Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Remembering No. 24

On May 10, 2012, Gunnar Sønsteby, one of the most decorated heroes of all time, passed from this life. His legacy warrants a mention, albeit insufficient for the heroism, service, and sacrifice that he provided to his country, to the Allies, and perhaps to civilization as we know it during World War II. 

If you profile the people that you have met in your life, few of them, if any, will have earned or deserved the description of “great.” When asked to speak about his activities during Norway’s struggle for freedom during World War II, Gunnar Sønsteby humbly preferred to discuss the valor of others and their sacrifice rather than his own. 

In 2010, I had the opportunity of a lifetime not only to hear Sønsteby speak several times, but also to have a conversation with both Gunnar and his wife, Anne-Karin, after the showing of the film “Max Manus.” (Watch this film: it recounts the war-time life of Max Manus, a fellow resistance fighter. In true form, Sønsteby, as a consultant to the film, continually downplayed his own role in the story and instead insisted that the film focus on Max Manus and his league of resistance fighters.) When given the opportunity to discuss his role in the resistance, he deflected attention from himself toward King Haakon VII of Norway. Sønsteby also took great pains to speak about the importance of human rights and the plight of those oppressed all over the world. 

No. 24, as he became to be known by his Nazi pursuers, was the principal mastermind and operations chief of the Norwegian resistance. For almost five years, Gunnar and his band of resistance fighters thwarted Nazi invaders, preventing advances that could have easily changed the outcome of World War II. The Germans called him “No. 24” because they couldn’t even determine who he was, yet he was the most wanted man in Norway due to his mastery of planning and precise acts of sabotage, which repeatedly crippled the Reich’s plans against the most harrowing odds. 

Gunnar Sønsteby’s efforts started modestly, as the Germans overran Norway and stationed significant military operations within Norway’s borders. Gunnar Sønsteby has been quoted to the effect that “when your country is taken over by 100,000 Germans, you get angry.” Sønsteby and some of his acquaintances, who would later become the core of the Norwegian Resistance Movement, initially created an underground newspaper to countermand the finely tuned Nazi propaganda machine.

Admittedly, Sønsteby and his band did not have instant success and many of their fellow freedom fighters were killed, as well as scores of innocent Norwegians. In time, under nearly unbelievable circumstances, Sønsteby and his crew would enter and exit Norway to Scotland and Sweden for training, supplies, and interaction with the Norwegian government, operating via proxy from hundreds of miles away. Their growing success turned to strategic raids that would ultimately help turn the tide of the entire war.
Among the reasons for Germany’s invasion of Norway was its strategic location for naval channels, a northern border with Russia, and access to heavy water, a rare element necessary for the creation of a hydrogen bomb. The “race for the bomb” was repeatedly set back by Norwegian resistance fighters through their destruction of ships, trains, and other German military operations, often at the expense of Norway’s own roads, bridges, and people.

Another “commodity” available to the Germans was the existence of tens of thousands of young Norwegian men, whose identities were all catalogued in the Norwegian Labor Office. The Germans intended on drafting all Norwegian men of fighting age, to be shipped to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. (The Norwegians had proven extremely effective in fighting the Russians for years alongside Finnish infantry on the Northern front of Finland in the 1930s). Upon learning that the fate of an entire generation of Norwegians was at stake, Sønsteby organized the raid and bombing of the Norwegian Labor Office, putting an end to the Nazi’s ability to forcibly draft Norwegians. This blow resulted in a huge distraction to the Reich that ultimately kept the Germans in a true two-front war, forcing them to allocate resources to the failed Eastern Front, thereby turning the tide of the war towards the Allies.

Among Sønsteby’s other credits are the theft of 75,000 ration books, which pressured authorities to stop a threatened cut in rations; the destruction of sulphuric acid manufacturing facilities in Lysaker; and the destruction or damaging of more than 40 aircraft under repair at a tram company depot in Korsvoll. He was also credited with the destruction of a railway locomotive under repair at Skabo, a number of Bofors guns, and a field gun and vital machine tools at the Kongsberg arms factory, and with starting a large fire in a storage depot at Oslo harbor, which destroyed large quantities of critical German supplies for its navy. Each raid ultimately meant the loss of Norwegian lives, either in the raids themselves or in retaliation killings, a tactic the Germans used (unsuccessfully) to threaten Norwegians into compliance with their regime.

After the war, Sønsteby transitioned from a military to a civilian life, attending Harvard and ultimately returning to Norway to a successful career in the oil and gas business. Sønsteby never stopped speaking about the Norwegian resistance, King Haakon VII, or human rights. Being the worthy recipient of many accolades, both civilian and military, Sønsteby is the only Norwegian to receive the War Cross with three swords. Also, Sønsteby was the first non-United States citizen to receive the United States Special Operations Command Medal in 2008.

Having numerous brushes with capture and even death, Sønsteby, even at the age of 94, would be cautious walking into a room, even inspecting behind the doors of unfamiliar places. I remember Sønsteby commenting that “old habits die hard.” Perhaps the most fitting description of Sønsteby came from a close friend of his who stated that “Gunnar is a man with no conflict.” Sønsteby, intimately aware of the immense cost of freedom, was at peace with that cost and lived the rest of his life demonstrating by example why the cost of liberty was necessary and just. 

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