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A Hero Cook and Medal Mystery at a Thrift Store in Horizon City

The weather around Isolabella and, indeed all of Italy, had finally cleared. For the last days of 1943 and the first weeks of 1944, moisture poured from the sky – hard, cold rain, sleet, snow, ice – and the Allied Troops fighting their way across the country had done so in sopping wet conditions, but now – January 28th – dry weather favored the advancing Americans.

Among the soldiers drying out between battles was 25-year-old Technician 5th Grade Eric G. Gibson, a cook from Chicago, now with the 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. That sunny, mid-winter Italian day, Gibson would do something no other Army cook had ever done before.

It’s an abnormally sunny day in the high desert of Horizon City, not because it’s unheard of weather, but because it’s early February and should be at least a bit cold, if not cloudy for a winter day. Pastor Ron Kelly, founder of Family of Hope Church, sorts through the numerous bags of donated items over at the newly-opened Hope Clothing Depot.

With a new location and donations flooding in, Pastor Kelly and his staff had been sorting, sizing, pricing and restocking the shelves at a frenetic pace. Even with only one donation box, the community’s support is great; bags overflowing with donated items, which means business is good, and the more they sort out, the better it is for the store and the town.

But this one bag, a bag not unlike the countless others donated to the depot, holds a mystery that needs to be sorted out.

SP5 Gibson was born in Sweden on October 3rd, 1919. He and his family moved to the US and settled in Chicago, where he signed up for the Army in February of 1941.  On that sunny January day in 1944, commanders put SP5 Gibson in charge of a squad. His first chance at leadership, aside from what he had done in the mess tent during chow time.

His superiors saw something in him, maybe a word or phrase uttered in that mess tent or the way he interacted with his fellow soldiers. Why they made the decision is lost to time, but what Gibson did with that opportunity would stretch from that battlefield in Italy all the way to Horizon City, and into the halls of history.

At the bottom of one of those nondiscript bags, under shirts and other items, Pastor Kelly finds an oddly heavy smallish box, made of metal. The brass-colored hinges set against the distressed black covers. It has weight, not just the physical kind, but like whatever is inside is important.

So it was on the 28th day of January 1944, in a village by the name of Cisterna di Latina, not far from Anzio – about the distance between El Paso and Horizon City- where Allied Troops had started a bloody battle days earlier, that SP5 Gibson took command of his new squad, filled with replacement troops.  His orders were to advance down a stream bed and he led his men from the front. And just ahead, unknown to Gibson and his squad: the Germans, hidden and ready to pounce.

Pastor Kelly opens the box. Across the span of time and distance a face stares back at him.  Technician 5th Grade Eric G. Gibson, his profile cast in a metal; around his neck, the Medal of Honor. Kelly’s thoughts race. Who is Gibson? Why is this here in Horizon? Pastor Kelly places the medal back in its worn box and starts his mission.

SP5 Gibson and his squad had the very textbook initial trial by fire.  With Gibson 50 yards in front of his men, making their way down the stream, the Germans opened fire.  Somehow, even with the German solider less than 20 yards in front firing his machine gun, in full sprint and letting loose with shots from his submachine gun, Gibson reaches the German and kills him.

Before he can turn and encourage his squad forward, Gibson’s position comes under heavy artillery fire – knocking him off his feet and showering him with Italian dirt clods.

As is with most mysterious discoveries, Pastor Kelly turned to the internet. A simple query: ‘Who is Technician 5th Grade Eric G. Gibson’  brings answers –  Awarded Medal of Honor; hometown of Chicago – and other personal records; but none answering the question burning in Pastor Kelly’s mind: Who donated this medal? Why would someone donate something so personal? Was it a family member? Was it by mistake?

The main problem with Pastor Kelly’s search: there is no log of the donation – simply the bag and its contents – covering Gibson’s medal like the Italian soil from so long ago.

The strike from artillery did not stop Gibson for long. He sprung to his feet and instantly found himself again under enemy fire, this time by two Germans from nearly a football field away. Again he sprinted toward the fire and away from his squad. Again the Germans opened up with machine gun and rifle fire. And again, Gibson killed one of his attackers and captured the other.

As the squad struggled to catch up with the very speedy cook – a Nazi heavy machine gun emplacement 200 yards away opened fire – and he attempted to crawl back to his squad with slugs hissing past his arms and legs and kicking up more dark soil, inches from his body. The return would be impossible.

Pastor Kelly reaches a dead end. After the first five or six entries, they all pretty much feature the same information. There is another Gibson who seems to be a close match – an attorney in Chicago (the soldier’s home town) – but no information beyond that. So a call is made, and the medal taken out of its case, shown, and pictures taken, in hopes someone seeing it would come forward and claim this very personal piece of US History.

Gibson somehow made it back to his squad. His orders were to lay down fire so he could return to the Nazi machine gun nest and take it out. His men tried to talk him out of it. He repeated the orders and started back around toward the German emplacement. Crawling the length of a football field and more, with artillery showering the field and in the crossfire of two German machine gun nests, Gibson tossed two grenades into the nest and himself opened fire.  Two more Nazis killed, another captured. But Gibson pressed on, determined to see his mission through.

With the pictures Pastor Kelly allowed me to take, I join the battle. Same search, same results. Pretty impressive results, battlefield reports and pictures; quotes and awards; but none with the answer to the question: “Who would give this away?”  As I read Gibson’s notation for the Medal of Honor, written some eight months after the fact, I am transported to Italy and am beside him. I mutter and shake my head, “Gibson, you are simply incredible.”  Something his men must have said time and again that day.

With the battle raging on, Gibson presses on.  Ahead of them lay a bend in the ditch where the stream turns, Gibson follows the flow and does the same. More machine gun fire, soldiers from his squad able to tell the sound of the exchange….Gibson versus some soon to be dead or captured Nazi. So the squad advances around the bend.

There they see Gibson, some yards up ahead at the German outpost where two men lay dead: the German soldier and Gibson himself. His mission over. His tasks complete.

After several other unsuccessful searches, I change the order of the name and facts, just to see what pops up. Eureka! Gold, or in this case brass. Not the full answer, but a good lead.  A post for a similar medal, on eBay Canada.  The pictures match, as does the description – which adds the following tidbits for the potential buyer:

“I got this table medal from a former soldier at work. He Had these made for a dedication of a dining facility when he was a supply Sgt. Only 5 were made.2 went to the family,1 to the mess hall,1 to the Commander,and he kept 1.”

Only the auction has ended. And no email or comment can be sent to the seller. Unless he re-submits the item for sale again. But no reference to Horizon City. Or a family. Just the confirmation that the medal, like Gibson and his heroic efforts, are rare.

The Battlefield notation for SP5 Gibson’s Medal of Honor reads, in part:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. On January 28, 1944, near Isolabella, Italy, Tech. 5th Grade Gibson, company cook, led a squad of replacements through their initial baptism of fire, destroyed four enemy positions, killed 5 and captured 2 German soldiers, and secured the left flank of his company during an attack on a strongpoint…For these actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor eight months later, on September 11, 1944.

And his awards do not stop there. Gibson was inducted into the Quartermaster Hall of Fame in 1999. The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Academy Dining Facility on Fort Lee, Virginia is named Gibson Hall in honor of Tech 5 Gibson.

In early February of 1995, Gibson got a ship named after him. According to the Department of Defense:

…the Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon R. Sullivan unveiled the ship’s bell and name board for a container ship.  This ship, formerly the freighter Sea Wolf, was renamed as the SP5 Eric G Gibson (AK 5091). The ship, chartered by the Navy and owned by a private firm,  is in the Army Prepositioned fleet in the Pacific where it is a key element in U.S. strategic mobility capability. It contains sustainment cargo including MREs, lubricants, medical supplies, repair parts and chemical defense equipment.

And, according to NASA, Gibson’s name (as well as those of all Medal of Honor recipients) was included in a microchip aboard the Stardust spacecraft. The Stardust mission was launched into space in early February 1999. Its destination – Comet Wild 2,  its mission, to capture cometary materials before returning to earth in 2006.

All of which tells us, after all the reading, what we knew: 25-year-old Technician 5th Grade Eric G. Gibson, a cook from Chicago, made something of himself on that day in Italy so long ago.

But what it does not do, is answer the question: “Who would give this away?”

That, my dear readers, is SP5 Gibson’s mission for you. Help us get this medal back home.  It’s the least we could do for a cook from Chicago who made paid the ultimate price for all of us.

If you have any information, give us a call at 915-315-1478.

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About Chris Babcock

Editor in Chief: El Paso Herald-Post, horizoncity.com Chris began his long journey in Journalism back in the early 70’s. Armed with a Bell and Howell 8mm camera and tape recorder. Chris would go on to document such events as the great plastic dinosaur attack on Tornillo, GI Joe’s dramatic rescue of Barbie from a backyard mud pit and a massive toy train derailment caused by Godzilla. FULL BIO

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One comment

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