He died with his boots on

Remembering Gunnar Sønsteby

By Steinar Opstad, Ph.D.

Gunnar “Kjakan” Sønsteby, the 94-year-old Resistance man and the most highly decorated Norwegian ever, died May 10. His younger friends from the World War II Norwegian resistance movement said, “He died with his boots on.” This couldn’t be truer –  he advocated for peace all over Europe until the last few months before he died. “Number 24” was his code name given him by the British intelligence service SOE (Special Operations Executive) after he was trained as a paratrooper and saboteur in England during the war and “Kjakan” (The Chin) was the code name he gave himself, or more properly  “Umulius Kjakebråten” – a nickname almost impossible to translate to English in a proper way, but it was something like “impossible” or “hopeless” (for umulius) and “cheek” or “jaw” (kjake) and “burned clearing” (bråten).

Now that he is dead, historians are allowed to open his large private archives from the war about him and fellow resistance friends from World War II, and we expect to find lots of important information. If you want to find more facts about this hero in Norwegian history look him up at the net and you will find a great deal of information. You can also read his book “Rapport fra Nr. 24” (published for the English language market as Report from Number 24), which is his report from the war-time Norway. Read more about him at several Norwegian websites and in English on Wikipedia.

From the U.S., Sønsteby received the Medal of Freedom with silver palm, the United States Special Operations Command Medal and the Association of Former Intelligence Officers Freedom Award. He was also awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s culture award and the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce’s Norwegian-American Achievement Award. Sønsteby also received honor from several allied countries.

Gunnar Sønsteby was head of the “Oslogjengen” (The Oslo Gang) and operated as saboteur with Max Manus, among several others. Sønsteby was the leader of many sabotage actions during World War II, and operated under several cover names. It wasn’t until the end of the war that the German Gestapo (German security police) learned his real identity. Sønsteby was never arrested by the Germans, but he knew they did all they could to locate him. But his best cover was that he was so “average” looking and could operate without creating attention. He also moved from place to place in Oslo all the time and changed his names and identity on a regular basis.

During the fall of 1945 (three months after World War II), Sønsteby moved to Boston, Mass., to matriculate in an executive Master’s degree program in Executive Management at Harvard Business School and started just thereafter working the Norwegian Government located in New York. He later moved to the Norwegian paper pulp company Saugbrugsforeningen in Halden, Norway, and served as Head of Personnel Services. Later he became the company’s vice president and was so until 1968. He became vice president with responsibility for oil production at Aker, later Philips Petroleum and Getty Oil Company, the last years as General Manager for Norway. He retired from the business life in 1988.

I first met him at the beginning of 1989 in my office when I worked for he Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry. His mission was to convince me to accept the appointment as honorary business representative for state of Minnesota. I was not even asked at that point if I could accept the position, but since Mr. Gunnar Sønsteby wanted me to say “yes” I was totally convinced already as he asked. This led me to 15 years of voluntary service for Minnesotans.

I met Sønsteby several times and we had good discussions on our mutual relations to the U.S. Sønsteby was a very nice person – soft-spoken, very positive and with a clear view on the need for continued focus on democratic values. He was a true citizen. He fought the war for democracy and he lectured thousands of times for students after the war about the need for daily democratic values. His soft and low voice made students sit in total silence when he with his background from the war focused respect and democracy instead of suspiciousness and hate.

Now it is close to two years since the last time I spoke with Gunnar Sønsteby. He was very interested in my connection to U.S. universities and encouraged me to continue to work for strong relations between the U.S. and Norway. I will miss the personal connection I had with him, and I was also fortunate to have met Max Manus several times – men Norway is proud of!

Steinar Opstad, born 1941 in Sarpsborg, Norway, is the retired Vice President of the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry. During his career, he was an educator and communicator with positions as a journalist, editor, teacher, and professor. He has a Ph.D. and Hon. Litt. D. from the University of North Dakota. He is the author of several professional books. He is also the founder of the American College of Norway in Moss, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.