We were honored to welcome Fremont Gruss, World War II veteran, to campus for Minnesota School of Business-Blaine’s Memorial Day event on May 22. Gruss shared his story from growing up to his time at war to help us understand the sacrifices made to give the United States of America the freedoms we enjoy and sometimes take for granted.
Gruss is also a Minnesota School of Business (MSB) graduate. He decided to attend our college after returning from the war in 1946. After graduating, he and his wife started a company in the basement of their home, which eventually grew to 100 employees. He credits his success to the education he received at MSB.
Standing in front of students and staff in the student commons, Gruss spoke of growing up in Annandale, Minn., his family, and his experience as a soldier during World War II. He said:
“My father owned the Annandale Mercantile, a general store that served all the needs of the average family in the rural areas as well as in town.
“These were the days when no one ever locked anything up. There were no locks on the doors of automobiles and homes. The vast majority of people were honorable and honest. A simple handshake signified one’s honor and honesty.
“My father received most of his business from the families of the nearby rural farms. My dad trusted everyone, because in those days, their word was good. He gave credit to the farmers all year long, and then in the fall when their crops came in, they would receive their money and pay him immediately. That all changed during the depression.
“In the 1930s, I remember vividly the gruesome suffering when we were plagued with no rain, no crops, and a limited supply of food for many families. Specifically, I can remember standing on our Main Street, day after day at high noon, looking straight up into the air and seeing nothing but pure black sky, a result of the topsoil blowing away and going over our town, from the Dakotas, to west of Minnesota.
“Although there were no jobs in Annandale, my father was fortunate to receive work from a family member living in northern Minnesota. My father would send my mother $30 per month, which paid for rent, clothing, groceries, and utilities. I would collect coal along the railroad tracks, pieces that had fallen from passing trains, to help heat the house.”
Emotion covered his face as he remembered when he and his family lost their home, the store, and a cottage on a nearby lake.
“At a young age, my parents taught me how to hunt and fish. Through this experience, I learned the importance of being quiet and moving slowly. Many men in World War II didn’t have that background and lost their lives for it by moving when they shouldn’t have. Learning how to hunt and fish at a young age gave me the skills for survival during the war.
“During the summer of 1943, at Camp Roberts California, I was one of three individuals chosen out of approximately 100 soldiers to qualify as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Air Force.
“About a year later, one of my fellow soldiers from St. Paul returned home. He was on crutches, however, having been badly wounded in New Guinea. He explained that half of the troops’ bodies were casualties of New Guinea. By the Grace of God, I had been protected by qualifying as an aviation cadet, and was not sent to New Guinea.
“I was two weeks away from flying as a cadet, when an executive order came down relieving them for the convenience of the government. All men who had been ground forces before were to return to those organizations. I joined the 97th infantry division at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in 1944. I was fortunate to receive an assignment away from the front line.”
Off to Europe
“Our division was late to the game, and we left in early 1945 to fight the Nazis in Germany. The trip was gruesome. I believe the waves in the North Atlantic were about 50 feet high, and came over the bow of the ship. The propellers would come out of the water, and not being particularly balanced, it seemed as if the whole ship would fall apart.
“As we neared South Hampton, England, at night we could hear many depth charges exploding on German submarines that threatened our convoy. Our destroyers were successful though, and we had no casualties on crossing.
“The division stayed at Camp Lucky Strike in France for about two weeks. We were all hungry as there was not enough food to feed us. Some fellows went to nearby towns to buy bread, until a rumor came that the Germans were poisoning the local bread supply.
“When our division arrived to combat, we were on the Rhine River and were replacing either first or second infantry division. Approaching the front line is like experiencing the sights and sounds of a summer thunderstorm. In the distance, you can hear slight sounds, and see a clash in the sky. The brightness of the flashes and the deafening roar of gun fire exchanges was overwhelming. It was so eerie to hear the American and German machine gunners firing at one another: the chug, chug, chug of our machine guns and the faster sound of the German guns as they tore through cloth. It was also strange to see how shot up the jeeps got. Each of the vehicles had at least 100-150 puncture holes from rifles, machine guns, artillery, and mortar.
“I was a young lad who learned quickly not to volunteer when they asked for men to go across the Rhine River to learn where the German troops were and relay this information to our intelligence. Not one of these men returned. They were killed, captured or drowned.
“Our heaviest fighting was at Siegburg, Germany, on the Sieg River near the Rhine. We fired our 81 mortars until the bottom of the mortar guns turned glowing-red hot from one explosion after the other. We could get 10-12 shells into the air at one time, before the first explosion. More people will killed by the mortars than any other weapon used in World War II, because you could not hear them coming until it was too late.
“The 97th infantry division liberated one of the most terrible concentration camps of World War II, Flossenberg. Our division was also given credit for firing the last shots of the European theater of operations, 10 miles from Pilsen, Czech Republic. They liberated the first major city in the Czech Republic, and the citizens built a beautiful memorial listing all the names of those who had given their lives for their liberty. When the Russian Socialist Communists invaded their country, the Communists destroyed that monument to our troops, but it was rebuilt when the Russians were driven out.
“Our division had previously attended the amphibious training, so after a 30-day furlough, were shipped off to Japan in August of 1945. We had the atomic bombs at that time but we were fortunate they were not used while we were there, or we would not have survived. The Japanese people were all very pleasant, as were the German citizens for that matter. It is a shame we can’t all live in peace and not have all these wars.”
“I was discharged the summer of 1946 at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, and returned home thankful, fully realizing how blessed I had been. Thanks to my Christian beliefs, survival sense, and maybe a little luck I was home in one piece.
“I’d been to 15 different countries, and when I came home to the United States, I was so happy, I wanted to kiss the ground.
“Many of my buddies gave their lives during this fighting. I saw so many bodies very still and very bloody. They gave their lives in the most wonderful country in the world. God bless the United States of America, and God bless our servicemen who did not come home to their mothers and fathers.”
Fremont ended with a plea for us to do our part to preserve our freedoms and liberties for future generations. He expressed how important it is for us to protect our constitution, and to not let the government take our rights away.
Hearing the story of a World War II veteran’s experience is something many of us have never experienced, and will never experience again. Having Fremont on our campus to share his story was so powerful to all who listened.
Diana Igo, Minnesota School of Business-Blaine campus director, spoke for everyone on campus when she thanked Fremont for his meaningful presentation. “We will never forget you,” she said.