NARFE Member, WWII Veteran Traces His Journey
For more than a century, NARFE has been a trusted source of knowledge for all active and retired federal workers, and there may not be a more “active” retired NARFE member today than 97-year-old World War II veteran Gerald White.
White is one of the few surviving Americans who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and single bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the war. He’s a member of his local NARFE Chapter 87 of Columbia, SC, which is also the local chapter of NARFE National Secretary/Treasurer Kathryn Hensley.
“He is a delightful person,” Hensley says, noting that while the number of living World War II veterans, dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” are slowly fading away, their memory and presence looms large, especially when reflecting on federal holidays such as Veterans Day.
We caught up with White on and off late this summer into the fall. He tours with the American Legion Riders nationally and, on occasion, abroad with other remaining veterans from the Battle of the Bulge. White recalled returning from New Orleans, where the Battle of the Bulge Association held its 41st annual meeting at the National World War II Museum. He said 90 people attended.
“Only four Battle of the Bulge people were there,” he said.
Entering the service and eventually finishing school
White was 18 years old in 1944, living in his upstate New York hometown of Lodi, when he enlisted to fight in Europe against the German Army.
“I didn’t even finish high school,” he said. “There were about four of us in the school. We missed a grade or so. After I got out [of the service], I went back to the same high school. I asked to take a crash course. The principal said, ‘No. You got to go a full term.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I checked with other schools nearby and asked about the crash course.”
In 1946, White got a school counselor in nearby Geneva to agree.
“From September to December, eight hours a day, we’re going to beat your mind so you can pass the course,” he added. “Whatever you can take.”
The government paid for White’s schooling through junior college, and he earned his associate degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Morrisville, near Syracuse.
Now, back a couple of years to his service. White supplied NARFE with several pages from his journal, which we will summarize from excerpts. He entered the Army in Rochester, N.Y., on August 9, 1944. On that day, a trainload of recruits left for Fort Dix, N.J. He was assigned to the RTC 227D Company for four months of basic training.
“It was very difficult for a young, dumb, skinny kid,” he said.
After a tough, long basic training in the sands of Florida at Fort Blanding, he returned to Fort Dix for shipment overseas. On January 8, 1945, they left New York Harbor on the Queen Elizabeth with approximately 20,000 troops.
“On the ocean trip, we had two sub alerts,” he said.
They landed in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 13, 1945, and were sent directly to a port in southern England for transfer to a port in France.
“We were loaded on cattle cars for assignment to forward units,” White said. “I was assigned to M Company of the 23rd Infantry of the Second Division on January 15 somewhere in Belgium. It was very cold and lots of snow. Sometimes there was a lot of shelling by the Germans.”
Before he even got to his unit, he was in a combat zone near St. Vith, Belgium, near the dense Ardennes Forest. White cited his notes while vividly storytelling by memory. He was a heavy weapons specialist and ammunition supplier to M Company and was briefed on his responsibility. He was assigned a Jeep and shown how to work his radio.
“Once they needed ammunition, I would run it up to them,” he said. “I had a Jeep with a big trailer behind me with all the munitions. When they called me to bring any number of boxes, I’d take the tarp off and get up there as fast as I could.”
This situation went on for 10 days. There was a lot of forest to deal with, and you always had to be alert about whether you were in range of a German mortar round.
“You had to stay awake,” said White. “Stay away from wooded openings. You were a target.”
On January 25, the Ninth Armored Division came in and “crushed the Germans,” he said. Thousands and thousands of Germans were killed or wounded, and it took the Germans four days to get back to Germany.
“Ninety percent of the time, I was alone,” White added. “I had nobody to talk to except on the radio when they needed more rounds.”
Missing in action
On February 9, his unit was holding a position in Germany. One day, the kitchen battalion came in to feed everyone warm food, and, for some reason, White said he was put on kitchen patrol, or “KP duty.” He was ordered to trudge bacon grease and garbage into a field and burn it.
“I said, “My God, I’m not a horse,” White joked.
He thought to sit and watch the fire burn. Big mistake. All of a sudden, there was a big flash. He was blinded. His clothes were burning. Someone came, picked White up, and took him to an aid station. They took his field jacket and all his clothes off. He was put into a vehicle with other people while still blinded. He was sent to Paris to “be fixed up.”
“They gave me glasses, all new clothing,” he said. “And they sent me right back to my unit. They said, ‘You’re a bad penny. You’re returning.’”
However, back at the location in Germany the following day, White did not show up for morning rotation. He’s reported absent without leave permission or AWOL. Five days later, he wasn’t found and was reported missing in action (MIA). On the seventh or eighth day, two officers knock at his parents’ front door back in Lodi. White’s sister answers to hear the words, “Is this the White family? We’re sorry to inform you that your son is missing in action.” White’s father was at work. His mother was home and collapsed.
At the hospital in Paris, White said a nurse asked him if he wanted to write a letter home to let his family know he was OK.
“The Army never came back and said your son was okay,” he said. “I found out later there were thousands and thousands who experienced this.”
White was not informed that his note arrived in Lodi. According to his medical records, he went to the hospital on February 12, 1944, and was released on February 23, 1944.
While there are many stories to hear from White, it should be known that White and his unit continued to advance into Germany and eventually into Czechoslovakia. He was discharged from the Army in 1946 and returned home to finish school.
Following his service, White worked for the federal government for 37 years, retiring in 1985 in Alabama as a supervisory ammunition specialist. He started at the Seneca Army Depot and later worked in similar positions nationwide and overseas. He moved to Columbia in 2010.
Decades later, his medical records were found. When White was applying for disability after the war, he was told there were no records available. They had been burned at a fire in the archives in St. Louis in the 1960s. White wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of War stating his case. It took a while.
“I went through the division’s medical, pay, and history, and they said, ‘Oh, you got disability,” he said.
White still hoped to get the Army medals he had earned from the Battle of Bulge, but he didn’t press the matter for decades. The effort took about 13 months once he wrote his first letter. In May 2019, he received a resolution of appreciation and those long-overdue medals a couple of months later. He received the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star, and several World War II campaign stars.
“I had some close calls, so this hypes you a bit,” he said.
White’s life today
With the American Legion Riders, White talks about his military tours and life and extensively tours the history of the towns he visits.
“One of the best tours I had was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” he said. “I learned more in about one hour going through that place than I learned in a lifetime. They tell you about the battle of the Civil War. I’m no history buff, but wow. They have a World War II museum there. It’s not the size of New Orleans’ but I would recommend it.”
White says he’s been lucky to keep in excellent health. When we spoke, his left knee had been bothering him. He’s receiving shots for it, and it gets better with time.
Earlier this year, a Columbia-based, veteran-owned bathroom remodeling company created a more accessible new walk-in shower for White for free. Watch his interview on ABC25.