Finding Private Hagen – Part II The Search

Simply stumbling upon the marker had to be more than coincidence. The gentleman sitting next to me on my flight home from France agreed, remarking “there was a reason why you were there.”  The thoughts of the potential familial relationships sent chills down my spine. Could he be my Grandfathers cousin? Brother?? Or maybe it really was only a coincidence and I was not related at all.

My search uncovered the harsh realities of the sacrifices made by immigrants who come to this country in search of a better life.  Family relations of Norwegian immigrants who came to this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s seemed disconnected. Times were tough in America in the years after they arrived. Close knit family ties were difficult to be re-established as the new immigrants were in the new world away from the traditional family foundation of parents and ancestors. The new world didn’t shield the newcomers from the troubles of their former world either. Immigrants’ fresh off the boat were put into service and shipped off to Europe to fight for their new country in World War I. The Great Depression also ravaged newly established families in the United States. Teenage boys who could withstand the rigors of hard work were forced to leave home to find work and fend for themselves. The Hagen side of my family fits into this category, as I have little or no recollection of any of my Grandfather’s extended family. I knew very little. I knew that my Grandfather’s family was large and he had to leave home at a young age due to the Great Depression. The only salient fact I knew about the extended Hagen family that assisted in the search was that they settled in the Vining, MN area in Otter Tail County when they arrived from Norway. Internet searches for Albin B. Hagen provided some keys that he also likely hailed from Otter Tail County. There had to be a link somewhere.

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PFC Hagen’s grave marker provided me with a clue to one of the richest finds of my search. He was attached to the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate). As a “Separate” unit, the 99th was not attached to a brigade or a conventional Army division. It was a unit with special training and mission.  The 99th was established by President Roosevelt in 1942, at the bequest of Churchill, to be a unit comprised of first or second generation Norwegian immigrants fluent in the Norwegian language with the mission of being on the ground Special Forces units to go behind enemy lines in Norway should the invasion of Europe happen in Norway. The unit was assembled in Camp Ripley, MN in 1942 and completed their training in Camp Hale, Colorado, where they received intense ski and winter combat training. The specialized services of the 99th were not called upon by the Allies. The 99th had to wait to return to the land of their fathers, as the Allies targeted the beaches of Normandy and the rest is history.

The search turned fascinating declassified military reports that listed the activities of the 99th in Europe. The 99th was not included in the D-Day invasion, they arrived Ste. Pierre du Mont in France on June 22, 1944. I read the report, and then read it again. This time typing Ste. Pierre du Mont in a Google Maps search to find out that the village is directly adjacent to Pointe-du-Hoc. We drove through Ste. Pierre du Mont on our way from Pointe-du-Hoc to Omaha Beach. Chills again went down my spine as I realized that we visited the very same village nearly 68 years to the day as PFC Hagen.

The 99th was seen as a bit of an 8-ball outfit by the established military units.They spoke with a funny dialect that sounded like German to the untrained ear. Their training was in winter combat, yet they were assigned to France in mop up duty after the initial invasion. Despite these obstacles, the 99th proved their mettle in some of the biggest European campaigns through 1944 and 1945, fighting in North France, Rhine, and Ardenne-Alsace campaigns. The 99th left their mark on the war at the Battle of Bulge in Malmedy, Belgium. Despite B Company being surrounded in the city for 22 days, the battalion defeated the 150th Panzer Brigade and held a key crossroads into the city for the month of January 1945.

In May of 1945 the war was winding down, Germany had surrendered and the 99th finally received their call to visit the land of their fathers. Three weeks later after the Germany surrender, the 99th marched into Oslo as liberators and served as the Guard of Honor for the return of King Haakon to Norway. The 99th disarmed and processed the 300,000 German soldiers who occupied Norway. The duty in Oslo had to go down in history as one of the greatest assignments of all time. Think about it. Hundreds of young men in their 20s and 30s in a land where they not only spoke the language, but were treated as heroes.  The members of the 99th were given generous leave to reconnect with family members still living in Norway and to “enjoy” the euphoria of post-war Europe in the land of their fathers. While no formal count was kept, many war brides were taken back to the States by the Battalion. To this day, the 99th is held in high regard by the Norwegian government who continues to honor surviving members. I found the story of the 99th fascinating and one that I had to repeat. I look forward to an upcoming book on the Battalion by Antoni Pisani, a Norwegian author, that is due to be published in 2012.

Unfortunately, PFC Albin B. Hagen did not accompany his brothers to Oslo. The 99th was called into its first heavy combat in Elbeuf, in Northern France in mid-August 1944 as the Allies were attempting to pinch German forces fleeing Caen. The 99th was called into be the hammer to trap the German forces against the Seinne River in Elbeuf on August 25th, 1944. The tables quickly turned on the 99th as enemy forces were well fortified in Elbeuf. Intelligence reports did not indicate that enemy tanks were on the ground in Elbeuf until it was too late. The 99th held their own until anti-tank aircraft neutralized the Germans and they were relieved of the assault by a Canadian unit. However the 99th had to retreat as A Company took heavy casualties on that day. Among the wounded was their commanding officer Lt. Col Turner, First Lieutenant Norman Berg, Faribault, MN resident Robert T. Bjorgum, and PFC Albin B Hagen. PFC Hagen died of his wounds on that day, was awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrifice and laid to rest with the other heroes at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer.

Message from a historian of the 99th.

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The Official Record from the American Battle Monuments Commission website.

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The search continued back in the United States for PFC Hagen. It’s amazing what you can find using Google and a few quotation marks. The first real ‘hit’ in find was a 2008 obituary for a Clinton J. Hagen from Pelican Rapids, MN (which is in Otter Tail County) who happened to have a brother who preceded him in death named Albin Hagen. Mr. Hagen was born in 1917, which put him in the age group of PFC Albin B. Hagen and my Grandfather. The details in Mr. Hagen’s obituary were scarce, but what was there piqued my interest. First of which was his first name, as also have a brother named Clinton. Mr. Hagen also was preceded in death by a son named Charles, which just happens to be my father’s name. Could it be pure coincidence that these names were in Mr. Hagen’s family? Or was it something deeper? I had to dive deeper into this lead.

Finding more information about Clinton J. Hagen was difficult. His parents’ names were not included in the obituary. That information would have been key to understanding if the Albin Hagen listed in the obituary was indeed PFC Hagen. As with my own family, it’s likely given the hardships faced by the immigrants of his generation; his children maybe never knew Mr. Hagen’s parents and extended family.  Perhaps one of Mr. Hagen’s survivors could point me in the right direction. I found a match for one of Clinton J. Hagen’s great-grandchildren on Facebook and typed out a message in an attempt to answer the burning questions in my mind since our visit to the cemetery in Normandy. Who is PFC Hagen? Where was he born? Did he have a family Is he related to me? Sending messages to strangers out of the blue asking these deep questions is awkward to put it mildly. The awkwardness is brought to a new level when it starts with “You don’t know me, but…” In this day and age of the Internet, such an attempt is destined for failure. I didn’t hear back from the grandchild and I can’t say as I blame the person for not replying. (If I end up on some sort of blacklist on Facebook, I’ll know who to blame for that.) This lead to find Private Hagen had run cold quickly.

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Ancestry.com is a wonderful tool for researching ones genealogy, but it is not free. I’d played around with a trial membership a few years ago, but resisted going down that route to find PFC Hagen. As my interest and curiosity to find Private Hagen was bordering on an obsession, I had to bite the bullet.

The family tree for my Grandpa Hagen was easily accessible on Ancestry. He was one of 14 children, with three brothers and ten sisters, born to Jakob and Elise Hagen. My Grandfather was the youngest of the boys, born in 1911 and an Albin Hagen was not listed as a sibling.  The next step was to move up the family tree to Jakob Hagen. Jakob Hagen was one of 12 children (10 boys and 2 girls) born to Jens Baardson Hagen in Norway. Ancestry’s records were incomplete for each sibling, but the search capabilities led me to family trees put together by others which provided more details on each of Jakob’s siblings. I continued to drill down the Jens family tree in order from oldest to youngest. The third record hit pay dirt. Ditlof Hagen resided and died in Otter Tail County. The records showed his oldest son Albin B. born in 1910 and a 1944 year of death. The further I drilled down on the Ditlof Hagen family, the more it was confirmed that I had found Private Hagen. Private Hagen was my Grandfather’s first cousin and thus my first cousin twice removed.

saving private hagen 2

The marker we had stumbled upon was indeed that of a relative. The questions of why did we stumble across this marker and where was this search going next were quickly answered with each mouse click and Google search into just who was Private Hagen. Private Albin B. Hagen was the oldest son born to Ditlof and Anna Hagen. His sacrifice to this country defined the legacy of a remarkable record service by the Ditlof Hagen family……

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Finding Private Hagen, Part I

Part I – The Visit

A visit to the beaches of Normandy, France is a humbling experience for all who walk in the footsteps of the watershed battle of the European Theatre of World War II. The raw emotion remains where 8,000 to 10,000 allied servicemen lost their lives in the D-Day invasion. In our recent visit to France, I insisted that we visit the beaches. I felt that it was my duty as an American to visit this hallowed ground and pay homage to the brave troops that secured freedom for so many. Little did I know that the visit was just the beginning of the journey.

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We arrived in Normandy on June 21 and stayed the night in Caen, the largest city in that part of France. 85% of Caen was destroyed during WWII. Caen is also home to the Caen Memorial, a museum dedicated to the remembrance of the war. The next morning we began our visit to the beaches by driving away from Caen to see the sites making our way back to our hotel. Our first stop was Ste. Mere-Eglise, a small city off the coast that is best known for the paratrooper dummy that currently hangs from the bell tower. The dummy hangs today as a monument to the Allied paratroopers who descended on Normandy hours before the shoreline invasion. John Steele was the paratrooper who was trapped by his parachute from the bell tower.

Ste. Mere-Eglise

From Ste. Mere-Eglise, we ventured to Utah Beach, which was one of two beaches that American troops landed on D-Day June 6, 1944. I found Utah Beach to be serene and beautiful. From the beach mound, barb wire keeps tourists out of restricted areas, but also provides the imagery of the shoreline defenses that our troops had to overcome. As I gazed into the horizon, my mind filled with the images of ships hovering off shore and imagining the landing of thousands of troops on to the very ground I was walking. Pointe-du-Hoc was the next stop down the coast from Utah Beach. Point-du-Hoc was attacked by the Allies to split the German defenses to prevent forces from Utah or Omaha beach to come to the aid of each other. One that fateful day the American forces scaled the striking 100-foot tall cliffs to take the position from the occupying force. At Pointe-du-Hoc I began to gain a feel for the battle, as the scars of war remain embedded in the landscape to this day. This small relatively small point into the English Channel is littered with craters from incessant bombing and happens to have the most intact display of German pillboxes and other fortifications on the beaches we visited. I consider it a must see for visitors to Normandy.

photoUtah Beach

photoPointe-du-Hoc

The brutality and horror of the battle at Omaha Beach was captured in the opening scenes of the epic film Saving Private Ryan. The five miles of Omaha Beach are lined with small, lazy villages. I also found Omaha Beach to be lined with contradictions. Omaha Beach appeared not only be a tourist destination, but as a place for locals to gather and enjoy the beach. The Hotel du Casino sits a feet from the beach at Vierville-sur-mer while fisherman trying their luck off the pier. Just down the road in St. Laurent-sur-mer, intermixed with the stoic war monuments, food trucks sold crepes, families played in the water; and a group of French folks were gathered along the Omaha Beach monument to enjoy the good weather and even broke into song. Processing the surreal scene where locals “hung out” on the very spot where thousands lost their lives left me a bit uneasy. Perhaps it was American arrogance providing me with fleeting thoughts that these people were not showing a proper amount of respect, or perhaps I was not able to understand how such an iconic place in our history and culture can coexist as a place for locals to can relax and hang out on a sunny afternoon.

photoOmaha Beach

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My uneasiness was quickly set to the side as we moved on to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer. The cemetery sits atop a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach and is the final resting place for over 9,000 U.S. troops who died during World War II. The vast rows of graves are marked by beautiful white marble Star of David and Latin cross markers in perfect alignment. Immediately upon entering the cemetery my stomach began to feel the gravity of the events of D-Day. This was not another random tourist attraction; this was something much bigger, much more intense.

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American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer

In the cemetery I felt a vibe that appeared to be shared by other visitors, which can best described as solemn, but peaceful. The waves crashing into the beach below and breeze blowing through the trees provided a natural white noise soundtrack that lulled even the loudest of Americans into a state of quiet reflection, reluctant to talk above a whisper. The cemetery is separated into twelve plots, six on each side separated by a center pathway. We initially strolled down the center pathway at apprehensive pace, not sure where to start or how to begin. We walked about half way through the first plots when I suddenly gestured to my wife to go down a random row of markers on our left. The white marble markers appeared more beautiful in person than in pictures. The names, date of death, military attachment, and State of origin for each of the fallen have been preserved immaculately over the years, showing no signs of weathering. The first image that struck me was a rose adorn grave of the unknown. I thought about a family for all these years that did not have the peace of knowing where and when their loved one was put to rest. As I was snapping a picture of this marker, my wife called out “hey there is a Minnesota grave and hey…..it is a Hagen!!” I immediately walked a few paces down to check out the marker and low and behold there lied PFC. ALBIN B. HAGEN from Minnesota!

photo The Discovery!

We continued our cemetery visit, all the while my natural instincts wondering “is this person related to me?” That evening I entered a quick Google search on Private Hagen to see what I could find. A military database pulled up PFC Hagen as hailing from Otter Tail County in Minnesota, the very same county where my late Grandpa Hagen was born. We were still in France and didn’t have the Internet access or computing power to investigate any further, but lingering thoughts danced in my head throughout the rest of our vacation. Just what led us down that random row? There had to be a reason that we stumbled upon this grave among the 9,000 other graves at the cemetery. Just who was PFC Hagen? Were we related? The only thing that was clear, was that my mission to find Private Hagen had begun.