Editor's note: This story originally ran in the July 2, 2011 issue of the Daily News, just before the Fourth of July and a little over two months before Bennie Moland passed away Sept. 13, 2011.
We believe this story aptly depicts what World War II was like for Moland and many other GIs and their families.
We would like to dedicate this story to the memory of
Bennie Moland and the other heroes, sung and unsung, who have fought so we may celebrate this Veterans Day as a free nation.
About mid-June, 2011, Bennie Moland, 94, of Estherville had a knock at the door. When he went to answer it, there stood Col. Ole Martin Hojem, assistant defense attache from the Norwegian embassy in Washington, D.C. Hojem had a folder in his hand and a medal, a medal that Moland should have received 66 years ago, but didn't.
Moland looked curiously at the medal then at the folder with a document from Harald Sunde, General Chief of Defence for Norway, thanking Moland "for his contribution to the Norwegian nation during World War II."
The years fell away like the distant, rolling ocean from a fjord. Moland thanked Hojem and as soon as he was gone he thought about the medal. He thought about it a lot.
A year ago July, Moland was one of just 44 living members of the 99th Infantry Battalion who served not just in Norway but also France, Belgium and Germany during World War II.
The medal, though, tells only part of the story.
Moland told us the rest.
Moland grew up in Rochester, Minn. Like a lot of kids of Norwegian ancestry, he was born with skis on his feet, and he skied the hills of southeastern Minnesota and La Crosse, Wis.
Moland was drafted in 1941 - before Pearl Harbor and the war. After basic at Camp Claiborne, La., he was at a dance at the Plamore Ballroom in Rochester when he met a girl named Dorothy.
Bennie was a soldier. A soldier home on leave. A soldier home on leave in uniform.
And we all know that's all it takes to get the girls.
"He was in uniform. I was the wallflower," said Dorothy, was married to Bennie for 63 years.
So they courted. Dated. Fell in love.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
It was while the Japanese were busy strafing and bombing the Pacific fleet that the Germans were occupying Norway where they were using heavy water in their race to build the atomic bomb. Since the Allies well knew the strategic importance of Germany's atomic weapon research, they realized they needed to put a force on the ground to deal with them. So they started recruiting men of Norwegian ancestry. And in Minnesota, where in many communities Norwegian was often spoken more frequently than English, there were lots of recruits.
The 99th infantry Battalion (Separate) was activated at Camp Ripley, Minn. on July 19, 1942, as per written instructions by the War Department. This unique elite unit was to consist only of Norwegians and Americans with direct Norwegian descent. Soldiers picked out for this elite unit had to have a working knowledge of the Norwegian language and preferably already knew how to ski.
The 99th went to Camp Hale, Colo. to train with the 10th Mountain Division that later broke the German defensive line in the mountains of Italy.
It was at Camp Hale where Moland joined up with the 99th.
Moland and the 99th landed on the shores of France on D-plus 14. As a motor pool mechanic, it was Moland's job to make sure the jeeps, trucks, weapons carriers and armored cars were all squared away. The 99th slugged its way through France then Germany where they were warned not to talk to the people. "We were in the Battle of the Bulge," said Moland.
From there it was on to Belgium then Norway. While V-E Day was May 9, 1945, the 99th ws incorporated into the 474th Infantry Regiment and sent to Norway June 1945 to disarm the German occupying force.
"We got rid of all the swastikas up there," Moland said. "We finished up the hostilities there. They were still under the German rule."
While in Norway, Moland ran into his own and his neighbors' relatives. He also met members of the Norwegian resistance, a group that played a key role in keeping the Germans from developing the bomb before the U.S.
The Molands were married after the war, in 1948. Three sons followed - Michael, Paul and Leslie.
The Molands attended a number of 99th reunions throughout Minnesota throughout the years. They also took a trip to Norway on their 25th anniversary and also traveled to Hawaii twice, Australia, New Zealand and to eastern Canada, Dorothy's favorite.
Bennie lost friends in the war, and there was a close call with mortar rounds a time or two, but he made it through four and a half years in the Army in one piece.
Somehow, though, that visit from a friendly stranger a year ago July and the medal Bennie received maybe sort of rounded everything out, made more sense of everything maybe.
"So he's got something to be proud of," said Dorothy. "Maybe it is late but they woke up to the fact of what he did."
That was well over a year ago. Bennie has since passed on. But somehow, perhaps getting that medal sort of capped things off for him. Brought him back to those days in Europe with the 99th and those days, too, with Dorothy in his arms in a ballroom in Rochester.
And maybe, just maybe, those memories brought him a little bit of peace in his last days.