FARGO — When you walk into the warm, quaint home Chuck Rustvold shares with his son Jeff, it's obvious this is a man who has lived every second of his 96 years.
Each room is filled with memorabilia — family photos, military medals and even an appreciation plaque or two from his years spent as a popular barber in Fargo.
While he has a little trouble getting around these days and his hearing isn’t what it once was, his mind is still sharp as a tack, especially when he remembers a young soldier he knew for just a couple of days more than 75 years ago — a dead man who has haunted his dreams for decades long after the end of World War II.
Listen/watch reporter Tracy Briggs narrate Chuck's story:
From farm to battlefield
When Uncle Sam came calling, Rustvold was a 20-year-old living on his family's farm in Grygla, Minn. In September 1944, he went overseas as a part of the 28th Infantry Division and landed on Omaha Beach just three months after D-Day. By November, the division engaged in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of WWII — the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest on the border between Germany and Belgium.
“It was like we had walked into hell. It seemed like the whole German army was right there, throwing everything they had at us,” Chuck told his nephew Larry Haugen, a memory recounted in the biography Haugen wrote about his uncle, “Chuck’s Story.”
The division was in the middle of retaking the town of Schmidt, Belgium, when Rustvold and his comrades were headed for cover in an old, abandoned building. Rustvold entered last when a mortar exploded, sending his body down the stairs like a rag doll. Temporarily paralyzed with shrapnel in his leg, he relied on his fellow soldiers to rub his legs and restore circulation.
“They were bound and determined not to leave me,” Rustvold said in Haugen’s book.
And they didn’t until their fellow soldier they called "Rusty" was able to move out with them.
Rustvold says bullets were flying everywhere as they moved toward their only hope for survival: deep cover in the thick Hurtgen Forest. During the push toward the forest on Nov. 7, 1944, "Rusty" was once again hit in the leg during what he calls "utter mayhem." But he says another soldier had it worse.
“I was coming up a hill and I heard this ungodly scream and I knew somebody had been hurt,” Rustvold says. “I could tell it had taken his leg off except for a few cords.”
That’s when the self-described “stubborn Norwegian” dug his heels in with his commanding officer.
“He said, ‘Come on, come on! We’re going!’ I said, ‘What about him?’ He said, ‘He’s done for. We’re leaving him.’ I said, ‘Oh no we’re not! I’m not leaving him,'” Rustvold says as emphatically as he probably did that day.
He worried he’d be court-martialed later for disobeying the officer — he wasn't — but he says he also never rose above the rank of private first class because of behavior like this.
“I was too ornery, I think,” he says.
Rustvold wanted to be there for another soldier the way others had been there for him.
“I just wanted to help him. But that lieutenant didn’t give me anything. All I had was my handkerchief and his handkerchief and I tied them together to make a tourniquet. I think it might have saved him for an extra day,” Rustvold says.
For the next three days, Rustvold risked his life to protect this man he barely knew from the Nazis just yards away.
“In the evening, I’d cover him with the brush so they wouldn’t see him just laying there,” Rustvold says with a far-off look in his bright blue eyes. “I’d crawl on my stomach over to him and whisper, ‘Don’t say a word. They (the Nazis) are right over there.’ And he understood what I was saying. How he stayed awake without passing out, I’ll never know.”
But the man — Gordon F. Brader — started to lose his fight the next day, dying as he slept.
Rustvold once again covered Brader with leaves and grass. He then crawled to safety, navigating his way through a river and even receiving aid from two German soldiers during a truce.
By the time he reached a hospital, the ice on his uniform was an inch thick. Medics only needed a shot of whiskey to knock him out. He’d spend five and a half months recovering in a London hospital, lucky to be alive but never forgetting the man he tried to help.
'He didn’t die alone’
Rustvold’s injuries bought him a ticket home and two Purple Hearts. He married his beloved girlfriend, Marion, and raised a family in Fargo until her death in 1995.
But the nightmares of battle plagued him throughout his life. He sought help from counselors but longed to reach out to Brader’s family to let them know what happened all those years ago.
“More than anything, I just wanted to let them know, 'He didn’t die alone,'” Rustvold told Forum Communications Co. when he went on a WDAY Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., in 2007.
The tears flowed when he saw Brader’s name at the World War II Memorial, after more than 60 years of not being able to give his message to the Brader family.
He said he’d also like to tell the Braders that their relative was brave.
“He wasn’t a chicken. He was right in there,” he says.
Finding the Braders
Around the time of Rustvold’s Honor Flight trip, Forum Communications wanted to help. After finding out Brader was from the Buffalo, N.Y., area, reporters sent personal notes to about a dozen Braders in Buffalo. Only one woman replied: Barb Brader.
She said she wasn’t sure if she was related to Gordon Brader, but wanted to send her thanks and appreciation to Rustvold for his service.
By 2016, Barb Brader’s appreciation grew even deeper when Ancestry.com helped her figure out she was most likely Gordon Brader’s first cousin once removed, meaning Gordon was her father’s first cousin.
She sent a letter to Rustvold, writing: "Mr. Rustvold please accept my sincere THANKS, representing the entire Brader family for your kindness in taking care of and being there for a relative of mine. And even more for keeping him in your heart for so long! Your story has been told and I am honored to know what you did for him. Even though he did not survive, his friend was there for him. You are truly a special man!”
The modest Norwegian scoffs at that last part, but says he was so moved by Barb taking the time to write.
“Oh boy! That made me feel so good. I couldn’t believe it,” he says with a tear in his eye.
Barb was also able to explain to Rustvold that Gordon was an only child. His father had died in 1974, and his mother died in 1998 at the age of 102. She also told him Gordon was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium — something that makes Rustvold happy.
“I was glad to hear they were going to leave him where he was buried. It’s a beautiful place. I’m glad to hear they done what they done,” Rustvold says.
Becoming pen pals
But the correspondence between Barb and Chuck didn’t end with one note. The two have become fast friends via the mail since 2016 — pen pals who will probably never meet.
Barb, who is retired after 37 years with the New York State Department of Labor, has also called Chuck to chat on the phone.
“When I talked to him on the phone that first time, he told me the story again and he tells the story like it happened just a few weeks or months ago. He had so many details. That is remarkable,” she says. “He kept his friend Gordon Brader in his heart all this time. That is some friend. We should all have such loyal friends in our lives!"
Jeff Rustvold says the cards and letters from Barb have been “a bright spot” in his dad’s often-painful WWII memories, creating peace 75 years after the battle from a stranger 1,000 miles away.
“I thought knowing that there was some Brader out there that got to hear Chuck's story would make him feel better and give him a little more closure on such a heroic story,” Barb says. “I hope it gives him a little smile about such an important part of his life. It is so good to be remembered!"