On Saturday, October 23, 1999, a large group of U.S. Air Force, Swedish and Norwegian leaders and friends gathered at the grave site of Air Force Colonel Bernt Balchen (18991973) in Arlington National Cemetery. An invitation had been extended by the Washington lodge of the Sons of Norway to honor this Norwegian American on what would have been his 100th birthday.
The centerpiece for the unusual centennial ceremony was a symbolic gravestone designed by Balchen’s widow, Audrey. Engraved on the front of the stone are the pilot wings of the Norwegian and U.S. air forces. On the back are Balchen’s own words: “Today goes fast and tomorrow is almost here. Maybe I have helped a little in the change. So I go on to the next adventure looking to the future but always thinking back to the past, remembering my teammates and the lonely places I have seen that no man ever saw before.”
Bernt Balchen’s name is well known by airmen for his daring air rescues in the Arctic. In his native Norway, he is also remembered for operating a clandestine airline to evacuate Norwegian soldiers and American airmen from Sweden during World War II. At the same time, he directed a secret air operation into Norway, dropping saboteurs and equipment for resistance forces.
After the Arlington ceremony, a dinner was held at the Bethesda Naval Center, where testimonials for Balchen were given by Norwegian and Scandinavian Airline System (SAS) officials. Audrey Balchen was presented with an American flag that had been flown over the Capitol in her husband’s memory.
There were other tributes, as well. Minnesota Representative Martin Olav Sabo introduced a House resolution honoring Balchen. Alaska Senator Ted Stevens introduced a resolution in the Senate, and Alaska’s Governor Tony Knowles designated October 23, 1999, as Polar Flight Day, in recognition of Balchen’s being the first man to pilot an aircraft over both poles.
Balchen was born in Norway. He joined the French Foreign Legion, fought for Finland and became a pilot in the Norwegian naval air force. He was at Spitsbergen to assist Roald Amundsen in readying a dirigible to fly across the North Pole to Alaska. While Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett were there, preparing for their attempt to be the first to the Pole, Balchen helped remake their plane’s skis, which enabled them to depart on the quest–now widely believed to have been unsuccessful. Byrd invited Balchen to come to America and designated him as one of two pilots on his 1927 transatlantic flight. Balchen then went to Antarctica with Byrd and flew him over the South Pole in 1929.
Balchen became a U.S. citizen in 1931 and accepted a commission as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941. He went to Greenland to prepare a base for aircraft being ferried to England and thus began his legendary career directing the rescues of downed airmen. In 1944, by then a colonel, he began directing secret air operations from Scotland to Norway and Sweden through hostile German air space, for which he won many military awards and high honors from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
He returned to Norway after the war to assist in starting the Norwegian national airline and set the stage for establishing SAS. Returning to the United States, he worked to improve the Air Force’s capabilities in Arctic rescues.
Despite his achievements, Balchen’s public image and military career were impaired by Admiral Byrd. Byrd began a campaign of harassment, and as a result, Balchen never became a general and was forced to retire early. Balchen knew that Byrd had not reached the North Pole, and Byrd knew that he knew. After Byrd’s death, his powerful friends persuaded the publisher of Balchen’s autobiography to destroy the first edition, which revealed why Byrd could not have reached the North Pole.
The centennial ceremony at Arlington was especially significant to those who knew and respected Balchen. Ironically, he is buried beside Admiral Byrd.
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History