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D-Day survivor: Taylor native Gullickson describes harrowing rescue from Atlantic; will lay wreath in Normandy where ship went down

Grant Gullickson and his wife, Celia, are shown in a recent photo. 1 / 2
Grant Gullickson is shown as a recruit in the United States Navy.2 / 2

Taylor native Grant (Gully) Gullickson had to swim for his life in the North Atlantic Ocean after his ship, the USS Corry, was hit by artillery fire during the invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

Seventy years later, Gullickson was selected to lay a wreath at the site of where the destroyer went down during the epic World War II battle at Normandy on what would be termed D-Day.

He will be accompanied at the ceremony by a contingent of dignitaries, NBC reporters and 14 members of his family.

The ceremony is one of 581 D-Day 70th anniversary events and exhibits scheduled from May to August in Normandy.

It’s not the first time that Gullickson, age 93, has returned to the shores of France, but it likely will be his last, he said from his home in Virginia Beach, Va.

Gullickson went on to live a happy and productive life after the war, but he has never forgotten his fellow sailors that perished that day.

“There’s a special feeling when you visit the site — a feeling you can’t describe that’s inside of you,” he said. “I’m not a sad person, I’m a realistic person. But it’s one of the things you think about.”

Born near Taylor

Gullickson was born on his parent’s homestead five miles north of Taylor and graduated from Taylor High School.

“I was an adventurous person by nature,” he said. “I hitchhiked freights when I was 16 years old.”

Inspired by the stories of his friend, Ray Jurgens, he signed up at the Naval Recruiting Station in Bismarck. His brothers also served in the military — Orville was in the Navy and Ole in the Army.

Gullickson started his Naval career as a machinist mate and served on eight ships before retirement.

While Gullickson was assigned to the destroyer USS Corry (DD-463), the ship was ordered to England in preparation for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. The Allied forces trained for several months, while the generals and admirals decided when and where to launch the attack.

Corry led the way

More than 5,000 Allied ships, including some 700 warships, crossed the English Channel for the invasion. When the troops landed on the Normandy beaches, the USS Corry was the lead ship, and along with USS Fitch, was the first to fire at the German defenses.

“I was in the engine room and didn’t see much of the combat,” he said. “It was my job to see that the captain had power to keep the ship going.”

“We were the first ones to arrive off the coast of France about 5:35 a.m. on D-Day morning,” he said. “Our job was to take out the gun entrenchments on Utah Beach.”

Aircraft were to provide cover for the destroyers Corry, Fitch and Hobson by providing smoke screens.

“The plane that was supposed to lay down our smoke screen was shot down and crashed,” Gullickson said. “The Germans on shore could see us and we were hit on the port side,” he said.

Gullickson was chief in charge of the engine room when artillery fire hit the ship in the forward boiler room. Everyone was told to evacuate.

“We came top side and went back to the other boiler room to get everybody out of there,” he said.

Trying to survive

Having lost his life jacket in the engine room, he found a life belt and jumped into the water. He swam toward a floater net, which were used by sailors to cling to until being rescued.

“The bad part was the Germans were still shooting at us and shrapnel was flying all over,” he said. “Two hours later, honest to God, I was ready to let go when a boat from our sister ship, the Fitch pulled me in. I was in pretty bad shape. They gave me some clothes and coffee. I collected myself and started looking around for my fellow chief machinist mates and friends, Chief Brewer and Chief Peterson. I learned they were killed by shrapnel.”

All total, 24 Corry sailors were killed and 59 were seriously wounded from the ship.

Gullickson and fellow survivors boarded the Queen Elizabeth for transport back to the United States. After 30 days leave and training on a new engineering plant, Gullickson was assigned to a high-speed transport, the USS John Q. Roberts. It’s mission was to remove underwater obstacles off the coast of Japan.

“We were preparing for invasion off the coast when the war ended,” he said.

His last ship Naval assignment was the USS Forrestal, a super aircraft carrier. It was recently decommissioned and is being cut apart for its steel in Texas, he said.

After 30 years of Naval service, Gullickson went to work at a shopping mall in Norfolk, Va.

“I ended up general manager for the shopping center, and worked there 14 years,” he said.

He married his first wife, Beatrice, in 1945, and they had two sons, Greg and Gary, and a daughter, Gigi.

Beatrice died 11 years ago, and he has since married Celia. Gullickson also has a step-son, Kenneth.

Gullickson likes to spend his free time working in the yard or restoring vintage vehicles.

“Growing up during the Depression, we never got rid of machinery — we might need it,” he said. “I’m rebuilding a 1936 Ford coupe right now.”

Planning to attend the 70th anniversary memorial of D-Day, Gullickson invited members of his family to accompany him to France. The family will leave June 1 and plans to tour England and Norway before returning home.

“The French have done a wonderful job to remember what went on,” he said. “The French are very appreciative of what Americans did over there.”

Gullickson felt the need to stay in contact with his fellow shipmates when he helped organize 41 USS Corry reunions. The last reunion was held in September of 2013.

He looks back with fond memories of his Naval experiences.

“The Navy is a great life,” he said. “I traveled around the world, but in a jagged line.”

However, he has never forgotten his roots to North Dakota. He often visits the home place, which is farmed by Glen Gullickson and his family.

“There is no place like North Dakota,” he said. “I like walking the hills, thinking about hunting jackrabbits for a nickel a piece.”

His niece Fayette Heidecker of Dickinson is among the family members who plan to attend the memorial.

“We’ve always been extremely proud of Grant for his service,” Heidecker said.

She described her uncle as an extremely kind, gentle and big-hearted person.

“He is very giving and very loyal. He’s always had a big love for North Dakota and considers it his home,” she said.

She said their family is very patriotic.

“We have been very interested in history because my dad served in World War II and my husband is a Vietnam veteran. I’m a life member of the VFW Auxiliary. We felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually go with someone who has been there.”