Chandler veteran served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler veteran served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam

October 31st, 2019 development
Chandler veteran served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam

David M. Brown

Even at 97, retired U.S. Army Major Gerald ‘Jerry’ A. Gustafson, 97, is still telling war stories as he celebrates Veterans Day this year and remembering his onetime comrades in arms.

He has a lot of both.

A resident of Solterra Senior Living in Chandler, Gustafson fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

He recalls and honors the memory of those comrades who were killed and talks fondly about those who survived, he still connects with some by phone and letters.

He even reminisces about helping to rescue the “Lost Battalion” south of Bruyères, France, in 1944, breaking the Gothic Line in Italy in 1945, and enemy confrontations in Pusan in 1951, and again in Saigon in 1963.

He was part of the 100th Battalion of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Italy and France from February 1944 through August 1945.

 Among his fellow soldiers was his long-time friend from Hawaii, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.

The Lost Battalion is the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. Army for its size and length of service. Eight Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars are among the 18,143 individual decorations earned by those who served in it.

Among his many honors, Gustafson has two of Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, a Congressional Gold Medal for the rescue of the Lost Battalion and the Legion of Honor, 2014, the highest commendation France bestows for exemplary military service.

In France, some of Gustafson’s fellow soldiers were second-generation Japanese-Americans fighting for America despite the 110,000 Japanese-American civilians sent to internment camps in the U.S.

The unit’s heroism and achievements were celebrated in the 1951 movie “Go for Broke” and “Only the Brave,” which was released in 2006.

Gustafson said when he was a 22-year old second lieutenant reporting for advanced infantry training at Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1944, he was surprised to see Japanese-Americans stationed at the base.

In April 1988, Congress issued an apology and authorized $20,000 for each camp survivor.

But back in 1944, Gustafson recalled, Col. Charles Pence, the regiment’s commander, told him:

“You will notice here the men are Americans of Japanese ancestry, and I am proud to be their leader. If there is anything that is of concern to you, matters of prejudice or bias you are feeling, report back to me and you will be transferred out within 24 hours.”

During a reunion of the 442nd in Hawaii, Gustafson related the story of Col. Pence’s introduction and how his Japanese-American counterparts impressed him with their dedication in combat impressed him.

“There was never an AWOL, no court-martials, no tussles with local citizens,” he said. “They just wanted to show their loyalty, to show that they were good citizens.”

A father of three, two living in north Phoenix, Gustafson was born in Chicago to Sara A. and Dr. J. Eric Gustafson.

When he was an infant, the family moved to a small Illinois town near the Wisconsin border.

“My father was the last of the country doctors, and he made calls in a Model T Ford, which I remember riding in, and later a Model A that I learned to drive when I was 14,” he said.

He attended Wentworth Military Academy, including ROTC training, at Lexington, Missouri, where he earned his license to fly, hoping to become a Marine pilot.

He joined the Army in April 1943, graduating with the first college-educated class at the Infantry Officer Candidate School, Fort Benning, Georgia, Dec. 7, 1943, – exactly two years after Pearl Harbor.

From Camp Shelby, the 100th Battalion was attached, in August 1943, to the 34th Infantry Division in North Africa and fought at Salerno, Italy, in September after the liberation of Sicily.

In April 1945, its members helped erase the Gothic Line in northern Italy, opening up Nazi Germany to Allied assault from the south.

The most famous of the 442nd’s exploits was in October 1944, rescuing “The Lost Battalion” in the Vosges Mountains of northwest France.

“The U.S. Army considers this one of the 10 most important military battles ever fought by the service,” Gustafson said.

Following questionable orders from the commanding officer, the 1st Battalion of the 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division, had been trapped five miles behind enemy lines by the German Army, and initial attempts to save them were thwarted.

The 442nd completed the rescue after five days of intense fighting, Gustafson recalled.

About 200 of the men were saved but his battalion had “many casualties, hundreds and hundreds of people lost,” Gustafson said.

Others were taken to a German stalag, where they remained until they were liberated in April 1945 as the war ended.

“We were fortunate to get out alive,” Gustafson said, noting that one of his Purple Hearts was awarded for the frostbite he suffered. “I could hardly walk.”

For their heroism, three surviving members received the Medal of Honor. And, each combatant received a Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol in October 2011.

“The actual gold one is in the Smithsonian,” he said. “We got brass ones.”

In April 1945, the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, connected with the 442nd, liberated one of the satellite labor camps of  Dachau, a Nazi extermination camp in Germany. Gustafson stayed with 442nd to the end of the war.

Later, in the Korean War, he did four campaigns with the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment from January to November 1951, including the Battle of Imjin River in April.

He later served with the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon as briefing officer for its commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Charles Timmes, for 11 months in 1963 during the early part of the Vietnam War before retiring from the Army on April 30, 1964.

Needing about 30 credits to finish his education degree, Gustafson moved his family to the Valley in August 1964 to attend Arizona State University – a fact that prompted him to joke, “It took me 27 years to get through college.”

He then taught social studies at Moon Valley High School in Phoenix for 18 years before retiring in 1985.

Among his many retirement activities, he was a president of the Phoenix Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.

He recently addressed the Superstition Mountain Chapter MOAA about his wartime service.

“He held our chapter audience spellbound for over an hour about the internal struggles of these Japanese-American soldiers and their extraordinary bravery in war,” said Captain Al Anderer, an Ahwatukee resident, Air Force pilot and Vietnam War veteran.

In his two-bedroom apartment, festooned with pictures of his Army comrades, medals and other war memorabilia, Gustafson, who will turn 98 the day after Christmas, looks back fondly and proudly at his days when he wore a uniform.

“I was a patriotic Eagle Scout,” he said. “I think I raised my kids pretty well, I made lots of great relationships and I served my country.”