It was truly an honor to introduce a young author and an illustrator to Veteran John Gaultier of Vinton, Iowa. The girls, Imi Duchesneau and Alyssa Landi, were beyond excited as we left to drive home. They were riding with their grandmother and I was riding with John's friend, a wonderful Vietnam Veteran named Ira Richards.
On the way home after the interview, I was getting texts from the girls with ideas they had for the book cover and the storyline. The young ladies were excited about the story John had just told us (see bio below). They were especially moved by the fact that the Jewish prisoner passed away in John's arms. The last human being that man saw was someone being kind to him instead of the heinous cruelty of the Nazis. One thing I know for sure, these girls will never forget our snowy evening in Vinton, Iowa meeting a hero named John Gaultier.
Note: This book project is part of the Rockridge Junior High School projects for Spring 2016 semester. Many students, under the leadership of Teacher Candy Lopez, will be documenting over a dozen true stories from our area WWII subjects. Allan Ross from the Jewish Federation asked me "how do we get teachers across the country to do what Candy is doing?" If you have suggestions, please let us know.
John Gaultier was born in Wellsville, Ohio on October 4, 1925. His father was only six years old when he came from Italy with his family. He started working for the Pennsylvania Railroad at age nine for three cents an hour. He worked there faithfully for 50 years. John was born at home, which was the custom in these days. His mother was English and Irish and she was a housewife and mother. She had seven children but one died as a baby. His mother's parents lived with them and were a big part of the family.
The whole family worked hard. Each year they raised a hog to butcher so they had pork to eat. The children went to school in a one room schoolhouse. John's oldest brother took care of the fire at school. It was a big responsibility for a young man to keep the children and their teacher warm. The Gaultier family lived a mile away and the children rode a horse to school. Four children riding one big old grey horse named Dobbin. John remembers being whipped with a willow switch when he was six years old. His teacher was a World War I veteran and could be angered easily. His father was transferred to Bedford, Ohio and the family paid $6 per month for rent. It was during the time of the Great Depression and money was very tight. When their landlord raised the rent to $7 a month, the Gaultier family had to move to a new place in the country because they couldn't afford it.
Grandfather built a smokehouse. The store was three miles away and John would go and help by getting groceries (eggs were ten cents, a quart of milk for five cents and a loaf of bread was five cents), he may get a penny to buy some candy. The family used an outhouse and it wasn't very convenient to go outside to use the bathroom in the winter. They took a bath only once a week - on Saturday. The Depression years were really rough but thankfully, they grew most of their own food. He remembers his mother canning 500 quarts of green beans to feed their family. The men of the family hunted and brought home rabbit, squirrel, groundhog, possum and raccoon to eat. John remembers the rooster hated him and took after him every chance he could.
In 1932, the Government gave all WWI veterans a $1,500 bonus which allowed their family to build a home of their own. They used box car lumber and the 24 x 24 home was built by his father and grandfather. One day John was invited to a boxing match. It was two boys from school fighting and for some reason, one didn't show up. Someone offered John three dollars to replace him. John agreed and knocked him out in one swing. That started a period of his boxing regularly in the "Flyweight" division. He won 25 fights in a row then one night, a young man cleaned John's clock (clobbered him) and dad said "no more". That was the end of that.
John was the fastest guy in school and his nickname was "the deer". He played football in high school and when he was seventeen, he asked his father to sign giving him permission to go to war. Since he already had three sons in the war, he refused but when John turned 18, he volunteered. After basic training, he was ready to serve as a medic and was shipped out of Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. This was the largest processing center for troops heading overseas. John went by ship to England and then on to Le Havre, France. The soldiers had nicknamed this camp "Camp Old Gold" after a brand of cigarettes. Most everyone smoked cigarettes back in this day. It was February of 1945 and John was able to see the famous beach at Normandy many months after the invasion.
As a medic, he was not allowed to carry either a knife or a gun. He had a red cross on his hat and another red cross on his arm band. He felt like those red marks made him a target. Once, the fighting and shelling was so intense, the wounded could not be reached, but John ran from his cover six times to pull wounded soldiers to safety, and then tended to their wounds. All six survived. After the war, John was awarded the Bronze Star for Heroism for his actions.
During the war, John made difficult decisions of who would live and who would die. It was a nightmare every single day. John said the worst was hearing the soldiers calling out to him in the middle of the night. They would call "Doc, Doc" and his nights were tormented like his days. It was in May of 1945 when they walked into a timber in Austria and saw people crawling on their hands and knees. The nightmare continued when he saw some of the starving people taking food and dying on the spot. They looked like skeletons, the adults looked as if they weighed about forty or fifty pounds. They laid on bunks with straw mattresses. There were five or six people stacked in those bunks and at times, only one in the stack was still alive. John felt as if the war had taken in a young kid and made an old man out of him in a matter of months.
John was holding an emaciated Jewish man in his arms and was feeding him canned hash. He put a small piece of potato in his mouth and the child swallowed it. He passed away before he could take another bite. He would learn the walking skeletons were Jewish people who had been imprisoned because of their faith. They were in Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp which was a sub-camp of a famous concentration camp called Mauthausen. His unit liberated another camp near Staubling, Germany that contained mostly Russians but also Negros, Jews and others who were not "blonde-haired and blue-eyed".
He went on to Nuremberg, Germany where the Allies were examining the cases of Nazis and deciding who would be executed or put in prison. John went there to be a medic for the soldiers there guarding the war criminals. He often saw a famous Nazi named Hermann Göring walking in an exercise area. Göring was the second most famous Nazi under Adolf Hitler. He was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death but he committed suicide the night before the hanging.
John came home from the war a changed man. The memories of the war haunted him and he tried to commit suicide twice. He did weird things that worried and frightened his mom and dad. Today John admits he was as "wacky as a bedbug". His parents moved to California and John followed but he would often disappear into the mountains. It was there he met his wife Marion who was an Army nurse. She was from Vinton, Iowa. This is where they moved and John worked a variety of jobs including a job at the Iowa Braille School where Mary Ingalls (Laura Ingalls Wilder's sister) went after she went blind. After he had flashbacks from the war, John was let go at the school. He decided he should work as a handyman and make his own hours. John has done this for decades and never had a day off. John & Marion had two children together and they had a happy family life in Vinton. Marion passed away in (date) and he remarried is second wife, Jill, in 2004.
John was involved with a group of WWII soldiers who had group session at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City. He outlived all of them and today he joins a group of Vietnam Veterans who meet weekly. He's received over 37 awards for his volunteerism including the 2012 Iowa Volunteer of the Year "One Who Cares" Award, a statewide recognition sponsored by Channel 9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was also the 2012 American Legion's Volunteer of the Year in Iowa. The most prestigious award that John has received is the Jefferson Award, which he received in Washington DC. It's a national award that was created by Jacqueline Kennedy and it's the highest award that can be received for volunteerism. He still speaks in schools in and around the Cedar Rapids, Waterloo portion of Central Iowa.