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Arland O. Fiske: Story of Knut Haukelid, the resistance hero

The story of Knut Haukelid reads like a modern Scandinavian saga.

Like so many Norwegians, his parents immigrated to America.  When Knut and his twin sister, Sigrid Guri were born, their parents moved back to Norway. She became a movie actress. Their roots were at Rauland in Telemark. That’s rugged mountain country.

This move was to be of critical importance to the whole free world. Knut, having the blood of  the ancient Norsemen, returned to America to study engineering. Then he studied in Germany.  There his eyes were opened to the danger of war.  He listened to Hitler’s speeches and returned to Norway with disgust.

On April 9, 1940, when the Nazis attacked Norway, Knut was in Trondheim. He woke up in the morning to discover the city occupied by the enemy.  Slipping into the countryside, he joined a fighting unit. Norway had depended on neutrality and was not ready for war.

Haukelid’s day to serve his country came on Feb. 28, 1943, when the British dropped him with nine other commandos in the Hardanger flats, some of the harshest winter terrain in the world. I have driven across it and have some idea of how difficult it would be to survive there in frigid ice and snow.

Stories have been written and movies have been made how they made their way by night to the Norsk Hydro Plant near Rjukan. Their mission was to destroy the plant that manufactured heavy water (deuterium oxide). This substance was produced to make it possible for Hitler’s war machine to create a nuclear bomb.  Eluding the guards, they destroyed both equipment and store and then escaped.  The German occupation general Nikolaus von Falkenhorst said it was “the best coup I have ever seen.”

The plant, however, was back in operation two months later. After the Americans bombed it in November, the Nazis decided to remove the equipment and heavy water stores to Germany. Informers within the plant sent word to Great Britain.  Haukelid was given the task of preventing the transfer. Disguised as a laborer, he boarded the ship and planted 19 pounds of explosives. On Sunday morning, Feb. 20, 1944, the ship carrying the dreaded cargo exploded and sank in the deepest part of Lake Tinnsjo. That ended Hitler’s chance of getting the bomb.

The Resistance Museum in Oslo has an excellent exhibit of the Hydro plant and how Haukelid and his companions did their work.  If you visit Oslo, it is a “must to see.”

After the war, Haukelid became a Lieutenant Colonel and concentrated his energies on Norway’s defense. Knut and his wife, Bodil, spent their winters in Oslo and their summers at Lillesand, on the coast between Arendal and Kristiansand. He still found time to go back to the family’s mountain hotel at Rauland in northwest Telemark to hunt reindeer.

Knut Anders Haukelid died of heart failure on March 8, 1994 at Det Norsk Diakonhjemmet (The Norwegian Deaconess Home Hospital) in Oslo at age 82.  He was survived by his wife and their three children, Bjornulf, Kirvil and Knut, and four grandchildren.

The Norsk Hostfest Association honored Haukelid by inducting him into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame in 1985. It was a distinct privilege for my wife, Gerda, and I to be his hosts at the Minot event. I also had the privilege of presenting him for the induction.

My knowledge of those dark years was greatly enhanced when visiting with him. It was my further privilege to share many hours sitting by him at the table where books were autographed and sold. His book, “Skis Against the Atom,” was in great demand. At times there were so many people gathered in front of where he was sitting that no one could get to near I was.  He honored me by stating that I had written the most accurately about him of any writer.

Having dual citizenship in both the United States and Norway, he brought honor to both countries for his dedication to freedom and peace.  He has to be called one of the great heroes of the 20th century.

Next week: The Cathedral in Trondheim.

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.