‘Glad to have done it’
Gerald Sanderson first saw the ocean as a wide-eyed 19-year-old. Sanderson and friends from Willow City took a Ford Model A Coupe to the Golden Gate International Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1939.
Sanderson figured he may never see the Pacific Ocean again.
The fair celebrated the recently built Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges. Two years later he crossed both bridges and then sailed under them on his way around the world with the 164th Infantry Regiment’s medical detachment.
“We were draft dodgers,” Sanderson joked. “Everybody had to serve a year, so we joined the Guards to get the year over with, which didn’t turn out of course.”
Sanderson, 94, enjoys retelling stories from his time with the North Dakota Army National Guard. The spry nonagenarian relaxed on Veterans Day, reclining in his Rugby home, which he shares with caretaker and companion Leila Lehmann, 86.
He said the next time he passed under The City by the Bay’s gargantuan bridges it was years later as part of fishing trip with his sons.
“The last time I did this I was gone for 27 months,” Sanderson told the captain. The fisherman reassured him he’d be back on land by nightfall.
A long journey
Sanderson joined others from Bottineau and Rugby in the 164th Infantry for training at Camp Claiborne in Louisiana. A total of 3,000 in the regiment later took to the Pacific on the SS President Coolidge with stops in Australia and New Caledonia before being the first U.S. Army unit to reach Guadalcanal.
The island was home to a six-month campaign against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific Theatre. Sanderson was part of a final group to arrive and missed most of the intense battles, but the Technician Fourth Grade stayed busy.
“We did the daily sick call too, just like a doctor’s office,” he said. “We treated athlete’s foot and in the tropics, a lot of skin diseases. Just about our whole regiment got malaria.”
Sanderson fought a nasty fever just as his outfit was moving up the island of Fiji on a training mission. The violent chills hit at 2 p.m. and he felt fine about three later and was able to catch up.
The 164th Infantry was one of three regiments in the Americal Division, including the 182nd Infantry Regiment of Massachusetts and the 33rd Infantry Division of the Illinois National Guard. Sanderson was usually with eight to 10 other technicians and one or two surgeons.
“I didn’t get to see any real violent battles,” he said. “It was more of just day-to-day keeping up the health of the outfit – all the aches and pains that hit everybody.”
He remembers treating flesh wounds from crude Japanese grenades.
The travel was enjoyable for Sanderson as he was amazed by the ocean trips and previously unknown lands. His older brother Carl, who died in February at the age of 95, served in India. Younger brother Alvin, who died at the age of 84, served in the South Pacific.
“I’m glad to have done it,” Sanderson said. “I enjoyed it. Very fortunate to come out of it with no injuries. I’d recommend it to anybody.”
Number of reunions dwindle
Sanderson was discharged in 1944 and returned to Willow City to help his father farm. He married and had seven children, who helped him farm wheat, barley and oats on 1,300 acres. He retired 30 years ago and is a survivor of prostate cancer.
He’s also simply a survivor, one of three – by his estimate – left from the medical detachment that formed in Bottineau in 1941. Reunions aren’t as frequent as they once were, but the memories remain.
“You remember everyone you knew and those that didn’t come back and you have to be grateful for the life you have,” Sanderson said. “I didn’t expect to live this long.”
He’s attended countless reunions and was on a 2008 Honor Flight that took WWII veterans from the Dakotas and Minnesota to Washington D.C. to see the WWII Memorial. Lehmann, an Overly native and member of American Legion Auxiliary, accompanied him on that trip and to other reunions.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “Both my husbands were veterans and he’s a veteran, so I’ve been around them all the time. My dad was ready to go in World War I, but then they stopped taking boys because the war was over.”
Sanderson is eager to reconnect with friends when the regiment holds a reunion next year in Bismarck. Until then he will continue meeting with area veterans on a weekly basis through the American Legion, which was formed in 1919 – the year he was born. The proud, 68-year Legion member is still forming bonds with veterans of all wars.
“Those military friendships, they’re different from anything else,” he said.
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