Thursday, September 18, 2008

One final salute for WWII veteran

By Garret Mathews
Originally published 08:27 p.m., September 18, 2008
Updated 08:28 p.m., September 18, 2008

On Sept. 7, 91-year-old Harold Gourley of Newburgh put on his dog tags and cap he saved from his service in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

Elsie Gourley

Elsie Gourley

It would be the last time.

His wife, Elsie, wheeled him onto their front porch.

"Some men from the VFW are in the front yard. They want to present your service medals," she whispered.

The effects of a stroke suffered two years ago so weakened Harold Gourley that he weighed less than 100 pounds. He could no longer get out of bed without help.

"But Harold snapped off the smartest salute you've ever seen. You could tell the ceremony meant a lot to him, and he appreciated it so much," recalled Elsie Gourley, his wife of 61 years. "Everybody had tears in their eyes."

Harold Gourley died Monday.

"Dad always said that he just did his job during the war," said his daughter, Karen Courter, who lives in San Antonio. "He didn't expect any medals, but it was kind of nice they came."

Mae Rogers, Harold Gourley's 89-year-old sister, worked 26 years for Veterans Affairs.

"About a year ago, I started asking around with folks I knew about the medals because I knew how much he deserved them," said Rogers, who lives in Battle Creek, Mich. "I was told to work through Sen. Richard Lugar's office, and they came through with awards for his European service and also the battle."

On Tuesday, Elsie Gourley talked about the man she met at a Fourth of July shindig in Boonville, Ind., and married six months later.

"He was energetic and mechanical. Not more than 140 pounds. Twenty-nine inch waist. Always working. Always fixing something. I remember him rebuilding a wrecked 1956 Chevy pickup from the frame to the engine and driving it for years."

She said Harold Gourley was a vegetarian because he couldn't stand the taste of meat.

"In the war, he was always trading the food rations they gave him for desserts. Harold loved his pies and cakes."

Courter, 54, says her father "may have been the world's biggest homebody. The only vacation we ever took was to the Smoky Mountains. One night in a motel, and we were headed home. Dad always had to sleep in his own bed. After the war, he said he wasn't going anyplace, and he pretty much meant it."

Harold Gourley was born in rural Spencer County, Ind., and got to only eighth grade. His father ran a sawmill, and the seven children quickly were put to work.

"If you were lazy, he'd cross you off his list," Courter said.

"You talk about punctual. Everything was on a schedule," Elsie Gourley said. "Up at 6 in the morning, go to bed at 8 and in the middle of all that time he never stood still."

He worked for Servel before and after the war. He later hired on as a welder at Arkla, and continued to farm the family's 100 acres long past retirement.

"Nobody got out of a job," his wife said. "He thought nothing of sticking me on top of that soybean combine."

Courter noticed something different about her father than many other veterans who fought in the war.

"He talked about his service, even the bad things like when he saw people with their heads cut off. He'd tell about all the half-tracks he repaired when they thought nobody could get them going again, and how proud he was to serve in the 10th Armored Division under Gen. George Patton."

That unit helped liberate France, but it stalled en route to Germany because vehicles ran out of gasoline.

"They were sitting ducks for the Germans for five days until fuel could be dropped from the air," Rogers said. "One thing that bothered my brother was that the tanks were in so much of a hurry when they finally did get gas that they ran over some of their own men."

"When the hospice workers came to give him a bath, Dad always had a story," Courter said. "From how combat made many soldiers throw up, to how there wasn't much to look forward to during the cold of the Battle of the Bulge other than getting a fresh pair of socks."

Elsie Gourley honored her husband's wish that he not be put in a nursing home.

"He was going downhill pretty fast. It's a good thing the medals came when they did. That was cutting it pretty close."

Harold Gourley's funeral was Thursday.

"I don't know what I'll do now. I know there's friends and I know there's family, but I'm really gonna miss that man."