An Artilleryman in WWII, 93-year-old Fulfilled His Paratrooper Dreams on Veterans Day

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LOUISBURG -- Doug Gross planned to become a paratrooper in 1942 when he answered the nation's call during World War II, but the U.S. Army had other plans for him.

Gross would serve as an artilleryman and later have a successful career as a N.C. State agricultural professor, but he never forget his dream to jump out of an airplane. So 75 years after enlisting, the 93-year-old combat veteran marked Veterans Day on Saturday by making his first skydive 13,000 feet above Triangle North Executive Airport in Louisburg.

"It was great," Gross said after completing the tandem skydive with instructor John Renfro from the Triangle Skydiving Center. "It was worth the wait and I look forward to next time with my (16-year-old) grandson."

Gross made the jump Saturday with three of his children and an older grandson as other family members from four generations cheered him on from the ground.

"It's just a complete family event," said Kirsten Girkins of Charlotte, one of Gross' daughters who jumped with him.

Gross, 18, was sitting in a class at Rutgers University in New Jersey in December 1942 when a classmate showed him a flier about being a paratrooper. Both young men walked out in the middle of the lecture, drawing the attention of the professor..

"He said, 'Well boys, where are you going?'" Gross said. "We said we were going to go enlist. '(The professor said) 'Well, good luck.'"

But by January 1943, the Army decided they needed artillerymen more than they needed paratroopers. Gross was assigned to work a 90-mm artillery piece.

"I was totally ticked at the time, but what the hell do you do about it?" he said.

In retrospect, Gross said he realizes he might have lucked out considering the high death and injury rates among paratroopers.

Gross still found himself in plenty of combat, serving in North Africa, Italy and Germany. He rose to the rank of technical sergeant.

LIke many veterans after the war, Gross quickly returned to civilian life. He returned to Rutgers to get his degree and became a professor. He moved to Raleigh in 1956, where he would serve as a professor of crop science for N.C. State until he retired in 1990.

Gross has kept busy in retirement, volunteering at places such as the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and Rex Hospital. But he never forgot his "75-year itch" of jumping out of an airplane.

"I decided it was time," Gross said. "I'm not getting any younger. That was it. I had been talking about it for five years, and I finally got around to it."

As Gross suited up, he was saluted by Renfro, his instructor and a fellow Army veteran.

"Thank you for you service," Renfro, a former paratrooper, said to Gross.

Gross had planned to jump last weekend but the skydiving center was booked up. Gross said, however, he appreciated the significance of jumping on Veterans Day.

"Once I became aware of it, I was quite happy and pleased with it," Gross said of jumping Saturday. "But I must admit it was purely coincidental."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui ___

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