Walking in the Footprints – Napoleon Part 2

Napoleon’s stories are present in nearly every corner of Europe, including the corners we walked before our visit to Waterloo.

The crowd which follows me with admiration, would run with the same eagerness were I marching to the Guillotine. – Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, eschewing the pre-French Revolution coronation in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. David was commissioned to paint the coronation and completed the now famous painting in 1808.  The painting is on display today at the Louvre in Paris.We visited the Paris Notre Dame Cathedral in 2002. We also visited the Reims cathedral in both 2002 and 2012.

Paris 2002 Notre DameNotre Dame Cathedral – Paris 2002
photoNotre Dame Cathedral – Reims 2012
photoThe famous smiling angel on the Reims Cathedral in 2012.
Reims Cathedral in 2002Reims Cathedral in 2002
The Smiling Angel in 2002

The Smiling Angel in 2002

The Treaty of Amiens of 1802 was signed in Amiens, France that forged a temporary peace between France, Great Britain, Spain, and the Batavian Republic, one of the precursors to modern-day Germany. Napoleon’s brother Jonathan Bonaparte signed the agreement for France, as Napoleon himself left Amiens to add the title of president of the newly acquired northern Italy. Amiens is home to one of the largest Cathedrals in the world and also the tomb of Jules Verne. We visited both in June 2012 on our tour of France.

photoNotre Dame Cathedral – Amiens 2012
The Grave of Jules Verne

During Napoleon’s reign of Spain, his plan was to have his brother Joseph develop a Champs Elysées-style boulevard in Madrid. Today the Plaza de Oriente remains as the primary remnant of that era. Napoleon’s plans to remake Madrid in Paris’s image did not come to fruition as his empire began to unravel.This square just east of the Plaza de Oriente, was also designed at the time of Joseph Bonaparte. I visited Madrid on business in 2008. Unlike his brother, Joseph Bonaparte was successful in getting to America and by this account lived a quiet life in suburban New Jersey prior to returning to France.

Telefonica Spain 068

Napoleon entered Russia with an army of 450,00. When we left in 1812, he exited with only 40,000. The decisive defeat lead to Napoleon’s first exile to Elba in 1814.The Anichkov Bridge in St. Petersburg, Russia by legend includes a back-handed monument to the defeat of Napoleon. The bridge includes four sculptures of horses being tamed. The pictured horse has a profile of a human face said to be Napoleon on it’s genitalia.

St Petersburg Bridge

Napoleon ordered the Arc De Triomphe to be built in 1806 to commemerate the 1805 victory by the French army at Austerlitz. Construction on the Arc was halted after Napoleon abdicated the throne, between 1814 and 1826. The Arc was completed in 1836, fifteen years after Napoleon’s death.

Paris 2002 Arc Triomph
Arc De Triomphe in 2002

Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon attempted to reach a America, but was intercepted and arrested by the British. Napoleon died in 1821 while in exile on the south Atlantic island of St. Helena. His body was returned to France in 1840 and was entombed in it’s current tomb in 1861 at Les Invalides in Paris. Napoleon’s son’s, Napoleon II, tomb was also moved to be on display in the great chamber when Hitler ruled France in 1940.

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleon’s Tomb Les Invalides 2002

napoleonII 2002Napoleon II’s Tomb Les Invalides 2002

Our earliest encounter with Napoleon’s footprints is in our home state of Minnesota. Minnesota was part of the Louisiana Territory. French influence is still evident today. The Minnesota state motto is the French phrase “L’Étoile du Nord,” meaning the Star of the North. The French Voyaguers traded furs across northwest territories over the 17th century. Napoleon had hoped to establish Haiti as the center of his new world empire, with Louisiana providing the natural resources. Napoleon’s needed to raise money to pay France’s war debts. Thomas Jefferson sent his emmissary to France in 1803 to hopefully purchase a portion of the Mississippi basin. When Napoleon offered to sell the entire territory for $15M, Jefferson immediately said yes without consulting congress. 

Napoleon’s legacy is complicated. The French still feel national pride in Napoleon’s legacy of conquest and his implementation of individual rights, the French Civil or Napoleonic code. The principal tenet of the Civil Code was that every French person was equal before the law.  To the rest of Europe, Napoleon’s legacy is one of the senseless bloodshed of millions and further complicated by the suppression of slaves in Haiti and ruthless police tactics and censorship to protect his regime.

One can only wonder if Napoleon had visited and explored the Louisiana territory how history may have changed. You can’t tell me that had Napoleon took Josephine on holiday to a lake in Minnesota and  watched the sun, that the Little Emperor may have viewed life a bit differently. 🙂


Chocolate, Waffles and Waterloo – Napoleon Part 1


So ended the 2014 World Cup run for the United States US Men’s Soccer team. The build up to the big game involved getting back in touch with our Belgian friends Olivia and Pascal. We exchanged a few friendly barbs in anticipation of the big game, as I wondered why Prince Harry was playing for Belgium and he shared a meme of Captain America being defeated by a Red Devil. (The Red Devils is the unofficial nick-name of the Belgian national team.) Besides chocolate, waffles and fries, Belgium is perhaps most famous for being the home of Waterloo. It was at Waterloo where even Tim Howard couldn’t save “The Little Emperor” Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1815. We were fortunate to visit the Waterloo battlefield site with Olivia in 2012.

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily. – Napoleon Bonaporte

Modern day Waterloo is a suburb of Brussels with a population of just under 30,000. The Waterloo battlefield and working farms on the edge of the city offered a nice change of pace in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Brussels.  The Waterloo Battlefield site is a tourist destination, offering tours of the battlefield, an interpretive center, wax museum, and views from the top of the Lion’s mound.

The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies. – Napoleon

226 steps lead to the top of Butte du Lion or the Lion’s Mound. The monument was ordered to be built by the King of the Netherlands at what was thought to be the exact spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded. The mound was constructed from the dirt where the actual battle took place.  The view from on high offered an awesome perspective of where the sides approached one another.


photo Clare & Olivia at the top of the Lion’s Mound

photo photo

Tourists packed into the rear of this modified truck to take in a guided tour experience. Pre-recorded audio in French, and sometimes English, attempted to provide a retelling of how Napoleon was out-manned and out-maneuvered by the 7th Coalition.Today the battlefield remains as working farm fields, as it was in 1815. As the tour progress, it was apparent crossing the field roads that the vehicle had little suspension, giving the passengers an unexpected roller coaster ride for their money.

photo photo
photo photo

At the top of Lion’s Mound and elsewhere on the grounds battlefield maps assist visitors envision how the lines advanced on that fateful day.

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A Statue of Napoleon and a monument to the men who died at the Battlefield Site.

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The upper level of the interpretive center was a 360-degree panorama of a painting similar to French painter’s Clément-Auguste Andrieux’s Battle of Waterloo. Simulated audio, complete with bugles, gunfire, explosions, and the pounding of horse hoofs surrounded the room for effect.

photo photo

The battlefield site also houses a wax museum, showcasing the military attire of the day and also a death mask taken of Napoleon after his death in exile at St. Helena.

photo photo

The Waterloo Battlefield only tells the story of Napoleon’s final military defeat. Napoleon’s stories are present in nearly every corner of Europe, including the corners we walked before our visit to Waterloo.

Grave Encounters

Americans are fascinated by how steeped in history European countries are in comparison to the United States. The buildings are not decades, but hundreds of years old. The signature design of most cities includes a medieval old city at the center. The city grew around its medieval center, keeping the rich history and remembrance of the past. The old buildings are kept intact no matter how dark and dank the building may be, as it is part of the history and part of the present all at once. Intertwined with the rich attachment to the past is the presence of the dearly departed. Cemeteries, pantheons, sarcophagus’s, and tombs are everywhere. In historic buildings, in churches, in neighborhood cemeteries, the departed are never far away, part of the past and present all at once. In our travels, we sought out the final resting places of a few of history’s notable people, but also came across others by surprise!

The Lizard King

The grave of Jim Morrison’s is perhaps the most famous grave site of an American found outside the United States. We visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 2002 and sought out the grave of the legendary front man for the classic rock group The Doors. In the grand scheme of history and culture, fellow luminaries interred at Père Lachaise Oscar Wilde and Frederic Chopin offered more cultural significance, but for some reason Jim Morrison’s grave is the magnet that draws in people from all walks of life. It is the only grave in with Père Lachaise constant security and visitors pay their respects with flowers, cigarettes, pieces of clothing and in other non-traditional ways.

There was an undeniable vibe around the grave site. While we visited, there were ten to 20 people gathered around, all of us under watchful eye of a nearby security guard. I wasn’t sure how long one should pay homage to the Lizard King, but after snapping a few shots and taking in the scene, it was time to move on. Père Lachaise was a bit too confusing for us to find the graves of Chopin or Oscar Wilde, but I could cross visiting Jim Morrison’s grave off my bucket list.

Jim Morrison’s Grave – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002

The Emperor 

The Invalides of Paris today serves as the French military museum. It houses monuments and museums, but is renown for being the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is entombed in a red quartzite sarcophagus in a primary atrium. The enomority of Napoleon’s legacy was on full display as it was a shoulder to shoulder, capacity crowd in the atrium on our visit in 2002. Several of Napoleon’s family who commanded under him are also entombed in the Invalides, including his son, Napoleon II.

Napoleon is one of the icons of world history. On the International stage, his legacy is mixed. Napoleon is credited for breaking the back of the Roman Empire, breaking the cycle of feudalism in Europe and to Americans he sold us Louisiana! He also rejected democracy in France by establishing himself as Emperor, quelled a slave rebellion in Haiti, led France into costly wars, and finally left his country bankrupt and barren of her colonies.

With his defeat in Belgium at Waterloo, Napoleon was deposed for the last time until his death in 1821. The Waterloo monument wax museum displays a wax mold taken of Napoleon following his death.

(Fore shadow for future post. 🙂 )

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleons Tomb – 2002


Waterloo – 2012

Napoleon II Tomb – 2002

Jules Verne

In 2012 as we mapped out our journey from Normany to Champagne in France, my wife suggested we take the route through the city of Amiens to see the renown Cathedral, but to also find the grave of the famous science fiction writer Jules Verne. The guidebooks listed the remarkable stonework and design of the tomb as the second highlight of Ameins. I was game for the adventure as Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite classic novels.

As I’ve chronicled in past posts, our ability to get from point a to point b is largely limited to our GPS and the information we feed into it. The guidebook listed the incorrect address for the cemetery, but somehow, someway we found the cemetery. The cemetery was located on the fringes between a residential area and the business part of the city, much like one would be located in the United States. We did not see a legend or map of the cemetery available, so we just started walking, and walking, and walking.

There was no sign of Jules Verne’s grave anywhere. Then as we took a turn to make our way out of the cemetery, there it was. This most unique tomb, fit for the godfather of science fiction. The sculpture adorning his tomb illustrates an image of Verne himself pushing aside the slab to emerge from the grave!


Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012


Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

Normandy Cemetery

Visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy is a moving experience. I considered it my patriotic duty to visit the cemetery and found myself on a whole other journey following the discovery of a grave marker for Albin B Hagen.


American Cemetery – Normandy, France – 2012


Grave of Unknown Soldier – Normandy, France – 2012


Grave of Pvt. Albin B. Hagen, Normandy, France – 2012

Christopher Columbus

The massive cathedrals of Europe are often the final resting place for esteemed clergy, bishops, cardinals and even saints. It was in the cathedral in Seville, Spain where we stumbled across the tomb of another historic icon. Seville’s cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest in the world! (Just what is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and any other cathedral, we’ll get to that in a later post.)

As we made our way through the cathedral, there was an usually large crowd gathered around a very impressive monument. I listened in to an English speaking tour guide speaking to a crowd of American students to see what was going on. I have to admit I had not done any homework on the Cathedral and what were going to see. I was amazed as I overheard the guide’s description that this monument was actually the tomb of Christopher Columbus!

Well, at least the tomb contains part of Christopher Columbus. Many claim that Columbus is buried in the Dominican Republic. However, the curators of the Cathedral point to Columbus’s remains being moved from Santo Domingo in 1795 to Havana when the Spanish lost control of the Dominican Republic, with the remains coming back to Spain in 1895. The tomb may only contain part of Christopher Columbus, but I am still amazed.

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

Tomb of Cardinal Juan de Cervantes, Seville Cathedral – 2013

Signs, Signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

I found the French autoroute system to be remarkable. The road ways were pristine, even with manicured medians and ditches. The system is every bit the equal of the United States Interstate system, complete with 120km/h (approximately 75mph) speed limits and dedicated rest stops comparable to the overhead oasis rest stops we from the Midwest would find enroute to Chicago on I-90/I-94. Our travels took us nearly exclusively from the South of France, through the Loire Valley, Normandy, and Champagne on the autoroute system. I can say that it was a treat to drive on such nicely maintained and convenient roads. Despite the wonderful driving experience, there was something missing. There was not a commercial billboard or advertisement sign to be found along the autoroute, not even a “McDonald’s ahead” sign.

Courtesy Web Photo

We inquired of one of our hosts if the French were just big fans of the 1970 classic Five Man Electrical Band song Signs or if there was something else at work. 🙂 As it was explained to us, commercial billboards and/or commercial signage are forbidden along the autoroutes. Commercial signage is found along the French roadside, but usually at the city or village boundary lines. There appears to be considerable debate within France about signage and billboards in general “blockin’ out the scenery.” The Five Man Electrical Band may have figurative with the concern for signs blocking the scenery, many in France are literal with their debate. Signs block nature, the people in France want to see nature and assume that tourists also want to see nature and not signs.

Don’t let me description of the autoroutes mislead you. There were standard road signs along the way displaying the same things that one sees on US Interstates. Speed limits, exits, distances to upcoming destinations, auto stops ahead, and of course my favorite “peage” (yes, the tolls ahead). The only other type of sign were the striking tourist attraction signs intermittently spread along the way. It should not be surprising that in a country known for art, even roadside information signs appeared to be a work of art on their own. Each sign highlighted an attraction in the region.

(Photos courtesy Google Images)

My thoughts wandered about how nice it would be for a tourism driven state like Minnesota to place signs such as these along Interstate 94 to highlight the Lake Wobegon Trail, Original Mainstreet, or a sportsman’s paradise near Alexandria. Very cool.

 “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” – Charles Kuralt,

Maybe Charles Kuralt was on to why we in the United States do not seem to mind that signs are blocking out our scenery. There isn’t much to see along our Interstate routes. Maybe it is the signs that keep us sane on long road trips across barren land. Who could imagine driving for four or five hours on an Interstate anywhere in the country and not see signage for a McDonald’s ahead? Families pass the time on road trips playing travel bingo, alphabet game or “I Spy” using every piece of signage available. Signs, commercial or otherwise are something we simply don’t think that much about. They are just there.

A visit to the Black Hills in South Dakota show how signs actually become part of the experience. It all begins with the “Welcome to South Dakota” sign as you enter on I-90. Then the kitschy and fun Wall Drug signs start to grab your attention. Where in the heck is Wall Drug? Do they really offer free ice water? 5-cent coffee must be really bad. Then there is this quirky Corn Palace. The signs pointed the way to the Corn Palace ahead as well. Once you make it past Mitchell, Wall and the Badlands, the end destination comes into focus, Mount Rushmore. Signs pointing where the Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” was filmed escort you to the monument, then the climatic final sign welcoming you to the monument.

With two quick vibrating blasts from my mobile phone, we were there. We crossed the border into Belgium. We were driving from Northern France North en route to Brussels. I wasn’t expecting a large “Free Ice Water in Belgium” sign, but may be a sign at the border with a simple “Welcome to Belgium,” “Bienvenue en Belgique,” or “Welkom in België.” As it turns out, only good old Verizon welcomed us to Belgium…and that was merely a kind reminder that International roaming data rates are obscenely expensive. How anti-climatic.

Finding Private Hagen – Post Script

My Finding Private Hagen series highlighted the service of Private Albin Hagen whom was killed in France during World War II. Private Hagen was a member of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) whom was comprised of Norwegian American and Norwegian troops who were purposed to liberate Norway from the Nazis. I recently watched an impressive DVD that told the story of the 99th from their formation at Camp Ripley, MN, to their mountain training in Camp Hale, CO all the way through the Battle of the Bulge and the eventual return to Norway by King Hakkon. The DVD includes vintage footage and provides a historical context for the contributions of the 99th. The highlight of the production is the interviews with surviving members of the 99th. Hearing first hand accounts of how the 99th fought to their breaking point in Malmedy in the Ardennes and how they were welcomed into Norway as heroes brought both smiles and tears…sometimes simultaneously.  I highly recommend the DVD for not only those with interest in the 99th and for the World War II history buff.

For more information on the DVD, visit the website dedicated to the 99th: http://www.99battalion.org/index_files/Page1452.htm


The story of:

99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)


Getting There

“Kids, Big Ben, Parliament….again”

Everyone who has ever traveled has had a Griswold moment at some point, whether they are at home or abroad. The combination of air travel, sleep deprivation and simply being in a strange country will make Griswolds out of the best of us. Some of us more than once.


Narrow, hilly streets in a Lozere village.

We were traveling to a small village in the Southern French department of Lozerein June 2012. Our plans included flying through Paris to a smaller regional airport in Claremont-Ferrand which was approximately an hour and a half from our bed and breakfast in that sphotomall village of Le Villard. Understanding that this was a small village, we took it in stride that the GPS in our rental car was unable to find the address of the B&B in its database.We did what we thought was the next best thing and entered an address in Le Malzieuville, the next village over, hoping there would be road signs or something that would lead us to our destination. It had been a few years, say ten or eleven, since I had driven a car with manual transmission. I was riding the clutch hard, but doing alright, only killing it a few times in lower gear through the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets of Le Malzieuville. We may have only drove around the village for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour. A long night of flying and a four hour layover in Paris had left both us dazed and confused as we searched for any sign of “Le Villard.” Finally we conceded defeat and stopped for directions in a park where an older couple happened to be sitting. My wife got out, explained our situation. (My wife speaks both French and Spanish and I speak neither. Therefore she got the job of admitting we were lost.) My wife contended that not only could the old couple have been not been more nice and we happened to be only a few kilometers away from our destination! Great news indeed!


The nice old farmer who helped us out.


Our B&B.

As we found Le Villard, saying it was tiny, would be overestimating its stature. First glance provided us with a view of three, maybe four houses and one farm, but no sign for the bed and breakfast. Where else was there to drive to? The only road into the village ended up in a farmyard. We were left thinking how can we be lost in a village the size of a backyard?? We were again fortunate that a local was out and about. This gentlemen appeared to be the farmer and an old one at that. My wife explained to him that we’ve been driving all over and could not find the bed and breakfast. I assumed that we had taken yet another wrong turn and would be heading back to the main road. As my wife got back into the car, she had quite a different message. We were a mere 50 feet away from our destination. We had passed the bed and breakfast…twice, and by golly there was a sign on the building with the name of the bed and breakfast. After hearing our story of driving all over the next town and the countryside looking for the bed and breakfast. The old farmer, like all old farmers I’ve ever met, shared a nice bit of wisdom with wife, “at least you were able to see more of Lozere.” Indeed we had.

Fast forward to one year later and we move on to Spain. Our arrival story had a very familiar Griswold-theme. We were due to arrive in Malaga at approximately 4pm local time, after a connecting flight in Paris. The plan was to arrive in the city, pick up some food and water, hit our hotel sleep the night and start experiencing Andalucia right away in the morning. Our plans were thrown a bit of curveball due to a three-day French air traffic controller strike. Our flight into Malaga from Paris was delayed four hours, pushing our arrival time to after 8pm. At least our flight wasn’t cancelled. We fared far better than many other travelers we witnessed at the Charles de Gaulle Paris airport. It was not a great start for our travels, but not a catastrophe.The reviews of the Ibis Cuidad Centro Malaga hotel on Trip Advisor completed it as a nice and affordable hotel, but hard to find. Learning from our previous experience, I pre-configured our own GPS with the hotel’s coordinates and even printed a Google map to use as a back up. When we arrived and were picking up the rental car, the experience could not have been more pleasant. The gentleman behind the counter didn’t try to pressure us into buying the collision insurance and offered the option to upgrade our rental for 80 Euros. 80 Euros not only gave us the next size up in car, it was an automatic. It was red and it was a Mercedes. He had us at “it is an automatic,” but a Mercedes B-series was icing on the cake. Things were looking up for a smooth journey to our hotel.

Our Chariot

Our Chariot

We stopped at a nearby supermarket for some food and water, the drove towards the hotel in Malaga’s city center. Our GPS was doing well and it was not yet dark, and off the left our left we spotted our hotel across a


The pedestrian bridge to our hotel.

large aqueduct that ran right through the heart of the city. As I was looking for a left turn or roundabout, the GPS told us to go right, so we went right. There must be some turn off that will take us across the aqueduct. As we snaked through the narrow streets, we were going in the wrong direction and further and further away from our hotel. We knew we were off course when the GPS took us right back to the spot where it told us to turn right. And guess which direction it told us to turn? You guessed it. Right. Which direction did we turn. Yes. Right again. And if you are following along, where do you think the GPS took us to this time? If you guess that it took us back in a circle to the exact same spot, you would be correct. We could see bridges over the aqueduct ahead and attempted to take a different turn here or there on the subsequent attempts (Yes there were more than two or three) to find some magical turn that we missed to get towards the bridges. The bridges were a mere mirage, as they were in fact pedestrian bridges and we circled around to end up at the exact same spot again and again. It was now pitch dark, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We needed to get to the left, but could not. We were the Griswold’s….again.

“..there’s Big Ben…Parliament..again. Why can’t I go left..”

After a few tense moments, we regrouped to take a left turn prior to the aqueduct and most likely committed the first of many moving violations in Spain. We managed to snake through a new set of narrow streets in the dark to find an Ibis Hotel, but it was not our Ibis. My wife managed to talk to the parking garage attendant of this Ibis who was quite animated in conversing with me wife. From my point of view, I wasn’t sure if he was angry or trying to be helpful. Regardless, his gestures were unmistakable. He was pointing for us to park our car there. Then he marched his two fore fingers on his hand and pointed to building a block or so away, in some attempt to tell us to walk in that direction. My wife confirmed that we were to park there and the building in the near distance was in fact our hotel. I was sick to my stomach and ready to pass out, but once again thanks to a total stranger in a strange land, we at last found our hotel.

The wit and wisdom of the old farmer from Lozere was lost on two cranky and exhausted travelers from Minnesota. We were just thankful that there was no more of Malaga for us to see that night.

Finding Private Hagen Part III – Hardship, Tragedy and a Remarkable Legacy

The legacy of Albin Bernard Hagen is far more than a grave marker and an official government record. Albin Hagen was the second child and the oldest of 11 boys born to Ditlof and Anna Hagen. Albin Hagen’s short life of 35 years was marked by hardship and tragedy. Ditlof was a farm hand who bounced from farm to farm picking up whatever he could from 1908 through the 1920s. Albin was born June 13, 1909 in Carpio, North Dakota. From Albin’s birth on, the family moved over and over again to live on the various farmsteads where Ditlof was able to find work. Ditlof finally gave up on North Dakota and moved the family back to Minnesota in late 1920s. Interesting enough, the large size of the family dictated that some children had to make the move via car, others by train.

Albin was married to Mildred Anderson in 1937. Albin and Mildred’s life was touched by tragedy in December 1938 with their son LeRoy dying shortly after birth. I can’t imagine anything worse than losing a child, but Albin may have experienced just that. His wife Mildred passed away from pneumonia the following March, less than four months after losing their baby.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stirred the greatest generation into service with his immortal words that December 7, 1941 was “a date that will live in infamy.” The sons of Ditlof Hagen not only were stirred into service, but provided a record of remarkable service that is unmatched.  An incredible find from the Saturday, December 11, 1954 edition of the Fergus Falls Daily Journal offers a glimpse into the remarkable legacy of the Ditlof Hagen family. (Click on images to read. PDF Format)

Fergus Falls Daily Journal page 1

Fergus Falls Daily Journal Page 3




Ten of Ditlof and Anna’s sons served in the US Military from Albin down to the youngest Twins Gaylord and Gordon. One son, middle son Carl, was not called into service, remarking that he felt discriminated against because he did not serve his country.

As a group, the legacy of service by the Ditlof Hagen family is unmatched. Stories of tragedy, service and sacrifice such as those of PFC Albin B Hagen’s story are woven tight into the American experience. The children of immigrants proudly served their country overseas. Those who did return home provided generation of leadership that is sorely missed to this day by this country.

Tom Brokaw very eloquently described the generation that grew up in poverty and hardship who went on to serve in World War II in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation,

“it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” His premise was that “these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. When they came back they rebuilt America into a superpower.”

At the end of the journey that started with a random turn and a remarkable find in the American Cemetery at Normandy, there is no doubt in my mind that the story of PFC Albin B Hagen and the legacy of the Ditlof Hagen family is indeed one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

I want to thank my aunt Sheila for providing me with her personal copy of the The Hagen/Holm Family History published in the late 1980s that allowed me to finish this journey.

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.


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.

saving private hagen 1

The Official Record from the American Battle Monuments Commission website.



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.


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……

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.


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


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


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.


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.