By Tamara Stevens, Special to Emmet County All of the World War II memorials in Washington, D.C., have something in common. Each memorial bears a degree of indebtedness to Gordon Wiitanen of Petoskey. Wiitanen personally has helped raise money for every WWII memorial, he said.
“I’ve stood in grocery stores asking people for donations, stood outside the post office, you name it,” Wiitanen said. “I wouldn’t let anybody get by me when I was collecting.”
Every dollar counts when it comes to building a memorial; the WWII Disabled Veteran Memorial, for example, cost $85 million. Wiitanen, now 89 years old, has attended numerous ground breakings and many dedications of WWII memorials, including the American Veteran Disabled Life Memorial. He’s also been present at local memorials for Veteran’s Day celebrations, as well as Memorial Day ceremonies.
The former U.S. Army Infantry soldier and Army Air Corps serviceman has chosen to continue his obligation to his country long after leaving the service, and many years after earning the Purple Heart.
Born and raised in Houghton, in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wiitanen came from a large family – nine children, including eight boys and one girl.
“My father often said that Katie (his sister) screwed up a really good baseball team,” Wiitanen said laughing.
Five of his brothers served in WWII. Wiitanen was set to graduate from Houghton High School in June 1945, but never got the chance. By that time, the United States was desperate for soldiers to fight the war, and for a few months many young men were drafted into service before they could graduate from high school. He was one of those men. Drafted before graduation in the spring of 1945, Wiitanen was proud to go, he said.
He was sent to Ft. McClellan in Alabama for training as an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
“We were getting ready for the invasion of Japan,” Wiitanen said, which was supposed to occur in November 1945. The Battle of the Bulge had just been won by the allies. After 15 weeks of training at Ft. McClellan, “Truman dropped the bombs on Japan,” he said. It was August 1945, and the war ended.
That same month, the Soviet Union invaded Korea, which had been under Japan’s control since 1910. Fearing that the Soviets intended to seize the entire peninsula from their position in the north, the U.S. quickly moved its own troops, the same troops that were training and poised to go to Europe or Japan, into South Korea.
Wiitanen was part of the 592nd Amphibious Engineer Battalion, ordered by General Douglas MacArthur to pull off a risky landing behind the North Koreans. Wiitanen first stepped down in Korea in Inchon, near Seoul, in the later part of 1945.
“We were in charge of unloading all the supplies from the hundreds of vessels that came into port,” Wittanen said.
Thanks to the system of earning points in the military, Wiitanen had earned enough points to come home in 1946. A friend of his got out of the service at the same time and encouraged Wiitanen to join him in Detroit to work in a factory. Wiitanen had planned to return to Houghton and study forestry at Michigan Technological University. But working in factories paid good money, so Wiitanen joined his friend for a few years.
After working in two factories, he discovered that the work wasn’t his bag, he said. A recruiter on Woodward Avenue told him that he could enlist in the Army and re-enter with the same rank he had attained when he left a few years before.
Looking back at his life now, he can see that it was at that point that he made service to his country his career.
Infantryman serving in Korea
From 1948 to 1949, he transferred to the Army Air Corps, went to Ft. Cheyenne in Wyoming, then to Walker Air Force Base in Roswell, New Mexico. He trained to be in the 509th Bomb Group and to be an Air Force mechanic. He went on maneuvers with the 187th Airborne to jump over Vieques Island in Puerto Rico. The wind was blowing 50-60 knots, and the president of the United States was watching, Wiitanen said.
“That was the first time I crawled over the side of a landing ship,” Wiitanen said. “The huge waves would raise and lower the landing crafts, and you had to climb down the cargo nets. You had to be on the ball when you let go or you could get badly hurt.”
While marching in a parade through the town of Roswell one day, bystanders began spitting on the Air Force servicemen. Wiitanen said he almost broke rank to retaliate, but the other men in his company stopped him. That experience soured him on the Air Force and he requested to be transferred back to the infantry.
“Anybody with an infantry badge could transfer back,” he said. He had his choice of selecting a base. He chose Ft. Devans, Massachusetts, and decided to hitchhike from New Mexico to the east coast.
By 1950 Wiitanen returned to Korea. His unit was positioned along the Yellow River in North Korea, on the west side of the peninsula.
“The Chinese had entered the war,” Wiitanen said. “Our job was demolition. We were supposed to blow up bridges, roads, buildings, locomotives, mine fields, anything to slow their advance, to deter the Chinese.” General Ridgeway, his commander, called it “Operation Killer,” with the goal of killing as many Chinese as possible. Many folks back home didn’t like that name, so they renamed it, he said.
While in Korea, Wiitanen was a demolitions engineer, destroying everything they thought the Chinese would use to advance, he said. Wiitanen’s unit used composition C3 explosives, dynamite, T&T, and even Korean land mines that he and his unit would salvage.
“When we were short of dynamite, we’d use their box mines,” Wiitanen said. The box mines weighed about 13 pounds and had what he calls “pick rick” acid inside.
“We’d do crazy things like cut the time fuse,” Wiitanen said. He and Martin Tuersey, a fellow serviceman from his unit, would have a Jeep waiting when they lit the fuse, then they’d run for the Jeep and race away before rocks and debris rained down on them. “We’d play games,” he said of the dangerous job of demolition.
While serving with the 3rd Infantry Division, he was shot in the chest on January 20, 1951.
The bullet entered Wiitanen’s chest on the right side and exited out his back. He and his unit were up in the mountains along the Yellow River, which is rugged countryside. The only way to evacuate him was on a chopper. There were so many other wounded soldiers in worse shape than him that they ended up putting Wiitanen on a hospital train. He remembers being given a bottle of plasma, saline solution, and morphine, but not much else of the train ride.
The hospital train took him to Taegu, Korea, in the southern region of South Korea, to a collecting hospital for the wounded. He was cared for by nurses in the hospital for seven days. The nurses were wonderful, he recalls.
“There I was lying in a bed with clean, white sheets,” Wiitanen said. “I hadn’t slept in a bed in months. The nurse asked me, ‘Sergeant, can I clean you up?’ I said, ‘Go ahead.’” All these years later can remember her, Lt. Postle Waite from Chicago.
After seven days of lying in bed in the hospital, Wiitanen couldn’t take it anymore, he said. He saw that there were other men in far worse condition than him. With his arm in a sling, he left the hospital and hitchhiked back north to his unit. When they saw Wiitanen returning, they shouted to him, “What are you doing here?” he said.
In the heat of the battle, he didn’t have time or the inclination to fill out the paperwork to apply for the Purple Heart. It would take many years before he would hold the medal in his hands.
Recruiting soldiers and raising memorial money
Wiitanen was eventually evacuated out of Hungnam, Korea, with the last of the troops to leave N. Korea. He come home from Korea by ship in August 1951. There were 385 veterans on board as they landed in California, he remembers.
Sergeant Wiitanen returned home and was working in the Detroit area as a recruiter at the U.S.O. Federal Building downtown when another recruiter asked him if he was interested in working in Petoskey.
Wiitanen remembers clearly asking the recruiter, “Where is Petoskey?” He’d never heard of the town before. Eventually, Wiitanen spent three days in Petoskey, where the resident recruiter was retiring. Wiitanen asked the recruiter one thing about the area: “Show me the best fishing spots,” he said.
The retiring recruiter showed him several good fishing areas and Wiitanen became the U.S. Military Recruiter for Emmet, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Otsego counties from 1952 to 1955. In November 1952, he was named the top recruiter in Michigan, enlisting more people into the armed services than any other recruiter.
In 1957, Wiitanen was sent to Ft. Lenardwood, Missouri, for more training. “They called it ‘Lost in the Woods,’” Wiitanen said. From there he was sent to Germany, where he served from 1957 to 1959 supporting the 14th Armored Calvary Division.
“We thought we’d be fighting Russians,” Wiitanen said of being posted near the border to Russia.
He said that for those three years he “practically lived in a chopper,” flying over the Armored Division.
After three years in Germany, he came back to the States and was sent to Ft. Benjamin in Indiana for recruiting school before returning to working as a recruiter.
In 1966 Wiitanen retired from the U.S. Army after 22 years of active duty as a First Sergeant E8. Had he stayed in the Army, he said, he would have ended up with the rank of Sergeant Major.
Upon his retirement, Wiitanen dedicated himself to helping to raise donations for the building of war memorials. He wrote letters and handed out pamphlets. He’s collected donations for the Korean Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the last memorial he worked on was the Disabled Veteran’s Memorial.
“I was present for the groundbreaking and ribbon cutting for all of them,” Wiitanen said.
He’s worked tirelessly to encourage schools to take their students to Washington, D.C. and see the memorials and learn their country’s history. He’s also a supporter of the U.S. Army museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Wiitanen is beyond proud of his niece, Mikaela Wiitanen, who is a First Sergeant in the Corp of Cadets at West Point (pictured at left). She will graduate in May 2017 and he has vowed to be there to pin the bars on her shoulders. He has another niece who will be sworn into the Air Force Academy in May 2016.
His own daughter, Deborah, is a retired Lieutenant Colonel Army nurse who lives in Oregon. And his son, Mark, is retired from the Army.
Wiitanen married Catherine, and they had five children; three boys and two girls. While he was working as a recruiter in Petoskey, he and his wife became friends with another couple, Shirley and Bud Neill. Shirley worked as the clerk at the draft board in Petoskey. Bud was in the Army and also served in Korea. Many years later after Wiitanen’s wife passed away, he learned that Bud had also died. He contacted Shirley and they became reacquainted. The two have been taking care of each other for the past 16 years. They live in the rural countryside outside of Petoskey.
Having never been handed his high school diploma in front of his graduating class, Wiitanen took the GED test while he was in the service and did receive it. He sent the test to the superintendent of Houghton High School and was made an honorary member of the Class of 2002. He went up on the stage in a cap and gown and was officially presented with his diploma.
He’s also an honorary member of the Petoskey High School Class of 1949, due to his participation in the effort to move the WWII memorial from its original location near the Bear River up to Pennsylvania Park.
Wiitanen took a ride a few years ago in the Yankee Lady, a B-17 bomber that visited Pellston Regional Airport for public tours and flights. He crawled into all the gun ports except the belly position, and was reminded of seeing 50-caliber weapons shoot Chinese soldiers many decades before.
After the Yankee Lady landed in Pellston, Emmet County’s Veterans Affairs Director Jim Alton asked how many of those riding on the plane were WWII veterans? Wiitanen was the only one who raised his hand.
Web editor’s note: On a regular basis, Emmet County features the story of a local veteran, in tribute to their service to the United States. If you have an idea for a veteran to feature, please contact Beth Anne Eckerle at (231) 348-1704 or firstname.lastname@example.org