When Vernon Gould of Fort Payne was born, Woodrow Wilson was president, the average home cost $5,626 and the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified to give women the right to vote. In fact, he feels a bit like the fictional character Forrest Gump, who had a knack for being in the middle of history as it happened.
Last week, Gould celebrated turning 100 years old, surrounded by his friends and family at a gathering in Mentone. Gould’s voice is soft and his body frail, yet his mind remains sharp as he shares his advice for those who want to match his longevity: “Work as hard as you can for as long as you can and do the best you can with what you’ve got.”
When asked how it feels to be a century old, he said, “I can’t tell much difference. This is overwhelming to see so many people at my birthday party. I didn’t know so many people remembered me.”
World War II veterans like Gould are becoming very rare as, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, a mere 389,292 of the 16 million Americans who served in that conflict remained alive as of September 2019. According to the National WWII Museum, fewer than 4,600 of them remain in the state of Alabama.
“We are very proud that he is among the last survivors of WWII,” said Richard Gould, one of Vernon Gould’s four adult children. “There aren’t very many left. He worked as a machinist making parts for the war machine. [His superiors] wouldn’t let him go, but finally he said, ‘I’ve got to go, it’s my duty to go.’ He was part of E Company as a replacement rifleman.”
Gould recalled going in the Hürtgen Forest on the Belgian-German border in 1944 as part of the longest single battle the U.S. Army has ever fought, costing between 33,000-55,000 American lives and 28,000 German lives.
“The company I went in with had had an epic battle a couple of days before,” Gould said. “It ended up that there was nobody left. They didn’t know what went on or anything.”
The allies lost that battle, which set the stage for the Battle of the Bulge that overshadowed Hürtgen Forest in terms of press and public attention.
His daughter, Katherine Gould, said, “I was 2-years-old by the time he got home. It had been a house of all women because the men were all off at war. I was afraid of him and wouldn’t let him touch me until I got to know him.”
After the war, the Goulds grew up in Binghamton, New York, a city near the border with Pennsylvania – it was the birthplace of IBM and the flight simulator -- and had a concentration of electronics and defense-oriented firms.
“Talking amongst ourselves, none of us could remember him ever being sick,” Richard Gould said. “He worked two jobs, as a machinist at a company in New York and built antique cars in the garage on weekends. He worked second shift so he’d be going up the stairs to go to bed, and I would be coming down the stairs to go to school. He always worked nights.”
The family moved to Florida in 1960 at the recommendation of the physician treating Gould’s first wife, who died in 1980. Three years later, he met current wife Peggy at church in Florida. Retired and with his adult children all scattered across the country, the couple moved to North Alabama to help take care of her aunt Ethel. They’ve been Fort Payne residents since 2002.
“He’s fragile, but he still has his wits about him and remembers the old stories,” said daughter Katherine. “We are very grateful for how well Peggy takes care of him.”
Wife Peggy Gould said he rarely talks about it, but Gould worked for Honeywell and helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race with the Soviet Union.
“He helped to design the motherboard that put the Apollo rockets up. At the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, where the Saturn rocket is split in sections, he can show you the part he worked on,” she said.
Honeywell developed the Analog Flight Computer for the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, as well as the vehicle stabilization and control system. The Honeywell components analyzed input resulting from several forces acting on the vehicle such as engine thrust, wind, gravity and internal vehicle flexing and bending. The resulting outputs helped provide thrust vector control for the first rocket stage.
Gould’s family describe him as a hard-working man who has always loved tinkering with mechanical things, especially his motorcycles. They intended to have his birthday celebration at a motorcycle museum in Birmingham, but they decided to have it in Mentone due to mobility challenges.
The year of his birth (1920) was an eventful one, witnessing:
• The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I
• A nationwide prohibition on alcoholic beverages and the 18th Amendment ending it
• The October Revolution in Russia
• Women’s suffrage
• The creation of the National Football League
• The first public appearances by Adolf Hitler
• The first synthesis of the narcotic Hydrocodone
• HIV Virus originates in the Belgin Congo
At the century mark, Vernon Gould is like a living encyclopedia of world events, spending his teen years enduring the Great Depression, joining the fight against fascism in his 20s and using his knowledge about mechanics to help his country defeat the Soviets in the race to step foot on the moon.
One of his guests summed up his longevity and vitality by joking, “Now Vernon, when you have your 200th birthday, some of us probably won’t make it.”