Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Death of a real action hero

Sometimes, obituaries can be fascinating as you read about the real-life exploits of ordinary people you've never heard of but who had done such marvelous things. So I was struck by a headline of Knut Haugland, a Norwegian man who just died at the age of 91 but who had helped lead the commando raid during World War II to destroy the Nazi endeavors to make the heavy water necessary for developing atomic weapons as well as being the last survivor from the voyage of the Kon-Tiki. The obituary reads like the script for an adventure movie, but it was real life. After one failed attempt to attack the water plant, he hid out for months in the Norwegian winter waiting for the opportunity to launch another attack.
As a result the Germans were alerted to Allied interest in heavy water production, but Haugland was ordered to wait on Hardangervidda, where his team subsisted on moss and lichen and, just in time for Christmas, a wandering reindeer. In sub-zero temperatures he kept in contact with the British using a radio to which he improvised spares using a stolen fishing rod and an old car battery. Every night at 1am he would make contact, often unable to control the chattering of his teeth, using the password "three pink elephants".

It was February 1943 before Operation Gunnerside (named after a grouse moor owned by Sir Charles Hambro, head of SOE) was mounted. Six Norwegian commandos were dropped by parachute, and after a few days' search, met up with Haugland for a new assault on the hydroelectric plant.

The heavily defended plant was now surrounded by mines and floodlights and accessible only across a single-span bridge over a deep ravine. The Norwegians climbed down the ravine, waded an icy river and climbed a steep hill where they followed a narrow-gauge railway and entered the plant by a cable tunnel and through a window. In the ensuing sabotage hundreds of kilograms of heavy water was destroyed. Though 3,000 German soldiers searched for the saboteurs, all escaped. The Nazi heavy water project never recovered.
He stayed on in Quisling-controlled Norway helping to lead guerrilla efforts against the Nazis. One of those attacks reads like the script for a movie that would have starred Sylvester Stallone or John Wayne, but was instead the real-life courage of Knut Haugland.
In November 1943 he was arrested, only to escape, and his luck and courage held firm again the following year, when, on April 1, one of his transmitters, hidden inside a chimney at the Oslo Maternity Hospital, was located by direction-finding techniques. "The whole building was surrounded by German soldiers with machine-gun posts in front of every single door," Heyerdahl wrote later. "The head of the Gestapo was standing in the courtyard waiting for Knut to be carried down.

"Knut fought his way with his pistol down from the attic to the cellar, and from there out into the back yard, where he disappeared over the hospital wall with a hail of bullets after him." On the run, Haugland managed again to escape to Britain and did not return until war's end.
After the war, searching for adventure, he formed part of the crew of the Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl's attempt to prove that natives from Peru had been able to sail on a raft to the South Seas islands. He displayed heroic courage on that famous adventure. In addition to outswimming a shark, he risked his own life to save a crewmate.
The second incident occurred later, when Haugland averted the disaster that haunted all the Kon-Tiki's men. That was to fall in and find that currents prevented a return to the raft, which – obviously unpowered – would simply drift slowly out of view, condemning the man overboard to his fate.

When crewman Herman Watzinger did fall in, all rescue efforts appeared doomed until Haugland leapt into the water bearing a lifebelt attached to a long rope. The two men then swam towards each other and were hauled on board by the others. "We had a lot of nice things to say to Knut that day, Herman and the rest of us too," wrote Heyerdahl.
I'd never known of this man's personal courage until today although I knew of the destruction of the water-treatment plant and the Kon-Tiki's voyage. It's time for all the world to pause to have "a lot of nice things to say" about Knut Haugland and the man who, like those who fought on Iwo Jima, demonstrated that uncommon valor was a common virtue in his own life.