By Bob Zientara
A years-long relationship between a Dallas native and a noted U.S. World War II general has added another chapter nearly three quarters of a century after the war.
A special military honor, the French Croix de Guerre (“Cross of War”) was recently presented to Barron resident Lyle Bonkrud, age 99, a resident of the Dove Healthcare residential facility.
Bonkrud (who spells his last name in its original Norwegian form, without an “e” on the end) said he received the award thanks to the work of Oregon military researcher David Beaty. According to online research, the Croix de Guerre is awarded to a service member who serves alongside or as an ally to French forces in time of war, and who is “mentioned in dispatches by a commanding officer,” an officer who is “at least a regimental commander.”
The officer most likely responsible for mentioning Bonkrud’s name in military dispatches is the late Charles Lawrence Bolte (May 8, 1895 – Feb. 11, 1989) commander of the 34th Infantry Division during the war. Bonkrud served as Bolte’s personal driver for much of the time between January 1942, when U.S. troops landed in North Africa just a month after America entered the war, until September 1945, when he mustered out of the Army and returned to Wisconsin after three and one-half years of service.
According to Bonkrud, the 34th Division was in combat with German forces longer than any other unit in the Army.
Bolte’s online biography said he became chief of staff for U.S. forces in the United Kingdom, where Bonkrud said he was also stationed. After returning to the U.S. to raise and command the 69th Infantry Division in Mississippi, Bolte took command of the 34th Infantry Division in July 1944, and led it through the remainder of the war.
It was an assignment that exposed both the general and Bonkrud to what Bolte’s biography said was “fierce combat” through the rest of that year and the opening months of 1945, right up to the German surrender in April of that year.
Bolte, a four-star general, earned two Army Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart, his biography added.
As the general’s driver, Bonkrud shared many dangerous situations with Bolte.
“He would want to get out every day, not stay in a foxhole,” Bonkrud said. “We’d get shot at all the time, mortars and artillery.”
Bonkrud was in the Army before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was 21 at the time the war broke out.
“My pup tent was right next to (Bolte’s),” he added. “He wanted me to stay (when it was time to ship out in September 1945), but I wanted to get home to my girlfriend. There were tears in his eyes when I left.”
The general later sent Bonkrude a signed photo as a keepsake.
Bonkrud said he was a driver at the 34th Division headquarters in North Africa one day in 1942, when Gen. George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, arrived from the States on an inspection tour.
“They wanted someone to drive,” he said. “My Jeep was all armored and slicked up. I drove Marshall around for three hours, touring ammunition dumps we had taken from the Germans.”
History of award
The certificate accompanying the French Croix de Guerre notes that it was awarded to Technician Fourth Grade Lyle L. Bonkrud, 34th Infantry Division, U.S. Army, “for your heroic contributions in combat action, (presented by) the commanding general of the French ground forces.”
The award has a complicated history during World War II, according to Wikipedia. Then-president Edouard Daladier approved a new version of the medal when the war began in 1939.
In 1943, that award was abolished by the Vichy government, which cooperated with the Nazis during the war. Later, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Free French leader, abolished the Vichy award in 1944 and restored Daladier’s 1939 version.
Longtime local resident
Bonkrud now lives at the Dove Healthcare residential facility adjacent to Mayo Clinic Health System-Northland. His apartment overlooks a courtyard where work has begun on the hospital’s new pharmacy.
The son of David and Helma Bonkrud, of Dallas, Lyle Bonkrud grew up on the family farm. He will be 100 Feb. 11, 2020.
Lyle said the late Una (Ellefson) Bonkrude (who used an “e” in her name), was married to Lyle Bonkrud’s father’s half-brother. Una (pronounced YOU-nah, according to Lyle) died four years ago at age 107. Lyle said Una introduced him to his second wife, Deyonne Ellefson.
Lyle was married 59 years to his first wife, Doris, a native of Rice Lake, before remarrying.
He has two daughters who live out of state, Rae and Kristi, and a nephew, Tom Bonkrude (with an “e”), of Cumberland.