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Retired U.S. Army Maj. Jerry Gustafson is a self-proclaimed football nut. The 97-year-old Arizona State University alumnus is such a huge fan, he renewed his Sun Devil football season tickets for 50 years straight. He was also a longtime Arizona Cardinals season ticket holder.
Although Gustafson’s love for the game of football is impressive, his military service is even more notable — the Chicago native served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. This veteran’s list of achievements is long, and his merits are well-deserved.
During ASU’s Salute to Service earlier this month, President Michael Crow invited Gustafson to watch the Sun Devils take on the University of Southern California, where he was presented with a football autographed by ASU football head coach Herm Edwards.
Gustafson’s military service began at the behest of his parents, who thought Gustafson needed academic discipline after he graduated high school. He attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri, where he completed four years of ROTC. He joined the Army in April 1943, graduating from Infantry Officer Candidate School later that year.
In February 1944, Gustafson was sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to help train the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, primarily made up of Americans of Japanese descent. He was part of a group of roughly 30 soldiers, lieutenants and captains sent to help train the team, which was about to head overseas.
When Gustafson reported for duty, the team’s colonel made sure to point out the unit’s ancestry. Gustafson said the colonel told him, “They are damn fine soldiers, and I’m proud to be their leader.” The colonel then told Gustafson that if he had a problem serving alongside these men because of bias or prejudice, he would be transferred out in 24 hours.
Gustafson stuck around and would eventually see firsthand how impressive this team became. Later that same year, Gustafson and the team were deployed to Italy and then France. One of his greatest achievements, in his opinion, is his team's rescue of the so-called Lost Battalion in France in 1944. The Lost Battalion was made up of 275 soldiers who were surrounded by German forces. Hundreds of men lost their lives trying to save the trapped soldiers.
In 2010, Gustafson’s unit was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for its brave efforts and successful rescue. Two of Gustafson’s three children were able to attend the ceremony with him in Washington, D.C.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact our unit did so well. They were one of the most decorated units in World War II,” explained an emotional Gustafson.
On April 30, 1964, Gustafson retired from the Army as a major and shortly after relocated his family to Arizona. Gustafson was 33 credits shy of his college degree when he enrolled at ASU. He finished his coursework in July 1965 — although he waited to graduate with the Class of ’66. Chuckling, he explained that he wanted to be part of the commencement ceremony.
Gustafson, who earned a degree in geography, went on to teach social studies at Moon Valley High School in Phoenix. He retired in 1985 after teaching there for 18 years.
Over the years, football remained an anchor to some of the most memorable moments in his life, specifically at ASU.
“I guess because of the comradery and the friendships that I made,” Gustafson said.
Since it’s harder to travel now, Gustafson didn’t renew his ASU football season tickets this year — for the first time in five decades. But don’t worry, this loyal fan — who turns 98 the day after Christmas — is watching the Sun Devils at home.
“Oh yeah, I watch them on TV and I don’t let much interrupt me, either,” he said with a laugh.
Gustafson said he likes what he sees and believes the team will be at the top of its program in the next year or two.
Top photo: ASU President Michael Crow greets veteran and alumnus Jerry Gustafson at the Nov. 9 Salute to Service football game against USC in Tempe. Photo by student worker Riley Trujillo