JOHNSTOWN - It has been more than 60 years since World War II ended, but Donald A. Curtis recently received a special honor for his service during and after the conflict.
Curtis, a lifelong city resident, was presented with a medal and a citation.
However, it was not from the U.S. government.
Donald A.?Curtis of Johnstown, left, is presented with a Norwegian?Medal of Merit and a citation for his service during and after World?War II at his summer retreat on West?Stoner?Lake on?July 4. Col. Ole Martin Hojem, right, with the Norwegian Army and an attache with The Royal
Norwegian Embassy in Washington,
presented the items to Curtis.
Col. Ole Martin Hojem, with the Norwegian Army and an attache with The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, presented Curtis on July 4 with the Norwegian Medal of Merit and a citation signed by King Harald V.
"It was an honor," Curtis said. "I'm proud of my service."
Curtis was being honored by Norway because during the war he served with the U.S. Army's 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate).
According to the Minnesota National Guard website - www.minnesotanationalguard.org - the United States realized early in World War II it would need special units with the linguistic and cultural background to conduct operations in Japanese- or German-occupied territory. At that time, Norway was occupied by Germany.
On July 10, 1942, the order went out to form the battalion. Men who could speak Norwegian were sought after, particularly those born in Norway, the website said.
Curtis said the battalion, nicknamed the "Vikings," was formed almost entirely by men of Norwegian citizenship or direct-descendants or Norwegian immigrants. They were being trained to be the lead force for an invasion to free Norway from occupation.
Oddly, Curtis - who served for three years with the 99th battalion, 10th Mountain Division, as a lead scout for C Company - was one of only three men in the battalion who was not of Norwegian descent. He did not speak the language. The average age of the battalion was 33, while he was just 18.
To this day, he is not sure exactly why he ended up with the 99th battalion.
When he was 18, Curtis had enlisted in the Army, where he was given the choice of service. Having grown up near the Adirondacks, Curtis said, he could ski. So he chose mountain infantry.
"That way I could utilize what I could do," Curtis said.
After his basic training was complete, Curtis was shipped in March 1943 to Camp Hale in Colorado.
Curtis said there were 27 other men from Fulton County in the 10th Mountain Division, but he was the only one assigned to the 99th battalion.
According to the Minnesota National Guard website, the training at Camp Hale was not easy. While carrying equipment weighing up to 90 pounds, they worked on skiing, snowshoeing and winter survival skills. In the spring, extensive rock-climbing training was required.
Curtis recalled arriving at Camp Hale weighing 174 pounds. A month later, he weighed 147.
"[The training] was intense," he said.
The unit, which had about 1,000 men, eventually was ordered to France, landing at Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 21, 1944.
According to the website, the battalion would participate in five battle campaigns before the war ended on May 8, 1945: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe. The battalion had 101 days in combat, suffered 52 men killed, 207 wounded and six missing.
Curtis found throughout these campaigns his differences from the other men were quite useful.
For example, while Curtis could not speak Norwegian, he knew French. While fighting through France and Belgium, he was frequently called upon to talk to civilians when the battalion needed information.
"[The 99th battalion] was a great fighting unit," Curtis said. "They never gave an inch anywhere."
However, the end of the war did not bring an end to the battalion.
The battalion went to Oslo, Norway, after the war for six months, helping the government - which had been in exile since the German occupation - return to leadership. Curtis, a private first class, was one of 60 U.S. soldiers chosen to be in the Honor Guard when King Haakon VII returned to Norway. He also met his future wife, Gerd, while in Norway.
They were married July 26, 1947, at the Presbyterian Church in Johnstown. They raised a family together, along with a summer retreat at West Stoner Lake. It was there Curtis, with Gerd at his side, received the Norwegian Medal of Merit.
"Those were the greatest six months of my life," Curtis said about his time in Oslo.
Hojem said part of the reason the story of the battalion is not better known in Norway may be the fact people were so happy the war was over. Many people just wanted to move on with their lives, he said.
However, in the late 1980s, the Norwegian government was made aware of the battalion's unique composition and contribution to the war effort.
So while it took some time, Hojem said, it has been his "great honor" to present these medals to a number of battalion members.
To see how proud the veterans are of their service, and hear the stories about what they did to help win the war, Hojem said, "It has touched me."
Curtis said he was like any other member of the battalion: He joined to protect his country and fight the Germans.
"I was a patriot," he said. "I'm a patriot [still]."