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Jenkins: Honoring one WWII vet's good, heroic American life

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comJuly 16, 2014 

JIM JENKINS

It’s said of many World War II veterans that they left home as boys and came home as men.

Noel Gusler Jr. left home a boy, 18 years old, and came home a hero.

At 89, he looks robust and speaks of people from 70 years ago with clarity of name and of their lives, their hometowns, their units in the war. His recall is remarkable, truly.

Monday, for lunch he was having a hotdog with chili and onions and a beer, in a place that’s good for that, Raleigh’s Players Retreat on Oberlin Road, a longtime establishment that, at 63, is still younger than “Big Gus.” He’s been called that for years now, and he eats for free. His son, attorney Gus Gusler, owns the PR, and would induct his dad into the PR Hall of Fame on this night. It’s a whimsical gesture, but will be a lovely one from a son to a father of whom he is proud and who is proud of him.

The life has been long and full and was defined in many ways by the experiences of so long ago when a teenager was drafted and joined the legendary 3rd Infantry Division, called the “Blue and White Devils” by the Germans, which fought on all fronts in World War II and took heavy casualties. Today, Big Gus wears the baseball cap with various insignia representing his service. But he does not wear it all the time, or talk endlessly about the war.

He has to be asked about the ribbons on the cap. Early on in a conversation, he says, “Most anybody would have done what I did in that position.” And later, he will say, as if embarrassed at being asked to recall his war experiences, “What I did, I never thought it was a big deal. I was just trying to stay alive.”

But it was a big deal. To the United States, which awarded him the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and to France, which recognized him with the Croix de guerre twice and with the Legion of Honour.

Most of the medals came from a battle incident in which Gusler climbed into a disabled tank, grabbed the machine gun and rained bullets on nearby Germans.

Every American who has not served should spend several hours with a veteran of ground combat, including especially those in the ever-diminishing ranks of World War II vets.

So many were like Noel Gusler Jr., pulled from the fields or the mills, and sent to battles a world away. In his case, he’d left school in the 7th grade and went into mill work. His parents also were mill workers. It had been a tough Depression life, in several towns in North Carolina. “But everybody around us was poor,” he said, “so we didn’t know. We had lots of beans and cabbage and a little piece of meat, and my mother had a garden and my father had a mule. That’s just how it was.”

The family moved some, to get work. And then, within weeks after his 18th birthday, Gusler was on his way to war. His mother, like so many, worried to the point of exhaustion. “Oh, my mother...she lost weight, went down to nothing,” he said.

His next birthday came when his unit was on the move. “I saw this cherry tree, and it had been brought down by a shell,” he said. “So I got in the tree and was eating cherries and a sergeant came over and told me to get the hell out of the tree. Then he said, ‘happy birthday.’”

By then, he’d seen death and blood and gore, the memories of which have lasted a lifetime. The dead soldier he pulled from a hole. The bodies all around him when he stayed still in 18 inches of water to make the Germans think he was dead. (They would be sorry.) The sight of a fellow soldier holding what was left of one arm. “He just said, ‘I’m going home,’” Gusler remembered.

After everything, there was indeed victory, and Big Gus came home. “They wanted to throw a big banquet for me but I didn’t want it, and I didn’t go,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk about it.”

He went to Burlington for mill work. Eventually, he got in the business of selling sign equipment, and that is what he did for most of his working life.

Along the way, he courted and married Margaret Elgin, had a family. He worked hard and built for them a better life, as he and others of his generation were raised to do.

Life went on and life goes on. His story is important, for history, and for those young people who want to know why these elderly Americans are called the Greatest Generation. If they met Big Gus, they would know.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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