PORTAGE — At the age of 22, Everett Gasper signed up for World War II with the U.S. Army.
"I don't know what else I'd be (without the war)," Gasper said.
Gasper, who was born 100 years ago on this Fourth of July, grew up in Rensselaer. With three sisters and four brothers, he was the second youngest in the family. His mother died when he was 6, and he was raised with the help of his older siblings.
After enlisting in November 1941, Gasper traveled to Mineral Wells, Texas, for basic training at Fort Wolters, which also served as a German prisoner of war camp. From there, the 32nd Infantry Division traveled to Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
"They sent us then to San Francisco, California," Gasper said. "By train. We did everything by train back then."
In April 1942, Gasper's division sailed out from San Francisco, bound for the war in the South Pacific. He had been in training for less than six months.
Just days before docking, the infantry fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea. A U.S. fleet carrier, an oiler and a destroyer were sunk during the battle. It is considered an Allied victory.
"We lost a lot, right there, because of the subs," Gasper said. "The Japanese were in the waters out there."
The division had traveled at sea for 24 days before docking in Port Adelaide, South Australia. Troops had to start in the southern part of the continent because of the battle and "then we worked our way north." The division camped near Adelaide before moving 900 miles to outside of Brisbane.
"I can remember getting on a train, having to get off of the train because the power train wasn't powerful enough," Gasper said. "We had to walk again."
But no time was given to settle into Brisbane before Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the 32nd Division to Papua in September 1942.
"In the jungles, (we) go (from) one foxhole to the other," Gasper said. "I remember when we were pinned down along the river ... dead soldiers laying beside each other."
The campaign on New Guinea is all but forgotten, except by those who served there. Battles such as Tarawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima overshadow it. However, operations in New Guinea were essential to the Navy's drive across the Central Pacific and to the Army's liberation of the Philippine Islands from Japanese occupation.
The harsh reality of the New Guinea climate came as a shock to the inexperienced soldiers of the 32nd. Completely lacking in jungle training, hundreds of men were quickly struck down with disease. Settlements dotted the north coastline, but inland, the tropical jungle swallowed men and equipment. Gasper said the grass was 4 feet high, and "one day it was hotter than hell, about 115 degrees."
"We got into a battle with the Japanese right off to begin with," Gasper said. "I got the Purple Heart from being hurt there."
Gasper was injured during the Battle of Buna–Gona. The Papuan campaign was one of the costliest Allied victories of the Pacific war in terms of casualties. Of the 9,825 men of the 32nd Division who entered combat, 2,520 suffered battle casualties, including 586 soldiers killed in action.
"All you can think of is, 'What the hell are we going to do now?'" Gasper said. "Japanese fighters come in, and American fighters come in and drove them off. And we survived that."
After getting out of battle, Gasper had his kidney removed in a New Guinea hospital and suffered from a broken leg and ankle.
"I was back and forth from Australia to New Guinea (in hospitals)," Gasper said. "I lost track of (my outfit)."
He was sent back to the front lines with another group. The last of the 32nd's units did not return until early April 1943 from Papua.
In 1943, Gasper left the war behind and traveled back to the United States.
When Gasper returned home to Rensselaer, he said "nothing was like what was."
"All my friends were gone," Gasper said. "It just wasn't the same place.
"They had a job for me working with the city street department, and that wasn't for me. Shoveling dirt and stuff like that. I had enough education that I didn't need that."
He said it was the "lowest job you could think of." Gasper decided to move to Gary, where he "met a girl and got married." Gasper and his wife Anita had four children, all boys. He began working odd jobs to make ends meet — from driving a taxi to fixing up lawnmowers — but he couldn't keep a steady job because of his alcoholism, he said.
"Which was common back then," Gasper said. "(Eventually) I had to give that up."
He was recruited again for the military but didn't want to go back to war. Gasper spent the next 32 years working for the Budd Co. in Gary, which opened in 1949 and closed in 1982. He eventually remarried.
Gasper started woodworking as a hobby in his garage. He loved to make end tables, bookshelves and "whatever comes to my mind" out of woods like hard oak and cedar. A few end tables reside in his room at Miller's Senior Living Community in Portage.
Gasper said having his 100th birthday on this Fourth of July is a "miracle."
"I reached a hundred; that's all I want," Gasper said.
He's having a birthday party at the assisted living facility with his family and was excited for "a big cake."
Gasper is very proud of his military service. Hats with pins and an American flag quilt made by his daughter-in-law are shown throughout his room, where he has lived for the past three years. Gasper said he will be buried with his Purple Heart when he dies.
Gasper has a book filled with faces of those from Jasper County who fought in World War II. His picture isn't printed in the book; he's not sure why, maybe "my dad didn't have a camera" or didn't want to participate.
But Gasper has one placed inside. In the photo, he is 22 or 23 years old — forever captured before the war, his Purple Heart and the rest of his life that followed.