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Newton Battle of the Bulge veteran reflects on harrowing experiences

Wicked Local Metro - 12/19/2018

Dec. 19--Jerry Goolkasian has been married to his soft-spoken wife Eleanora for 68 years, raised seven kids in Newton, worked as an insurance salesman until his retirement and has 10 grandkids. The gregarious 97-year-old veteran is also a masterful historian who has detailed his service in the U.S. Army fighting in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge, surviving a serious hand injury.

"I think about it all the time," said Goolkasian, a Purple Heart recipient, while relaxing in his homey living room last week. Drafted at age 21 in 1942, he vividly tells stories about many of his good friends from the military who didn't survive the war, pragmatically adding, "But life has to go on."

Goolkasian's own journey into combat began in Europe after he served stateside for two years. He endured a nauseating voyage across the Atlantic, arriving at night in Valognes, France, in November 1944.

"If the whole German army was there, I could have cared less," he said, happy to get off the ship and be on solid ground.

Shortly after his arrival, on Dec. 16, 1944, "the German army launched a counteroffensive [months after D-Day on June 6, 1944] that was intended to cut through the Allied forces in a manner that would turn the tide of the war in Hitler's favor," as described on the U.S. Army's website.

The battle raged from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 18, 1945. On Dec. 20, 1944, Goolkasian's tank was hit in Noville, Belgium, and, "That was the end of the war for me," he said.

In honor of his courageous service, his daughter Barbara Goolkasian Keane arranged on Sunday, Dec. 16, for her dad to receive 150 purple-heart-shaped cards written by family, friends and students, to coincide with the anniversary of the battle.

To make the surprise even more special, her friend Michele Austin Magane, a teacher at King Philip Regional High School whose students created 100 cards, arranged for members of the Boston University ROTC to hand-deliver the notes

"My dad holds his emotions a little close but he was clearly overwhelmed by the appearance of those soldiers," said Keane in an email after the delivery.

Surviving the attack

Goolkasian's survival on Dec. 20, 1944, came the day after he and his tank crew, who served with the 10th Armored Division, 3rd Tank Battalion, Company B, faced off for the first time against Nazi tanks in Noville.

He said that normally the German tanks were slightly better equipped than their American counterparts, but on Dec. 19, 1944, they destroyed three during the confrontation.

He said two were turned sideways, which made them much easier to hit. He surmised they were turned because they may have been frozen in the mud and were trying to shake themselves loose.

"And that was the end of it," said Goolkasian. "This was the job we had to do. It was a case of kill or be killed, which is war in and of itself."

Although a commander wanted to give them Silver Stars for excellent shooting, he said, "We weren't interested in Silver Stars or anything of the like. These glorifications -- you don't go looking for those in combat. ... They were meaningless."

In fact, he said, "The best thing you were looking for was not to get a Purple Heart," since those were given to soldiers who were wounded or killed.

But the next day, the outcome drastically changed.

As their tank was shelled with mortars and Goolkasian was firing one of the vehicle's guns, all of a sudden he felt his left arm go numb, at first not realizing he'd been hit.

"The blood was just pouring out as if I had turned on a faucet," he said, although strangely he felt no pain because his nerves were destroyed and it was cold.

He saw the gunner had lost his left ear, so he yelled down to the driver that they were shot, that he'd try to get to an aid station and told him to stay in tank

As they tried to find shelter, he heard an explosion that propelled him up in the air, blew off his shoe, and sent shrapnel into his foot.

"The stuff was coming in like crazy," Goolkasian recalled.

His left hand grievously injured, he was helped to a barn by a soldier whose name remains a mystery to this day.

They soon arrived at the aid station in a nearby church where the doctor gave him two shots of cognac and two vials of plasma, he recalled.

With the Nazis firing on the halftrack that had been converted into an ambulance, Goolkasian eventually arrived in Bastogne and was put on a train to Paris where he spent Christmas and had surgery. He would go on to have 13 operations over the next three years.

Planning for the future

After being hospitalized in England, Goolkasian finally arrived back in Massachusetts in March 1945, and was sent to the now-closed Cushing Hospital in Framingham for more surgery.

Dr. J. William Littler, a world-famous hand surgery pioneer, operated on Goolkasian, amputating his index finger and swinging the tendon around to his thumb so he'd be able to use it.

Even before he was discharged in November 1947, at the rank of corporal, he said he would not allow his injury to affect his life, and never used handicapped parking spaces.

"I just made up my mind," he said.

While being treated, Cushing Hospital tailor Rosemary Petersante who was dating his friend, thought he might be interested in meeting her friend, Eleanora Fiorio.

Eleanora -- who would become his wife after five years of dating -- said she first thought he was "a wiseguy" since he was always joking around.

Together for almost seven decades, Eleanora Goolkasian showed deep empathy for her husband's wartime experiences and reflected that those who served often "buried this inside themselves. ... It completely changes your life."

Jerry Goolkasian got through his wartime adversities through perseverance and believing in fate rather than being involved in religion, he said.

A realist, he said, "What have we learned from war? Nothing."

However, what his family, friends and other veterans have learned is that Goolkasian has many fascinating stories to tell about his harrowing experiences during that crucial period of World War II. His daughter, Keane, said she and her dad are collaborating on his biography, with him telling the stories as she edits them. Whenever the book comes out, it will be an engrossing read by a humble family man who still calls Newton his home.

For information on the Battle of the Bulge from the U.S. Army, visit army.mil/botb/

For an interactive timeline on the Battle of the Bulge from the Library of Congress, visit loc.gov/collections/world-war-ii-maps-military-situation-maps-from-1944-to-1945/articles-and-essays/the-battle-of-the-bulge/

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(c)2018 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass.

Visit Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. at needham.wickedlocal.com

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