Movie scenes of World War II combat are real experiences and vivid memories for Whidbey Islander Web Halvorsen, who is celebrating his 100th birthday on Sept. 28.
The son of Norwegian immigrant parents, Halvorsen is reticent to talk about his honors. Wounded in battle twice, Halvorsen is the recipient of two Purple Heart medals, four campaign Bronze Stars, the French Medal of Honor and an Infantry Combat Badge. He awaits the French Legion of Honor for service in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
Of all the events of his life, Halvorsen cites his marriage to his wife Marion as the biggest change. Both were born in Chicago and met at Lake Geneva, Wis. Web and Marion were close as young adults, but Web didn’t think it was appropriate to consider marriage with war looming.
After the war, both married other partners, but their spouses died. Web later sought out Marion, walking into her quilt shop near Green Bay, asking “Do you remember me?” They were married in 1990.
“I got an instant family with Marion’s two children, a boy and a girl, three grandsons, and three great grand-daughters,” he says.
The Halvorsens have spent much of their time together traveling to all the continents except Australia and Antarctica, on all forms of transport. One trip Halvorsen remembers most is an excursion boat trip up the Amazon River. They’ve lived at a house on the water at Mutiny Bay for 24 years.
Halvorsen was a college student in Minnesota in 1941. While preparing to enlist in the Navy, he got a draft notice. He finished Army basic training in Louisiana, advancing to staff sergeant. After more training in California, he went by convoy to England.
Ironically, and unknown to one another, Halvorsen’s older brother, Don, was on a separate ship in the same convoy. The brothers met again during artillery practice in Wales, in Normandy and as American forces moved into northern France.
Halvorsen landed at Utah Beach as part of the D-Day invasion, in the Army’s 6th Armored Infantry Division under Gen. George Patton’s Third Army Command. Halvorsen’s battalion was assigned to capture Hill 105, overlooking the town of Brest on the Brittany Peninsula.
During close combat, Halvorsen was wounded by shrapnel from a German grenade. He returned to his unit just as the commander was preparing to list him as missing. Halvorsen stayed in action through the Brittany campaign. He still has a Russian-made knife that he took from a German soldier during the battle.
In December 1944, Halvorsen’s unit went to northern France.
“It was 18 below, with two-to-three feet of snow,” he says. “We lost almost as many to frostbite as to battle. I kept an extra pair of heavy socks in my helmet liner.”
Germans sent in a paratroop battalion dressed in American uniforms, “and that caused a lot of confusion.” Web says he once snared a shabbily dressed soldier. “After he admitted he was German, I sent him back.”
Halvorsen’s unit became part of the Battle of the Bulge, named for the huge concentration of German forces around Bastogne.
“Moving through the woods, my rifle jammed and I made the mistake of not getting out of the way fast enough,” he says.
Hit in the right lung, Halvorsen praises “a really good doctor who used a glider” to fly to the front. He spent the next year in recovery.
“Just like the movie, I had my own band of brothers,” says Web.
His war exploits are memorialized in the book, “Five GI’s in Battle – World War II,” by George Wirth.
Upon discharge, Halvorsen went to California, where he was involved in another 20th Century development.
“I worked for an appliance store that was one of the first to get televisions with a 7-inch screen,” he recalls. “To make a sale, I’d promise to do the installation. I’d be up on the roof adjusting the antenna, talking to someone below on a two-way radio.”
Halvorsen remembers the advent of broadcasting. “We first had a crystal radio that had to be tuned just right to hear anything. It was completely amazing. Later my family got a cabinet set powered by a car battery.”
He attended the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, recalling the exhortation to “ask what you can do for your country.” Web got a personal 97th birthday greeting from Barack and Michelle Obama. Concerned about current political turmoil, “we’ve had it before and we’ll get through it,” he says.
Halvorsen learned about Whidbey while working as a salesman in Seattle.
The Halvorsens have a large screen TV, but no computer or cell phone.
“Something went wrong with the phone and we just never replaced it,” says Marion, 98. “We didn’t need the computer.”
She also observes that “it’s not easy getting your driver’s license renewed after age 95.” But Web says, “I’d still like to get behind the wheel of my truck.”
Halvorsen likes fishing and hunting. In Alaska, he shot the moose hanging in the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club. At the Mutiny Bay house, “you can fish for salmon right out the front,” he says.