President Franklin D. Roosevelt presents the Medal of Honor to Arnold L. Bjorklund in a White House ceremony on August 30, 1944.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 9/08/2014
  • Essay 10918
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On August 30, 1944, in a White House ceremony, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) presents the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Arnold L. Bjorklund (1918-1979), of Seattle. He is awarded the honor for actions carried out on September 9, 1943. Following the American landing at Salerno, Italy, Lieutenant Bjorklund led a platoon in securing a beachhead. His platoon had to capture a hill well defended from German machine gun and mortar positions, and the troops were halted by intense enemy fire. At this, Lieutenant Bjorklund took three hand grenades, and crept and ran toward the machine gun position that had laid deadly fire on his platoon. He threw one grenade into the machine gun position, killing the crew of three. Continuing on his own, he destroyed a second machine gun nest, and, with his last grenade, destroyed a mortar position. Lieutenant Bjorklund is the first infantryman from Washington to receive the Medal of Honor. 

From Whidbey Island to Seattle

Arnold L. Bjorklund was born in Clinton, Whidbey Island. When he was young, the family moved to the Crown Hill area on the north side of the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle.  His father, Karl Bjorklund (1886-1946), was a carpenter.

Arnold attended Ballard High School. Following high school graduation he worked in the Alaska gold mines for a short time and then returned to Seattle. When he came back to Crown Hill he worked as a landscaper at Washelli Cemetery, where his payment was in the form of plots, which he gave to his parents and other family members.

He joined the army on February 20, 1941. Following basic and advanced infantry training, he was selected for the four-month Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. In July 1942, he was commissioned a second lieutenant. Second Lieutenant Bjorklund received additional training and in 1943 went with the 36th Infantry to Europe.

The War 

In September 1943, First Lieutenant Bjorklund was serving as a platoon leader in the 142nd Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. On September 9, the division landed at Salerno as part of the Allied invasion of Italy. Establishing a beachhead was a tough struggle and four days into the invasion the battle was intense. On September 13, 1943, outside of the small village of Altavilla, Italy, a company of the 142nd approached its objective, Hill 424.

Lieutenant Bjorklund led the attack on Hill 424 with his platoon on the hill’s right flank. The troops attacked the hill's defenders with rifle, machine-gun fire, and grenades. However, the defenses on the terraces and in the vines were difficult to neutralize. The German positions overlooked and fired down on the American advance. 

The attacking platoon found itself trapped, unable to advance and now within the sights of the hill defenses, unable to retreat. Lieutenant Bjorklund ordered his platoon to cover him with heavy gunfire as he crept toward the enemy machine gun that was laying down devastating fire. Lieutenant Bjorklund ran in a weaving pattern and somehow was not hit by enemy fire directed at him. Near the enemy machine gun he threw a grenade into the position and silenced it. The machine-gun crew of three was killed.

The platoon then resumed its advance on the hill, but was again halted by intense fire, this time coming from a second machine gun higher up the hill. Lieutenant Bjorklund employed the same tactics of advance, lopping a grenade into the position and killing the crew.

This opened the way for the troops to advance to the top of the hill. Here they paused, but it was a short pause as mortar fire soon hit them. This time Lieutenant Bjorklund, who had proven his skill in grenade attacks, took his last grenade and snuck down the reverse slope of the hill to within 10 yards of the mortar position. He threw the grenade and it landed next to the mortar, destroying it and its crew.

Hill 424 had been taken with the heroism and skill demonstrated by First Lieutenant Bjorklund, and for this heroic action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Coming Home

Lieutenant Bjorklund continued to lead his platoon and three days later was seriously wounded in battle, with 16 wounds to his feet and right arm. He was sent to a field hospital and then returned to the United States for recovery. He spent eight months recovering at McCaw General Hospital in Walla Walla.  

During his recovery at the hospital he was selected to command a recreation camp in the northeast Oregon Blue Mountains at Tollgate. It was a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp converted into a fishing and recreation retreat. The mountains were considered ideal in the rehabilitation process.

While in the hospital he met the sister of a fellow patient and his closest friend, Army Air Forces Captain Leo L. Sawyer (1924-1986) of Walla Walla. Captain Sawyer received regular visits from his family that included his older sister, Darl E. Sawyer (1919-1997). Sawyer introduced his sister to Bjorklund and soon she was visiting both of them. When Bjorklund had a weekend, he stayed at the Sawyer home. 

Arnold L. Bjorklund was medically discharged from the army on March 6, 1945. In April 1945, he and Darl Sawyer returned to McCaw General Hospital for their wedding.    

Life After the War

The Bjorklunds moved to Seattle and built their home in the Crown Hill neighborhood at 9520 11th Avenue NW. It was next door to his parent’s home and his own prewar home, at 9512 11th Avenue.  

Arnold went to work at Pacific Resin Company, which produced glues for plywood manufacture. He worked at the firm's Harbor Island plant. When he advanced within the company to assistant plant manager, the Bjorklunds moved to Edmunds. They had two children, a son, Kent E. Bjorklund (b. 1950), and a daughter, Susan (b. 1953).

On Memorial Day 1956, a bronze plaque was dedicated at Washelli Cemetery to 30 Washington Medal of Honor recipients. Arnold Bjorklund and several other recipients participated in the dedication.

In March 1963, Bjorklund became plant superintendent at the company’s Portland, Oregon, facility. The family moved to Vancouver, Washington.

In May 1963 President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) sent a special aircraft to Portland to transport Medal of Honor recipients and their wives to Washington D.C., for a White House Rose Garden Medal of Honor event. President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929-1994) greeted 234 Medal of Honor recipients and their wives. The Bjorklunds considered it one of the high points of their lives.

Arnold Bjorklund died at Vancouver and was buried in the Willamette National Cemetery, Portland. 

Arnold Bjorklund is listed on the Ballard High School Wall of Recognition of distinguished graduates. He has also been honored at events in Walla Walla involving McCaw General Hospital. As of 2016, Joint Base Lewis-McChord plans to name a street in his honor when a new base area is completed.

Sources: "President Awards Congressional Medals To 6 Outstanding American War Heroes," Oregonian, August 31, 1944, p. 7; Donald K. and Helen L. Ross, Washington State Men of Valor (Burley, Washington: Coffee Break Press, 1980); "Medal of Honor for Bjorklund," The Seattle Times, August 27, 1944, p. 30; "Medal of Honor Winners Give Special Thanks," Ibid., November 25, 1948, p. 1; "Honor Medal Winner Winged By Cupid; He Builds in Ballard," Ibid., April 27, 1945, p. 17; "Plaque to Honor 30 Medal Winners," Ibid., p. 32; "Medal of Honor Man's Son Kills Himself," Ibid., December 4, 1962, p. 22;  "JFK Calls State Medal of Honor Winners," Oregonian, May 2, 1963, p. 10; Duane Denfeld, telephone interview with Susan Bjorklund, March 3, 2016.
Note: This essay was revised and updated on March 4, 2016.

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