PINELLAS PARK, Fla. – PGA Professional Gus Andreone’s rich, exceptional life got a bit richer Tuesday afternoon.
The oldest member of the PGA of America at 106, Andreone was welcomed by the country of France into one of the world’s most distinguished “clubs” – the Order of the Legion of Honor.
Andreone, a resident of Sarasota, Florida, who served as a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant during World War II, was awarded the Chevalier (Knight) medal by Clement Leclerc, the Consulate General of France in Miami.
The ceremony was conducted at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, where a medal also was presented to U.S. Army veteran Harold Stephens, 93, of Ocala, Florida.
Established in 1802 by Napoléon Bonaparte as the highest French order of merit for military and civil achievements, the Legion d’honneur has an estimated million members.
That makes Andreone one in a million.
“It is not about me, it’s a ‘we’ thing,” said Andreone. “When I heard about receiving this medal, I first thought about my boys. I will never forget them.”
Those “boys” Andreone recalls came under his wing six months into service. As a member of the 61st Armored Infantry Battalion, 10th Armored Division, Andreone was then 33 years old and proud that his mortar battalion had won a contest in training. Soon, he would be part of the first Armored Division to sail from the United States direct to the European mainland.
They arrived at Cherbourg, France, on Sept. 23, 1944, and spent approximately a month training and readying equipment for combat. They would hit the road to southern Bavaria and later be called by Gen. George Patton to support the campaign at the Battle of the Bulge in northern France. The 10th Armored Division would then become the “Ghost Division,” stripping their uniform insignias and equipment of all identification and befuddling the enemy.
“We moved quickly, and we marched through the cold, cold night,” said Andreone.
During one episode of heavy German bombardment, Sergeant Ernie Garcia, whom Andreone remembers was from New Jersey, suffered a nervous breakdown. “His nerves were shot and I became Staff Sergeant and Section Leader right there,” said Andreone. “Suddenly, I had 16 men under my supervision.”
The next six months would leave an indelible mark upon Andreone and underscore a charmed life. A man who would win the Pennsylvania State Lottery 39 years later and add a pair of Florida Fantasy Five wins to his pocketbook, Andreone first escaped death three times while in combat.
Somewhere in the Ardennes Forest, the 10th Armored Division came under attack. Andreone recalls lying on the ground, with German artillery spraying him and his men. “I’m lying with my head down; my lieutenant is lying beside me. The shelling has stopped. I get up and he doesn’t.”
The series of attacks kept coming. “We all hit the ground. A machine gunner dies in my arms,” said Andreone. “An hour later, the Germans gave up. About 1,500, we estimated, come marching out of the trees. I kept thinking of that young man who died and thinking this all happened an hour later.”
As the 10th Armored Division received the nickname “Tigers,” they pressed on to fight near Mars-La-Tour, and became the first to overtake the French fortress of Metz, which had never fallen before in 1,500 years of military history. “We knocked out four tanks and I was scouting for our group,” said Andreone. “I went up four stories in a building to spot and report. The Germans waited until I was upstairs. They could see me with no curtains on the windows.
“They fired 88s into that building. It blew my ears out. The ringing in my ears lasted for several weeks.”
Andreone's third “great escape” still leaves him shaking his head. It took place as he stood in the passenger side of a half-track, a combination vehicle with the cross-country capabilities of a tank and the handling of a wheeled vehicle.
“We carried two 50-gallon tanks of gas; had mines on the side rails and a lot of mortar shells,” said Andreone. “We made a left-hand turn and took a direct hit on the left rear from friendly fire. I repeat, friendly fire. Nobody got hurt. How?” Andreone smiled and pointed to the sky.
Born in Bellaire, Ohio, Gustino “Gus” Andreone was the fourth of seven children of Edoardo (Edward) and Teresa Andreone. The family moved to Pittsburgh when Edoardo found regular work as a coal miner. Young Gus attended high school for just two years before the Great Depression crippled the national economy. Andreone was fortunate to hold a job as a club cleaner at St. Clair Country Club. He said that he walked five miles to work and made $30 a month.
“We had nothing, but we had a lot,” said Andreone. “We had family.”
By 1934, Andreone was elevated to assistant professional at St. Clair, and was elected to PGA Membership in 1939. Three years later, he was drafted. Following his nearly three-year tour of duty, one capped by earning three Bronze Stars, Andreone was discharged on Nov. 6, 1945. He was called in for a short meeting with his commanding officer, who asked if he would re-enlist.
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“Captain, I’ve got some unfinished business,” said Andreone, who headed home to Pittsburgh and restarted a golf career. In 1947, he became the PGA Head Professional at Edgewood Country Club, and he said he found peace. He also met a fellow soldier at the club - guest Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, a former member of the 10th Armored Division, stopped by for a round.
Andreone didn’t talk about the war for much of his life, his family recalls. That is, it wasn’t until he moved to Florida in 1986 that he began to share any experiences of battle. “I purposely kept my mind busy, so that I was always doing something,” he said.
As the years passed, Andreone decided to attend his first reunion of the “Tigers,” and in the early 1980s many of the 10th Armored Division survivors gathered in northern Pennsylvania. “The first person I saw when I got in the door was Ernie Garcia,” said Andreone. “I was so happy to see him. You know, I believe all the boys I had under my command made it home after the war.”
As Tuesday’s medal ceremony concluded, Andreone winked at his bride, Betty, 100, and received hugs from family and friends. Andreone took another long look at his new medal.
“I have been blessed in so many ways,” he said. “What we all did in service, we did together. There aren’t too many of us left. Today, I honor them all.”
Over the 215 years since Napoléon established the Order of the Legion of Honor, its wide-ranging membership exceeds any conceivable canvas in a Parisian gallery. The images of past and present honorees include inventor Alexander Graham Bell; explorer Jacques Cousteau; Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Patton and Douglas MacArthur; actors Sean Connery, Marlene Dietrich, Kirk Douglas and Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger; hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger; and musician Bob Dylan.
OK, would everyone please move a step over to allow one more for this shoot?
Gus Andreone is ready for his close-up.