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Dori Hjalmarson – Wayward Son

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

The following is a guest article written by Larry Hjalmarson and shared with Icelandic Roots by Larry, Warren, and Halldor Hjalmarson.

Two Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen knocked at the door of Sigvaldi Baldwinson in Winnipeg with questions about his son, a U.S. Army Reserve officer. It was 1941; Sigvaldi had immigrated to North America nearly 30 years prior, raised a family, and his youngest son had struck out on his own at age 14, moving to California, eventually graduating from college and joining the military. Sigvaldi was quite proud of his son. But the Mounties weren’t asking about his son Halldor Baldwinson. They were asking about Dori Hjalmarson. Was he who he said he was?

Sigvaldi Baldvinsson

Sigvaldi and Gudrun Baldwinson emigrated from Iceland to North America, arriving in Mountain, North Dakota in 1903 with one child, Gunnar, and one foster child. Arriving too late to homestead, Sigvaldi worked as a farm laborer. They had several more children, and Halldor (nicknamed Dori) Baldwinson was the youngest. When Dori was four, his mother, Gudrun, died. Sigvaldi was unable to care for so many small children. He made the difficult decision to give the three youngest children to other families. Dori and his brother, Ingvar, age 6, were given to the Hjalmarson family. A daughter, Margret, was given to the Johnson family. Ingvar put up a fuss and the Hjalmarsons returned him to Sigvaldi. Dori remained with the Hjalmarsons. The Hjalmarson family had arrived in North Dakota in 1887, early enough to homestead. Owning land meant they had means. The father had died a few years earlier and the family was led by the mother, Margret. The farm was managed by grown sons. Dori was well cared for. He grew up with two sets of siblings, the Baldwinsons and his foster family, the Hjalmarsons.

Dori’s first language was Icelandic. He learned English when he entered grade school.

Margret Hjalmarson died when Dori was 12, and at age 14 Dori left for Los Angeles, California, to work as a farm laborer and later an apprentice carpenter. He was assisted by his extended family and other Icelanders in the area but made his own life. He sent letters home encouraging his brother Ingvar to join him. Ingvar settled in San Francisco. Their father, Sigvaldi, moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and eventually married a mail order bride from Iceland. They had one more child, Helga, Dori’s and Ingvar’s half-sister.

Dori finished high school in Los Angeles and had several jobs in the booming economy. In 1929 he drove a friend to Tucson, Arizona, to enroll at the University of Arizona. Dori liked what he saw and decided to enroll as a 21-year-old freshman. He met Winifred Flood, whom he would court and eventually marry. Dori joined the Delta Chi fraternity and competed in his first athletic event, an intramural track meet. He set the school record in the two-mile run in his first race. The track coach recruited him, and Dori became captain of the track team and the cross-country team.

Dori graduated from the University of Arizona in 1934 with a degree in chemistry and had added German to his language skills. He had transformed himself from a farm laborer with minimal education to a college graduate.

It was the height of the depression, and he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCCs) as the director of education for the state of Arizona. He was also in the U.S. Army Reserves as an officer.

He married Winifred in 1935, and they started their family. Three sons were born before World War II and four more children were born after the war.

Dori stayed in touch with his Baldwinson and Hjalmarson siblings but had little contact with his father Sigvaldi who died without meeting any of Dori’s children. (Note – Dori returned to his birthplace once while in college during a trip to Chicago, and again late in life to donate Icelandic paintings to a retirement home in Mountain, North Dakota.)

In 1941 Dori was in the Grand Canyon working with the CCCs when a telegram arrived at his home in Phoenix telling him he was being activated into the army and to report immediately to a base in San Antonio, Texas. It was six months before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. was not in the war, but Britain was turning over the operation of Iceland to the United States. They needed Dori. He was the only officer in any branch of the U.S. armed forces who could speak Icelandic. But before the U.S. Army could grant top-secret clearance to this young officer with no birth record, a different name and a father who was no longer in the U.S. they had to confirm who he was.

Sigvaldi Baldwinson invited the two Mounties in for coffee and doughnuts. A gregarious man, Sigvaldi chatted with the policeman for several hours and did confirm that Dori Hjalmarson was his son although it hurt to learn he had changed his name. It confirmed that Dori probably resented that Sigvaldi abandoned him as a child.

Dori arrived in San Antonio for mustering, to the Pentagon for briefing and then to Iceland to help with military management of the country.

Iceland was used as a staging ground for supply shipments from North America to Europe. Merchant ships and warships would gather in the fjords of Iceland and then race as a convoy to Europe to avoid the German submarines. Iceland was also used as a base for the defense of the North Atlantic shipping lanes. The Germans sent spies to Iceland to gather intelligence and disrupt the allies’ efforts. Iceland remained neutral in the war and was not happy to be drawn into the conflict. They resented the allies’ presence, and the allies were suspicious of the Icelanders’ allegiance. Dori arrived to try to build a relationship with the Icelanders and to counter the German attempts to infiltrate. His job was a mixture of hunting spies and public relations. It posed two challenges: Although Icelanders typically welcome Icelanders from the west (Vestur-Íslendingars), this one was wearing the uniform of the unwelcome occupiers. And since Dori was of Icelandic descent, he was sometimes treated with suspicion by his fellow soldiers.

In spite of the challenges Dori and his team of intelligence officers successfully captured German spies and maintained a relationship with the Icelandic people. Dori witnessed Independence Day for the Icelanders in 1944 as they shed their ties with Denmark. Denmark was under German occupation so could not prevent it. Dori was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Major Dori Hjalmarson US Army

Major Dori Hjalmarson US Army

Photo courtesy of Larry Gunnar Hjalmarson and Warren Eirikur Hjalmarson

As the war ended Dori returned to Arizona to continue raising his family, eventually having six sons and one daughter. He also served in the Korean War. He died in 1969. His half-sister, Helga, is his last surviving sibling and resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

One of Dori’s nephews, Bob Irwin, arranged a reunion of the Baldwinsons and Hjalmarson who had left for the U.S. with the Baldwinsons who stayed in Canada, including Helga, in August 2010 coinciding with the annual Icelandic Festival in Gimli, Manitoba. Connections that had been lost were restored. Relatives who had never met developed friendships on behalf of Sigvaldi and his wayward son.

Editor’s note: The author, Larry Hjalmarson, is the youngest child of Dori Hjalmarson, World War II veteran, and the grandson of Sigvaldi Baldwinson, Icelandic immigrant to North Dakota, U.S., and to Manitoba, Canada. Larry lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. The article was edited by the granddaughter of Dori Hjalmarson, also named Dori.


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