SCARBOROUGH — Because the exploits of field artillery units took a backseat to infantrymen fighting on the front lines during World War II, stories of gallantry and heroism in combat from soldiers assigned to the artillery received little recognition. But more than 72 years after the conclusion of that war, one Maine veteran considers himself fortunate to have been part of the artillery and lucky to have played a role in liberating Europe from the Nazis.
Fernand “Fern” Gaudreau, 95, grew up in Westbrook and was drafted into the U.S. Army in the fall of 1942. He ultimately went on to be an eyewitness to history, serving with U.S. Army artillery units in Italy, France and Germany before being wounded by an exploding enemy mortar shell in Nuremberg, Germany in April 1945.
Gaudreau, who will celebrate his 96th birthday on Sunday, now lives at the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough and said those who glorify war certainly have never been in combat.
“It’s the absolute worst thing you can imagine,” Gaudreau said. “Even though we were field artillery, we worked shoulder to shoulder with front-line companies, and often the farthest advanced infantry. Even far behind the lines we had brushes with death and destruction associated with the war every day.”
He was working in a shipyard in South Portland when he was drafted into the Army and the only time he had ever been out of Maine was a trip to Boston as a teenager. Gaudreau boarded a train for basic training at Camp Carson in Colorado and upon finishing boot camp there he was sent to attend artillery school at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and then permanently assigned to an artillery unit at Camp Polk in Louisiana.
“I guess the hardest thing for me to get used to in the military was the discipline,” Gaudreau said. “Nobody told me what to do when I worked in the shipyard, but in the Army they told me everything, even when to wake up, when to eat and when to sleep.”
Shipped overseas in 1943, Gaudreau’s unit fought on the Sorrento Peninsula in Italy and then at Naples in Italy and something he saw there has stuck with him throughout his life.
“To this day I cannot tolerate the wasting of food,” he said. “When I was in Italy we would always have three or four women from the village lurking by our trash barrels. They were starving and looking for something to eat and to feed their families. They were victims of the war and in a desperate state.”
To help them, Gaudreau said he and his fellow soldiers would leave a little extra food scraps and coffee out by the barrels each night.
“I grew up during the Great Depression and even by those standards I had never seen poverty like that,” he said. “To this day, whenever I see leftovers being thrown away, it always brings me back to that memory of those women.”
Promoted to corporal in 1944, Gaudreau served as chief of his unit’s gun section and became familiar with the M-7 tank and adept at firing a 105mm howitzer, which projected a 33-pound shell onto enemy positions.
“We supported the infantry, but after seeing war up close, I’m damn glad I was in the artillery,” he said.
As the Americans pushed through Southern France in 1944 and then into Germany in the late winter and spring of 1945, Gaudreau found himself dangerously close to some of the most intense fighting of the war.
“I lost friends in the shell fire,” he said. “And I saw people die all around me. You don’t forget that, you can’t forget that.”
Reaching the outskirts of Nuremberg, Gaudreau’s unit came under heavy fire and an incoming mortar shell exploded near him, severely injuring one of his legs.
“I begged the doctor not to take my leg and it was touch and go for a while,” he said. “I ended up in a military hospital in Nancy, France and I was treated there along with German POWs. We found they were just as tired of war as we were.”
When the war finally ended in 1945, Gaudreau returned to Maine, got married, raised a family and worked as a mailman. His wife died 15 years ago, and his son, Brian Gaudreau, lives in Kennebunk.
He says that despite the passing of more than seven decades, when he closes his eyes, he can still vividly recall the sights and sounds of the war and the acrid smell of exploding gunpowder in the air.
“We took everything for granted at the time and were so young,” Gaudreau said. “But I came out of it alive and did my duty. We all did what had to be done and I’m proud to have been a part of history.”