As a young soldier behind enemy lines in World War II, Wilton Rasmusson kept a cyanide pill in his pocket in case he was caught by Nazis.
The 100-year-old Fridley veteran recalled stories from his daring service Sunday when the ambassador of Norway paid him a special visit to award him two medals of honor — a recognition Rasmusson never expected.
When he was drafted in 1942, a military official came to him with a request that would define the course of his life: “Do you want to volunteer for a dangerous overseas mission?”
“I said, ‘yeah,’ ” Rasmusson said in a thick Norwegian accent.
He was part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the CIA, in a Norwegian operational unit known at NORSO II. Rasmusson’s fluency in the language was an obvious benefit for the mission that would take him from his hometown of Sunburg, Minn., for 3½ years to England, Scotland and Norway.
As a demolition expert, Rasmusson and his OSS colleagues would blow up bridges and roads to impede the Germans’ pursuit of obtaining heavy water, a crucial ingredient to their hopes for a Nazi atomic bomb.
“If Hilter would’ve got it, we’d probably be talking German right now,” he said.
Rasmusson — who in his covert activities went by the alias of Rasmus Torgerson in honor of his grandfathers — was in England just before D-Day when he hopped on his bike to attend a dance. He admittedly spent plenty of time in pubs playing polka music on the piano. But a collision with another bicyclist meant the then-25-year-old would miss the first wave of D-Day because he was in a coma for the next 10 days.
“I never did make it to that dance,” he said. “Instead of going to France, I went to the hospital.”
His only granddaughter, Amber Rasmusson, of New Brighton, thinks that crash could’ve very well saved his life.
After his recovery, he was assigned to fight the Nazis undercover in Norway. Of the 35 men serving in NORSO II, he said nine were killed in two different plane crashes. Twenty-six made it home.
To celebrate the end of the war, he recalls cognac and champagne being parachuted down to his troops. In total, he made 13 jumps out of planes before the war ended. A code of silence meant he couldn’t correspond with his family all those years, and even when his service ended, he didn’t divulge many details.
“It was a nice ride coming back, but going over was terrible,” he said.
Before embarking home, he sold his Belgian 9mm pistol for $4. “I didn’t want to bring the gun home,” he said. Back in Minnesota, the CIA later sent him an application that he declined.
Instead, he worked 37 years for the Chicago & North Western Railroad. He was the only one of 12 siblings to serve in WWII, and when he started a family of his own, he kept it simple: He and his wife of 73 years, Doris, had one son, Greg. Doris, 93, sat proudly beside her husband at the ceremony Sunday. They held hands as a crowd of family, friends and service members grew around them.
“It takes a pretty good woman to stay with me that long,” he said.
Among the crowd was Rasmusson’s only living sister, Vangie Palmer, 96, who admired one of the large bronze medals in her petite hand. “He’s my savior,” she said of her big brother. Their one other living sibling, Walter, 92, resides in Colorado.
On Sunday, Rasmusson exchanged words with Ambassador Kåre R. Aas, in English and Norwegian. Aas presented Rasmusson with a commemorative WW II medal and a defense medal, which Aas has done for more than 40 World War II veterans in the past year.
“Many Allied soldiers, including many from the United States of America and Canada, took part in the liberation of Norway in 1945. They all made freedom possible,” Aas said. “It is with great pleasure, honor and gratitude that we now reach out to you, Wilton Rasmusson … I would like to convey to you our deep-felt gratitude for your support and sacrifice.”
Lt. Col. Patrick Cornwell, deputy commander at Camp Ripley, and Minnesota VFW Commander Chad Solheid also honored Rasmusson with pins and certificates.
“On behalf of Gov. Walz and all the 308,000 veterans in Minnesota, I want to congratulate you on your contributions,” said Cornwell in reading a statement from Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. “We all want to thank you for your sacrifices to keep our world free from the forces of evil. The medals you are receiving today reflect your individual effort to make the world a better place.”
Rasmusson said he was never scared overseas — not even when a hail of bullets peppered a B-24 Liberator plane he was aboard.
And as for that bike?
“It’s all smashed up now,” he said.