Obituary: John Gatens, war hero and draughtsman

John Francis Gatens, war hero and draughtsman. Picture: Contributed
John Francis Gatens, war hero and draughtsman. Picture: Contributed
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SCOTTISH-born war hero who survived of the Battle of the Bulge and a PoW camp

John Francis Gatens, war hero and draughtsman.

Born: 9 August, 1923, in Port Glasgow, Renfrewshire.

Died: 11 May, 2015, in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, United States, aged 91.

JOHN Francis Gatens, born on the Firth of Clyde, found himself at the age of 21 fighting as a howitzer gunner for the United States army at the Battle of the Bulge on the Belgian-German border in December 1944. It was the Americans’ bloodiest battle of the war: 19,000 were killed and 70,000 wounded or captured. After a heroic “Alamo Defence”, Gatens, whose family had emigrated to the US when he was a child, was captured and sent to two of the worst Stalags (PoW camps) in Germany. He survived horrific conditions, under which many died, until he was liberated by the Welsh Guards. He was still only 21.

John Francis Gatens was born in Port Glasgow on 9 August, 1923 to John and Mary (née Kinney) Gatens, both of whom had lived their entire lives in the town. On 27 January, 1923, while baby John Francis was on the way, his 31-year-old father set off from Yorkhill Quay, Glasgow, on the SS Columbia to start a new life in America.

When John Francis was three, his mother took him and his elder siblings Catherine, James and Thomas from their home on Mary Street, Port Glasgow, to join their father, ultimately settling in Paterson, New Jersey. Another son, Bernard, was born in the US.

Young John graduated from Eastside High School in Paterson, where he became an outstanding baseball player. One of his school teammates was Larry Doby, who would go on to be only the second African American (after the legendary Jackie Robinson) to break into Major League baseball.

Gatens’ own baseball dream was halted when the US entered the Second World War and he was called up aged 19. He joined “A” Battery, 106th Infantry Division (nicknamed the Golden Lions) of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion as a corporal in March 1943. Having sailed to Liverpool and received training in Gloucestershire, Gatens and his division landed near Rouen, France, on 5 December, 1944 and pushed inland. As a field artilleryman, he was known as a “red leg” from the red stripe on his uniform trousers.

It was at 0605 hours on 16 December, 1944 that young John Gatens got his first real taste of war when the Germans bombarded his position with intense 88mm, 105mm and heavy 155mm artillery shells.

It was the beginning of the 40-day Battle of the Bulge. Some of Gatens’ comrades were captured by a German patrol but his “A” battery commanding officer, Lieutenant Eric Wood, escaped into the Ardennes woods.

He reportedly waged a one-man “Rambo-style” war against the advancing Germans, killing countless enemy soldiers for a month before he was killed in a gun battle. A monument marks the spot where he died.

Now in command of his section, Gatens was ordered on 19 December to defend a key crossroads at Baraque de Fraiture, at 2,157 feet the highest point of Belgium. With only 100 men and three howitzers left, but led passionately by their commander Major Arthur C Parker, they held out for five days against thousands of Germans backed by the 2nd SS Panzer Division.

The crossroads is now known as Parker’s Crossroads and is marked by a monument, featuring a vintage howitzer the locals call Gatens’ Gun.

On 23 December, Gatens and his men were suddenly surrounded by a large force of Germans who pointed a tank gun at them from a few feet away. His war was over. He was marched first to the Limburg PoW camp Stalag X11A (12A) and later to Stalag XB (10B) near Bremervorde, where he slept on the ground, surviving Allied air raids, frostbite, dysentery and near starvation.

One of his captured 106th Division comrades, Kurt Vonnegut, satirically recalled his PoW experiences in his famous 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. In late April 1945, Gatens was liberated from Stalag XB by a unit of Welsh Guards, part of the British XXX (30) Corps.

Back from the war, still only 22, Gatens worked as a shipyard labourer in New Jersey, using his GI (army) benefits to study draughtsmanship at night school. He got married in 1946.

After qualifying he became a draughtsman with the Singer Kearfott company in Little Falls, New Jersey, where he spent his entire career until retiring at 65 to the town of Fair Lawn, near Paterson.

In retirement, he travelled and cruised extensively, returning several times to the scenes of his wartime battles, taking his two daughters and their families, who said the Belgians “treated him like a king”.

At home in Fair Lawn, where he lived for 64 years, he became an avid golfer – proud of his three holes-in-one – and ten-pin bowling, winning awards in both sports. Only 40 years after the war did he first share his wartime experiences with his family.

Known to his friends as Honest John, he often tried to get in touch with his extended family in Port Glasgow. But it was only in 2005, when he was 81, that he found them. On his way to Belgium, he sailed into Ocean Terminal Greenock aboard the swanky cruise ship Golden Princess to be met, thanks to social media contacts, by seven long-lost cousins from the Devenay family of Port Glasgow who threw a party for him.

In his memoirs, Gatens wrote: “In a small way I helped stop a mad man from taking over all of Europe and possibly the world. The only regret I have is the grief my family was put through when they received the telegram from Uncle Sam, saying ‘with deep regrets I wish to inform you that…’” (he was missing or killed in action).

John Gatens’ wife Annamae (née Vandermast) died in 1986. His siblings also predeceased him.

He is survived by his daughters Helen and Annemarie, sons-in-law Tom and Frank, grandchildren Heather, Sean, Scott and Matthew, six great grandchildren and his sister-in-law and companion Mary Vandermast.