October 1, 2020

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Elbow Lake soldier’s unit, subject of book on World War II

1943 Omer in uniform

This past February, Grant County Historical Museum Director Patty Benson, received an email from Norwegian author Antoni Pisani, who was researching for a book on the 99th Infantry Battalion of World War II. Specifically, he was looking for information on Omer Olson, who was killed in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge on January 10, 1945. Pisani found out Olson was from Grant County, and contacted the museum.

The famous 99th Infantry Battalion was an infantry unit made up of personnel who were either native born Norwegians, or who were of Norwegian extraction, and had a working knowledge of the Norwegian language. Earmarked for a possible invasion of German occupied Norway, this unit underwent rigorous winter and combat training over a period of close to two years, both in U.S.A. and Great Britain.

In contacting Benson, Pisani hit the jackpot, Omer was her husband’s uncle and the family had a treasure trove of letters he had written during boot camp, training, and while serving in Europe. He wrote a couple of times a week to his parents, and sister Sigrun. There were also sisters Agnes, Gladys, Edna, and Mildred. He also had a brother Alvin and another brother Gundord who was serving in the South Pacific.

Omer was born on January 27, 1920, on the farm in Pelican Lake Township. He attended rural school, and,with his father, farmed land in Pelican Lake and Pomme de Terre Townships. He entered the army in the fall of 1942, joining the 99th Infantry Battalion, B Company, 2nd Platoon. 

Following boot camp, Omer trained at Camp Hale, high in the Colorado mountains. Camp Hale was called a U.S. Army Ski Cantonment and he was trained in skiing and winter fighting. Omer does not mention much about his training except to say he went skiing, or on a hike and camping. Once, as training is winding down, he writes that “We went out on the skis for a week.”

He does talk about the snow and cold, however, he is mostly interested on news from home, and the farm, and asks his sister if she went to the dance in Barrett.

“I see in the last letter you bought a cow,” he writes to his father. “How much do you have to pay for a cow now?” he asks, then apologizes for forgetting his mother’s birthday.

In late April, he writes Sigrun, telling her someone sent him the Ashby Review, and he saw President Roosevelt at another camp. He writes of getting a pass to go to Colorado Springs, watching a show, and drinking beer at the PX.

Omer’s parents sent him the Grant County Herald, but it often came several weeks late. He would send it on to Gundord somewhere in the South Pacific.

In May, he asks his parents if they are getting enough sugar, coffee, and gasoline, all of which were rationed during the war. 

“We get all the sugar and coffee we like,” he comments.

In July, he writes to Sigrun one of his longer letters. He must have visited home briefly because he talks about missing the chance to see her. It sounds like he missed summer in Minnesota, as he talks about a weekend pass he took to Grand Junction.

“It sure was hot there. The people was haying and harvest.”

He talks about some photos he took and plans to send home and says he doesn’t know when he will get home again. “But it will not be yet for a long time,” he says. “But I hope you folks don’t worry to much about me, that is all I worry about.”

“No I did not have the 4th of July off. I hope we can be home the 4th of July in 1944.”

This time, insead of signing simply “Omer,” he signs this letter “Your Brother, Omer.”

In the middle of August, Omer writes to his sister that he went fishing with a group of friends, about four miles from camp, and caught eight fish. “We had some food with us, so we had a good time. It rained all the time on the walk back to camp so I guess you know how we looked when we got back… ha, ha.”

On August 22, 1943, Omer writes his last letter from Camp Hale to his parents. He hopes they don’t get too much rain now that threshing has started. 

“We are off Saturday noon, so yesterday I washed clothes,” said.

He was off to Europe and from now on the letters were V-mail. V-mail was used by solders overseas as a way to save weight for mail. After a letter was written, it was microfilmed, sent to the U.S., where it was printed out on paper.

Omer’s letters were censored and while he never really says where he is stationed, it must have been England because he mentions London and compares pounds and shillings to U.S. currency.

By mid-June, Omer was in France, and by October, he was in Belgium. 

On November 5, 1944, Omer writes to his parents and sends them $25 for Christmas. He said his paycheck is about $40, or $10 more than before, because he got a combat medal.

His last letter is dated December 13, 1944, from “somewhere in Belgium,” he writes.

Twenty-eight days later, Omer Olson is killed in action in the Burteaumont Forest, between Malmedy and Stavelot.

Omer’s parents received a letter, a couple of weeks later, from Brigadier General G. A. Horkan, expressing condolences and enclosing a photo of the United States Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, where Omer was buried.

“It is my sincere hope that you may gain some solace from this view of the surroundings in which your loved one rests,” he writes. “As you can see, this is a place of simple dignity, neat and well cared for. Here, assured of continuous care, now rest the remains of a few of those heroic dead who fell together in the service of out country.”

In April, the Olsons receive a letter from Chaplain Paul Wharton, who visited the cemetery and assures his parents that Omer’s grave is carefully marked with a white cross with his identification tag. The chaplain talks about nearby civilians who keep the cemetery neat and decorate the graves.

“Omer had an opportunity to see the people of France and Belgium liberated,” he writes adding, “Omer’s name has been spoken by his comrades many times since his death. We all share your sorrow and hold his name in highest respect.”

But perhaps the most poignant letter was written to Omer’s sister Agnes, from 1st Lt. George P. Heald, of Ashby, who was with Omer when he was killed. He writes “I was about 20 feet away from Omer and spoke to him before he passed away. He was hit by a German machine gun burst. However, he did not suffer, but very little, if any pain. He quietly passed away due to his wounds in vital places.”

Heald goes on to say Omer was well respected and a model soldier.

“I used to get all of the issues of the Grant County Herald from him. He was very popular among the men, quiet but very well liked.”

Omer’s body was returned to Elbow Lake on December 8, 1945, and there was a funeral service the next day, at Hjerdahl Lutheran Church, Pomme de Terre Township, where he was buried.

Patty Benson sent Antoni Pisani copies of the letters Omer sent his family, as well as the letters they received afterwards. Pisani reciprocated and sent Benson a photograph he had of Omer in the field in Belgium, wet and dreary as he and some comrades try to dry their socks over a campfire.

“Friendship and comrades are themes in the book and I have digged deep into Omer’s squad, trying to get to know these men.”