A week ago today the world lost a true hero. Rest in peace Art Hilmo. May many young readers learn about your bravery during the war.
April 18, 1924 - August 9, 2013
Art Hilmo was born April 18, 1924 in a small community with lots of other 'Hilmos.' As a matter of fact, everyone shared the same last name. His home was in a valley with seven farms near Trondheim, Norway close to Sweden. When he was born, his parents, Birger and Ingeborg Hilmo named him Johan Arthur Hilmo.
Art was the oldest to his younger brothers, Per and Bjorn, and one sister, Inger. They loved playing in the lush, green valley or on the nearby mountain. They helped take care of the farm and Art began milking cows when he was eight years old. In the summer, the children would take their five cows up the mountain to graze off grass. Art's father wanted to harvest grass on the farm to prepare for hard Norwegian winters.
They also had a fox pen. Raising and selling fox for fur created extra income for the family of five. The fox pen also served as a hiding place. It was there Art's father hid a radio they would operate with telephone batteries.
When Nazi's moved into Norway during World War II, they took all radios to keep citizens from learning the truth about the war. They took Birger's radio, but he had two, hiding one in the fox pen. Art remembers secretly listening to English radio stations for war updates. But his little sister, Inger, remembers being afraid of what would happen if the Nazi's discovered their secret in the fox pen.
One day while playing at their mountain cabin, the children noticed a black comb on the floor. It was not theirs. Suddenly a thin, bald-headed man stirred from a straw filled bunk. Who was the stranger? The Norwegian speaking children did not understand the stranger and sent him to their mother in the valley below. She gave him food and learned he was an escaped prisoner - a Russian. After he went on his way, the children wondered why a bald man's only possession was a comb.
It was clear there was one more secret in the valley with seven farms. Art's parents were helping Jews and other targets of the cruel Nazi regime. When he was younger, Art didn't know too many Jews but remembers buying a suit from a Jewish shop owner in town. When he was a teenager, he began the dangerous mission of helping his parents help Jews and other refugees to safety in the neighboring country of Sweden. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
The German forces were not aware of what was happening at the Hilmo's house. But refugees knew Art and his father would sneak them into Sweden if they asked for help. Art believes they made 40-50 trips during the war to help fleeing men, women, children or entire families.
Early one morning a teenage boy arrived at the Hilmo's house. His family also worked underground to help refugees. The Nazi's raided the boy's home and the family thought they got away but they were found in a mountain cabin. The boy's father was arrested, one brother killed and the other shot in the arm. While Art was guiding this frightened and desperate boy over mountains to safety, the Nazi soldiers forced Art's father to harness a horse and sled to help search for the boy who "got away."
Another time, Nazi's needed a guide familiar with the territory. They made Art take them through the mountains. "I took them the wrong way," smiled Art as he recalls the story. If the Nazi's had discovered the secret at the Hilmo's house, they would have been killed.
They often only had 24 hours to reach safety, covering many miles, remembers Art. "We did it on foot or cross-country skis." Art's mother sewed a white suit jacket and pants for skiing. She even made white spats to cover his shoes.
Art's only protection was a gun someone had given him. Art did not intend to shoot Nazi's but needed protection from German Shepherds that would track and chase people down. "I knew I could out ski the Germans, but not the dogs," said Art. He had to use the gun once.
Art often carried and delivered explosives to others blowing up railroad lines Nazi's used to transport supplies. Danger didn't stopped Art's desire to help but one day in April 1945, Art and his father needed help. They received it in a most unusual way. Nazi's were on their way to arrest the pair but thanks to a terrible snow storm, those orders were never carried out.
The war ended but it was still tough times. They wanted to come to America for a better life. Art, his father and brother Bjorn emigrated from Norway through Ellis Island, New York in 1948. While on the ship, Art's appendix was removed and three days later he walked off the ship. One tough Norwegian! The men relocated in Everett, Washington.
Norwegians reputation of working hard made it easy to get a job. Art worked in a saw mill. One year later, his entire family was reunited when mother, brother and little sister made their way to Washington. In the meantime, Art met Evelyn Lindstrom and fell in love. She was from DeWitt, Iowa but relocated to that area working the Oregon shipyards during the war. They married April 15, 1949.
Evelyn, however, wasn't the only thing Art loved. He loved to ski and missed competing on Norwegian slopes where he often won. After entering a national ski competition, Art took home a bronze medal. "I didn't get first because I hadn't practiced in two years,"
His wife got homesick for Iowa and they moved to the Midwest. The couple had one son and three daughters. Art spent his life working as a carpenter building several houses on the side. In 1989, he retired after 32 years with the same company. His family has expanded to eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Art founded Sons of Norway Lodge 1-655 in Davenport, Iowa. He also devoted thousands of volunteer hours helping others. After Eveyln died, he met Cecilia Andresen and they traveled to Norway in 1999. This same year, Art's heroic efforts and kind heart did not go unnoticed. Norway's King Harald honored Art with a diploma recognizing his aide to refugees fleeing Nazis during WWII. It's clear to see Art's strong work ethic and serving heart made him a hero.