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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow A diploma long overdue

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A diploma long overdue

Joe Frericks will receive an honorary high school diploma Tuesday night at the Baker High School awards program. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Joe Frericks will receive an honorary high school diploma Tuesday night at the Baker High School awards program. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Joe Frericks takes oxygen, and sometimes his back aches him terribly, but at age 78 he figures he's still not too old to lug around a diploma.

Almost 60 years ago Frericks was dodging German machine gun bullets and artillery shells instead of graduating from high school.

On Tuesday Frericks will make up for those six decades of lost time.

"I just lost track of my years," he says with a smile, and at that moment his eyes are as bright as any teen-ager's.

Frericks will receive his honorary high school diploma Tuesday during Baker High School's annual awards program, which starts at 7 p.m. at the BHS auditorium, 2500 E St.

Actually, this diploma is Frericks' second.

Last year the French government awarded him one for risking his life (and almost losing it) to free France during World War II.

Frericks, who was a machine-gunner, fought in most of the major battles in Europe during the final year of the war, including Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

Once he was pelted with dirt from a bomb that exploded near his fox hole, and another time he watched German tracer bullets zip inches from his chest, sparing him but hitting a comrade nearby.

Yet for all his close calls Frericks said he never regretted leaving school to enlist in the military.

"I almost got myself killed doing it, several times," he said. "But no regrets, ever."

Had Frericks stayed in school he might well have ended up in uniform anyway, of course, as did so many of the young men of his generation.

But Frericks didn't wait to be called; he didn't, in fact, even wait until he was of legal age.

Frericks was just 16, and a junior at St. Francis Academy in Baker City, when he joined the Oregon National Guard in 1940.

The minimum age is supposed to be 18.

"I didn't quite make that," he said. "They didn't ask too many questions — they just signed me up and gave me a uniform."

Frericks could not have predicted that less than half a year after he enlisted, his National Guard unit was "federalized" — incorporated into the U.S. Army.

Suddenly the teen-age Frericks, who ought to have been studying Latin and taking girls to the movies, was a soldier in the 41st Division, stationed near Fort Lewis, Wash.

The soldiers of foreign armies already were fighting and dying in France by then, and barely a year later year later the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would propel America into history's deadliest war.

But Frericks said he never thought much about the future, or about how dangerous the coming years might be.

"When you're a kid you don't pay much attention," he said. "You just go with the flow."

After Pearl Harbor Frericks remained at Fort Lewis for several months, where he managed a military theater.

But later in 1942 the Army, foreseeing the big battles in the future, started assigning more soldiers to combat units.

Frericks rode a train first to a camp in North Carolina, and then to the Gulf Coast of Florida.

"By that time I was in the 28th Infantry Division," he said.

In Florida, Frericks and his fellow soldiers learned how to storm beaches.

One night the captain of a landing craft mistook a sand bar for the beach. The vessel plunged from the sand bar into deep water, Frericks said, and 14 men drowned.

"Carrying those heavy packs, machine guns, mortars, stuff like that, that was the end of 'em," he said.

In 1943, Frericks' division moved from Florida to Virginia, where soldiers continued to hone their skills in amphibious operations.

By that time they all knew why they were practicing, Frericks said.

"We knew they were going to have landings on the French coast one of these days," he said. "You didn't like it, but you went along with it."

All those exercises culminated in the infamous D-Day — June 6, 1944, when thousands of Allied soldiers went ashore on France's Normandy coast.

Frericks said his division was in reserve that day. He didn't cross the Channel until a couple weeks later, but even then, after the Allies had driven the Germans several miles inland, "there was still a mess at the beaches," he said.

He drove his machine gun-equipped jeep right from a ship onto the French sand.

Not long after, Frericks' division was chasing retreating German forces through the dangerous hedgerows of Normandy.

"That was quite a fight," he said, exemplifying that gift of understatement so many of members of his generation seem to possess.

"It wasn't an easy chase."

One night Frericks' company was sheltering in shallow fox holes in a field when German planes swooped in and started dropping bombs.

"It really shook the ground," he said. "I thought it would never quit."

One bomb exploded close enough to Frericks to shower him with dirt. But not a sliver of shrapnel touched him.

Only one soldier in the group died that night, he said.

This was a man who "had been tipping a few" the evening before, and he failed to dig a fox hole for protection, Frericks said.

But for all the danger in that dark field, Frericks' memory of the following morning is equally vivid.

"Everybody was so shook up by breakfast they didn't want to eat anything," he said. "I sure didn't — greasy sausage and eggs on an upset stomach?"

The 28th Division arrived in Paris after weeks of fighting.

Like all Allied units, Frericks and his buddies were accorded the status of heroes by French civilians finally freed after four years under Nazi control.

"That was a hell of a welcome," he said.

He remembers parading around (but not under) the Arc de Triomphe.

"That's a big thing," Frericks said.

The celebration in Paris was only a lull in the fighting, though.

For much of the next year Frericks' division pursued the German Army north and east, toward and finally into, Germany itself.

None of it — blowing up concrete pillboxes from which the machine guns tapped out their deadly rattle, hearing the rumbling approach of German shells and not knowing if any were headed for you — was either simple or safe.

But scattered among the danger and the death, Frericks said, were the occasional, and unforgottable, experiences of liberating people who had lived under the repressive Nazi regime for years.

In one Belgium town freed by the Allies, Frericks said, "they were poking champagne bottles at us."

Through all the turmoil he emerged unscathed.

Once Frericks saw a German rifle bullet hit a soldier just a few feet away; and another time, during an artillery barrage, a shell landed so close that it surely would have killed him had it not been a dud.

Frericks can't explain why he survived, nor does he seem interested in guessing.

Lena, his wife of 52 years, maintains the credit goes to Frericks' mother's prayers.

Because he had been a soldier longer than most of his comrades, Frericks, by then promoted to the rank of staff sergeant, received his ticket back to America relatively soon after the Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945.

Frericks always remembered the lieutenant who told him he was going hom.e.

He met the man again several years ago at a division reunion.

After receiving his ticket home, Frericks first sailed to New York City.

After a long train ride back to Fort Lewis he headed east for Baker City. The day he arrived, Frericks remembers, was June 19, 1945.

His first job as a civilian was hauling rock to dump on logging roads near Bates; but the outfit went on strike so Frericks moved to Southern California, where he studied auto body repair under the G.I. Bill.

Two years in Los Angeles was about one year and 364 days too long for Frericks.

"I couldn't stand that country down there," he said. "Too many people."

He returned to Baker City, worked at Baker Garage for 14 years and then, in 1961, opened his own shop.

He was 68 when he retired in 1991, closing Joe's Auto Body and Repair after 26 years in his shop at Fifth and Broadway streets.

Over the years Joe and Lena raised three daughters.

That lost last year of high school, that missing diploma, never bothered Frericks, never plagued him with thoughts of what might have been.

"I was 21 years old when the war ended," he said. "It was too late for me to go back to school."

But it's never too late for a diploma.

Frericks is no speech-maker. He recites none of the commencement season cliches about striving to make a difference in life or about reaching for dreams.

He does not brag. He does not embellish.

And yet his simple stories exemplify those attributes to which we aspire: sacrifice, dedication, loyalty, reliability.

And perhaps none of his tales will inspire Frericks' fellow members of the class of 2002 — among whom is his own granddaughter, Amy Cloudt — more than the one about how Frericks reacted on V-E day.

He was in Germany on that momentous day when the Third Reich died.

Jubilation reigned. Soldiers hooted, hollered, fired their weapons into the air as if to symbolize with one final blast this most costly explosion in history.

Frericks' finger never touched a trigger that day.

His war was over. The rest of his life was beginning.

"I didn't fire anything."

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