Veteran credits farm skills, strength for WWII survival

TAYLOR, N.D. -- Grant G. Gullickson says if it hadn't been for his farm-ranch background in Stark County, N.D., he might not have achieved the success he had in the U.S. Navy, and he might not have survived war.

Grant G. Gullickson
Grant G. Gullickson, 94, a native of Taylor, N.D., is a retired chief engineer from the USS Forrestal in the U.S. Navy and veteran of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, aboard the USS Corry as it was sunk attacking Utah Beach. Photo taken July 31, 2014, at Taylor, N.D. (/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)(

TAYLOR, N.D. -- Grant G. Gullickson says if it hadn't been for his farm-ranch background in Stark County, N.D., he might not have achieved the success he had in the U.S. Navy, and he might not have survived war.

Gullickson, who grew up just north of Taylor, holds the distinction of serving on one of the first three ships in the 6,939-vessel armada that stormed the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He was aboard the USS Corry, credited with being the first to fire on Normandy Beach.

At age 94, he lives in Virginia Beach, Va., but makes it home to Taylor every year.

"I had a wander lust -- I loved to travel," Gullickson said on one of his regular annual visits home in July. "But I always loved the farm, too. My heart is always in North Dakota."

Peasants to farmers


Gullickson is not far from his pioneer rootstock. His grandfather, Ole Gullickson came in a covered wagon in June 1887, and homesteaded north of Hebron, N.D. His father, Lewis, homesteaded near Taylor in 1910, first living in a dugout in the side of a hill. Eventually, Lewis and his wife Clara moved into a house made of vertical railroad ties, tied together with gumbo-clay and straw, and wrapped in tar paper.

Grant was born in 1920, the third of nine children -- three boys and six girls. The Gullicksons raised shorthorn cattle on 320 acres on the ranch, with about 100 acres to grow wheat and barley for the cattle, hogs and chickens. Later, they rented another 320-acre farm and seeded it with flax.

The Norwegian-American Gullicksons and their German-American neighbors -- the Jurgens and the Tammens -- were a close-knit clan.

"We were like one big family out there -- did everything together," Gullickson says.

In the 1930s, he remembers years when there wasn't a blade of grass on the hills surrounding the home.

"We got half a load of hay off of the whole 320 acres that year, and that was in a little valley. We didn't have any rain at all. The wind would blow and it would be so dusty you couldn't see the hills."

Men who could work

All three Gullickson brothers served in World War II.


Orville had quit school after 8th grade and started farming.

"Pa had to have him with him," Grant Gullickson recalls.

Gullickson graduated high school in 1939 and immediately joined the Navy, two years before the war broke out.

"If you were from a farm -- any farm, but especially a North Dakota, South Dakota or Nebraska farm boy -- they were standing there waiting for you, because they knew you'd be a man who could work," Gullickson says of the military recruiters.

He initially served on the Battleship Mississippi, based in Bremerton, Wash.

"America only had one fleet at that time," he says. "They sent it out to Pearl Harbor -- 12 battleships, 30 cruisers, 100 destroyers."

But in May 1941, the Mississippi and four destroyers were sent to the Iceland area, to protect British shipping from German attack. After the Pearl Harbor attack and the declaration of war, Gullickson was reassigned to the USS Corry at Charleston, S.C., and boarded on Jan. 1, 1942. The Corry went on submarine hunts and sank a U-Boat. He eventually was put in charge of its two 25,000-horsepower steam turbines.

On June 6, 1944, the USS Cory was heading for Utah Beach and started taking gunfire about 5:35 in the morning, Gullickson recalls.


"At 6:35 a.m., a German shore battery blew us out of the water. I was lucky enough, I survived." Twenty-four of the ship's 240-member crew died and 60 were wounded.

By a twist of fate, Gullickson had lost his life vest in the engine room when the first shell hit. He and two buddies -- Bernard Peterson from Iowa and Charlie Brewer of Florida -- were going to abandon ship together.

"But I said there was no way in hell I was going to go without a life jacket," Gullickson says. Brewer and Peterson jumped into the water and he went to look for a life vest before sliding into the water. Two hours later, the USS Fitch destroyer rescued Gullickson, even as it kept firing from the other side.

"Honest to God, I was at the end of my life when that Fitch boat showed up," Gullickson recalls. He later learned his buddies were killed by shrapnel from shore batteries.

"It missed me," he says. "It's funny how life goes, that way."

Making it a career

After D-Day, Gullickson came back to the states. He had a new set of orders to another ship that was sent to attack Japan, but the atomic bomb stopped all of that.

He had planned to muster out after 20 years and had already started campaigning to come home and run for sheriff in Stark County.


"I sent Christmas cards to 200 people out here, 10 years ahead of time," he says "Back then they had two sheriffs (officers) to handle the whole damn county. Now they've got 14 (officers). What the hell happened? The population is about the same today."

But he was commissioned an officer and promoted in the Navy, so he stayed in. He'd serve on eight ships in all, achieving a commander status in 1969 on the USS Forrestal, a so-called super carrier. At the time, he was chief engineer and had 600 men under his supervision.

On April 26, 1945, Gullickson married Bea Peterson, the widow of Bernard Peterson. He was on survivor's leave to New York City, and met her by chance on a train in Boston, where she was meeting other widows. Gullickson and Bea had a daughter and three sons, but one son died as an infant. All three were in the Navy.

Bea died in 2002. Their marriage was a subject of the "Journey to Normandy" documentary, hosted by Bryan Williams of NBC News.

Six years ago, Gullickson remarried a woman named Celia.

A spot worth protecting

Grant Gullickson's brother Orville, born in 1918, enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor and started as a seaman in the Pacific but was tapped to become a refrigeration technician. Ole, the youngest of the three brothers, born in 1926, went into the Army at the end of the war and served two years in Japan.

After the war, Orville came home to take over the farm. His son, Glenn Gullickson, has been farming the place since 1977. Two of Glenn's brothers served in Vietnam in the Navy and Army.


Glenn and Victoria farm with their sons, Chad and Lee. Their daughter Kodi Hazen works with the cattle.

Since retirement, Grant Gullickson has been a family "rock," coming home every year and for any important need. About 20 of his relatives were with him at Normandy Beach on June 6 for the anniversary of the D-Day landing this past summer. His niece, Fayette Heidecker, an advertising representative for Agweek, was one of them.

"We have no idea what these guys went through," Glenn says of his uncle. "He does. Until you live it, I don't think you ever understand. He keeps telling us that for all the places he's visited in the world, Taylor, N.D., is the 'best spot in the world,' in part because we produce food and have some self-sufficiency. It is a spot that was worth protecting.

"And you know, we probably appreciate it more because he keeps telling us that," Glenn says.

Grant G. Gullickson on leave
Gullickson was home in Taylor, N.D., on leave from the Navy in 1940, a year before the Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S. entered World War II. Here, he stands with his mother, Clara, and his sisters, from left, Georgene and Blanche.

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