Gordon Erdahl was a 24-year-old cannoneer from Ortonville, Minn., when he found out that he’d been chosen, out of the entire division, to fire its final howitzer shot of the Korean War.
“I felt like I had the best job in the Army,” Erdahl said, reflecting back on his time in the National Guard recently from his Battle Ground home.
“It was so smoky and noisy, but it was exciting.”
He remembers being pulled into a meeting by his sergeant, where he was informed that he was the gunner who had been picked to trigger the last round for the First Cavalry Division. Erdahl was thrilled, he said — who doesn’t want to be a part of history? It was a tremendous honor to be selected.
But Erdahl, 91, didn’t end up getting to fire that final shot. The honor was nabbed at the last minute by his superior, the division artillery commander.
Now, 67 years later, Erdahl reports the sting has worn off. Mostly. Now it’s a good story. According to the caption on an historic photograph of the moment, the 1,345,250th shot of the war was the division’s last.
“He pushed me aside and fired the gun,” Erdahl said. He said he remembers thinking to himself, ” ‘I wanted to do that! That was my job.’ ”
Erdahl’s battalion would later be relieved by elements of the 45th Division of the Army National Guard. He and his fellows were headed back to Hokkaido, Japan, at the northernmost tip of the country, where he’d spent the first stop of his deployment. Erdahl would stay there for another six months or so, he said, before he finally returned home.
Now, on the anniversary of the Korean War’s armistice, July 27, 1953, Erdahl looks back fondly on his time overseas.
“When you’re young, it’s a new adventure,” he said.
It was during that first deployment in Japan that Erdahl was assigned to the First Battalion Division as a cannoneer. He was one of about eight men on a single howitzer. His job, essentially, was to point the shot — he’d set up the powder bags that would determine how far a round would go, and then align the cannon’s compass to determine the round’s direction. He’d pull the rope, and off the round would go.
It was a fun job for a hotshot farmhand from the Midwest.
“That was exciting too, with all that power; a young buck in there,” Erdahl said.
One memory that sticks out, he continued, was when he found out that he’d need to get his wisdom teeth removed on the base. He walked to the medical tent, where two dentists were outside tossing around a football. It was like an episode of the TV show “MASH.”
One dentist had a reputation for being rough, the other gentle. Erdahl, luckily, got the gentle one.
“They said, ‘We gotta pull both them wisdom teeth out. We’ll do one now and one later.’ He said, ‘You go outside, have a smoke, and come back inside and we’ll pull it,’ ” Erdahl remembered. “He pulled a tooth and said, ‘Spit in the pail.’ He had to do that twice.”
You find things out about yourself while you’re fighting a war, Erdahl said, like how you can sleep through pretty much anything. At one point, he conked out on the floor of a barracks building while infantrymen shot rounds from just a few yards away.
“Me and another guy, we’re sleeping on the floor … and then in the morning, the guy said to me, ‘You’re a good sleeper, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We’ve been firing guns steadily,’ ” Erdahl said with a laugh.
Erdahl also found out that he was good in battle. He was less inclined toward the more mundane aspects of fighting in a war — he didn’t thrive on garrison duty, he said, or the daily work it took to keep the base clean.
“I was a good soldier, when there was a war,” Erdahl cracked.
Upon discharge, Erdahl returned to Minnesota, where he was assigned to Camp Ripley.
In 1955, Erdahl — Gordie to his friends and family — found himself at a town dance in Big Stone Lake, S.D. There, he was spotted by Lucille Flack, an 18-year-old local girl who had been dragged to the dance by her older sister after the sister quarreled with her husband.
“My sister and I sat down; we ordered a meal. I turned around and looked, and this handsome fella walked in the door,” Lucille Erdahl recounted, 65 years later. “I nudged her in the ribs, said ‘Who is that?’ ”
They shared a dance, and the rest was history. The couple married in May 1956.
They later moved to Portland for work. Erdahl worked as a delivery driver for Alcoa for around 18 years before he switched to doing deliveries for the Battle Ground School District. When he’d arrive with a package, he remembered fondly, the kids would call him “Santa Claus.”
Now, in their Battle Ground home, Gordie and “Lukie” have another nickname for themselves — the Spoil Kids. They feel spoiled by their rich life and community, she said.
Erdahl’s time in the National Guard laid the groundwork for the rest of his life. Even if he didn’t get to fire that final shot in Korea, he still felt like he was a part of history.
“It was hard work, but it was so very rewarding, that you didn’t mind the hard part,” he said. “We were helping a nation retain their freedom.”