By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Delano’s Fred Gordon was born in 1918, but the spring in his step and sparkle in his eyes make him appear far too young to share firsthand accounts of World War II.
“He’s one of those guys who’ll live forever,” joked his wife, Cheryl.
And, with all that 94-year-old Gordon has survived so far, it doesn’t even seem all that unlikely.
Gordon was one of only three veterans to attend a final reunion of the Third Field Artillery Battalion at Fort Riley, KS in September a rendezvous that brought 70-year-old memories to the forefront.
First time to Ft. Riley
He was 24 years old. He’d graduated from Iowa State College, and was starting his career as a butter maker and laboratory instructor at the school’s dairy industry department.
“That’s what I was doing Dec. 7, 1941,” he noted. “I can remember I was walking down Lincoln Way, and as I was passing the college tobacco shop, I heard on their radio President Roosevelt announcing that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and we were at war.”
Gordon received his draft notice less than one month later, and was sent to the Second Cavalry Division, Third Field Artillery Battalion at Ft. Riley, KS.
Although drills, classroom instruction, and physical training were part of the schedule, the next seven months were mainly spent caring for the horses.
The announcement that horses were no longer needed in the war was tough for many soldiers who had grown attached to the animals.
The switch also delayed their readiness as an effective fighting force, and the soldiers were sent to train with tanks and jeeps.
Time for training
In June 1943, Gordon’s group left Ft. Riley to train in California’s Mojave Desert.
“This was when the German general [Erwin] Rommel was running wild in Africa,” Gordon said, explaining that they were preparing to confront Rommel’s troops.
However, when they were deemed ready for battle four months later, forces were no longer needed in Africa.
As a result, Gordon was sent to Camp Polk, LA, to prepare for battle in Europe.
“The weather conditions were the toughest part, as it was cold, rainy, and muddy,” he said, noting that frozen tree branches would often land on the tents. To keep drier and avoid the falling branches, two soldiers tried sleeping under their tanks. Unfortunately, the tank settled in the soft ground and they were crushed.
“Of course, the word went out that there would be no more sleeping under vehicles,” Gordon noted.
Off to Europe
In August 1944, Gordon was sent overseas.
“They loaded up the entire division 10,000 men into the Queen Mary,” he said.
After docking in Scotland, they boarded a train for Fargo Camp, located near a British artillery school.
“The only problem was, our guns didn’t arrive when we did,” Gordon said. “We waited about a week or two, and the guns finally came.”
At that time, Gordon was the reconnaissance officer for the “A” battery.
“It was during our duty at the OP [operation post] in Berdorf that we caused the first German casualties by the Third in the war,” he noted.
Germans had been hauling ammunition in transports marked with a red cross, so the ban on shooting at those types of vehicles had been lifted. The morning after the announcement, Gordon was in the attic of the post observing the area through a scope.
He saw a horse-drawn cart with a big red cross come out of a dugout, and began to adjust fire on it.
“The third round of the adjustment exploded right in the scope circle and blew the cart, horse, and whatever else was in it to smithereens.”
Battle of the Bulge
In Nov. 1944, Gordon was told to take over as executive of the “C” battery.
The troop moved to a position on the edge of Haller, Luxembourg, in order to give infantry better support.
“We dug our guns in and everything, and then the Germans started their offensive, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge,” Gordon said. “That’s when the war really started for us.”
The night of Dec. 6, Gordon was given one of his most dangerous assignments.
“We were in a fruit cellar across the road, and we had a good gun position,” he recalled. “Then, I get this call from Major Nelson, my boss. He tells me we’re going to get a shell rep and put a stop to this nonsense.”
Obtained by measuring the angle of the furrow where the shells had burrowed into the ground, a shell rep was an effective way to determine the direction of enemy fire.
Unfortunately, the only way to get one was to go out where the shells were exploding.
“I had to run and jump under the tanks a couple times before I finally got it,” he said. “It could have easily been complete disaster for me.”
Lucky to be alive
Gordon’s second close encounter occurred two days later, after another message from Major Nelson.
“He told me the surveying officer was wounded, and I’d be in charge of the surveying crew,” Gordon recalled.
They found their starting point near a road east of Savelborn (in Luxembourg), preparing to survey in new gun positions.
“Keep in mind, there was really no front line at this time; German soldiers were everywhere,” Gordon noted.
Since he was in charge, Gordon took the lead aiming stake down the road about 100 yards and began to record the readings. As he was standing there, he heard voices at the side of the road German voices.
“I thought about what I could do. I could charge at them, yell for help, or sweat it out,” he said. “I decided on the third option.”
It turned out to be the right move. When Gordon’s crew arrived and checked out the location, they found evidence that someone probably a German patrol had been there.
“I can only guess that they were trying to decide whether to shoot me, but were afraid there were more American soldiers in the close vicinity, so they decided to get out of there,” Gordon said.
Cold and tired
During the Battle of the Bulge, soldiers had no time to rest, and they were given pills to help them stay awake.
The pills didn’t keep people alert forever, though. Gordon remembers one captain who seemed to be sleepwalking his way to the cafeteria.
“I poked him and he awoke, and we did get some hot coffee and food,” Gordon said.
Frigid weather was another physical challenge during the war. Gordon was part of a team that went to Bastogne (in Belgium) to rescue surrounded troops a 60-mile trek in freezing, snowy, slippery conditions.
Gordon was so cold that when the line of tanks would pause, he’d get out and stand behind one of the M-7 tanks to warm up from the exhaust.
“This was probably not a smart thing to do, but it did keep me from freezing to death,” he said.
Happy to be home
Gordon made it through the rest of the war in one piece, and when he returned to the US, he went back to work at Iowa State University. He also served in the National Guard, and later fought in the Korean War.
Gordon and Cheryl (a native of Delano) met while they were both working for the United States Department of Agriculture, and have been married since 1980.
The couple both enjoy keeping active. Six months ago, they went on a wagon train trip in the Targhee National Forest (near Yellowstone National Park).
“Another woman there thought she’d be the oldest, but she was only 80,” Cheryl said.
The final reunion at Ft. Ripley was the most memorable trip of the year, however.
Nine veterans responded to the invitation, but only Dale Taylor of Manhattan, KS, Bob Rupp of Oak Park Heights, and Gordon were able to make it.
Including wives, widows, and children, 18 were in attendance.
After several toasts, and a moment of silence for comrades lost during war and since, they shared the “last man” bottle a half-pint of Weller whiskey.
Thirteen from the Third Field Artillery Battalion were killed in action during WWII, and 61 received purple hearts. The soldiers fought with distinction in three European campaigns, and won a Presidential Unit Citation.