked at Cunningham and Pickett until the company went bankrupt. I used to cut his grass in the summer and shovel the snow, if we got any, from the driveway. I have seen the tattoo on his arm that he got while a prisoner of war. He was a great man. He told us many stories.