On Memorial Day, we remember those who died while serving in our armed forces.
Few people today can recall that the first U.S. serviceman to die in World War II was killed—in Norway.
Robert M. Losey was born in Andrew, Iowa in 1908, graduated from West Point in 1929 and received his wings in the Army Air Corps in 1930. Married in 1933, Losey earned a masters degree from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and was considered an expert in the newly emerging field of aeronautical meteorology.
With the start of the so-called Winter War between Finland and Russia in November 1939, Losey was assigned as an assistant military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Finland to observe airplane related developments. When the war ended in March 1940, Losey was ordered to Stockholm as assistant military attaché to Sweden and Norway. Twelve days later (April 9, 1940), Germany invaded Norway, and Losey proceeded to assist the U.S. Legation, headed by Ambassador Florence Harriman, which had fled Oslo along with the Norwegian Government. Losey was able to help Harriman in her escape into neutral Sweden, and agreed to return to Norway in search of other Legation members who had not yet been safely evacuated.
As the German invasion was still underway, with heavy fighting throughout the country, everyone was fully aware of the risks involved. Under no circumstances would Losey permit the Ambassador to return. “You might be bombed,” he argued; “the Germans are strafing the roads.”
“But so might you,” Harriman replied, “and that would be worse for you are young and have your life before you, while I have had a wonderful life and nearly all of it behind me.”
“I certainly don’t want to be killed, but your death would be the more serious as it might involve our country in all kinds of trouble, whereas with a military attaché. . . .”
Accordingly, Losey set off with only Ambassador Harriman’s chauffeur, and arrived at the town of Dombås, a strategically important railroad junction on April 21. [Watching the rail line through Dombås was part of the mission undertaken by Jens Beck, whose tragic death I have previously recounted here.] Shortly after arriving, the town and its railroad station came under attack by German bombers. Losey, along with many others, took refuge in the nearby railroad tunnel. While everyone else retreated far into the safety of the tunnel, Losey remained near the entrance so he could observe German bombing tactics and techniques. Shrapnel from a nearby bomb blast pierced him, thus exposed, and Losey was killed instantly. He was 31.
A funeral service was held in Stockholm, attended by many of the journalists and attachés who had known Losey, as well as Count Folke Bernadotte, nephew of the King of Sweden. (Bernadotte was a good friend of Odd Nansen, and played a crucial role in his deliverance at the end of the war.) Ambassador Harriman wrote in her memoir, Mission to the North: “I had known the young Captain only a few weeks, but the circumstances had been so full of danger and problems, that I felt I had known him a long time, for I saw what his character was, and as taps were sounded, it seemed as if I had lost a son.”
In 1987, the citizens of Dombås erected a monument in Robert Losey’s honor. It reads:
Captain Robert Losey, USAAC
killed in action at Dombås 21st April
The first American serviceman
to give his life for his
country in World War II.
In memory of the many
American servicemen who later
in the war lost their lives
in Norway while fighting
for the liberation of
In 2015, I took the four-hour train ride from Oslo to Dombås, to view the memorial, as well as the tunnel. I also stumbled upon a small museum nearby (the site of a former POW camp set up by the Germans). It was closed for the day, but a local resident who volunteered at the museum offered to open it just for me. Among the treasures hidden inside was Losey’s ceremonial sword. The tunnel, monument and sword are all pictured below.
I will never forget that day, and on every Memorial Day my thoughts turn to Capt. Robert Moffat Losey, to the 400,000+ fellow Americans who died during World War II while in service, and to their compatriots who have fallen in battle in all of America’s conflicts.
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”