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WWII vet one of few remaining from ‘The Greatest Generation’

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published December 16, 2015


FRASER — Claude Woods is 97 years old but still sharp as a tack, talking about trekking through Normandy as if it happened last week.

Woods grew up on the east side of Detroit — on Monclair Street, near Shoemaker and Lemay streets — with his mother, father and older brother, and it wasn’t until after he graduated from high school in June 1936 that his family moved to Fraser.

After officially becoming a resident in December 1936, Woods wanted to join the United States Army. Due to astigmatism and wearing heavy glasses, he almost didn’t get the opportunity to serve.

“I was afraid they would reject me due to my eyesight, but they accepted me,” Woods said.

On June 14, 1941, while at the ripe age of 22, Woods found himself in the middle of World War II. He was a member of the 3rd Armored Division, often known as “Spearhead” or “The Third Herd,” which was a division activated during that same year to engage in military action in Europe.

Woods recites memories and statistics as if he is reading words off a sheet of paper sitting in front of him. He can blurt out numbers and locations on a whim, without pretense, especially when talking about D-Day and the now infamous Battle of Normandy — where over 425,000 Allied and German troops were either killed, wounded or went missing in action.

“We spearheaded the 1st Army,” he said. “We had 2,751 killed, 7,047 wounded, 710 missing in action.”

He later described how he and his American cohorts met with Russian troops on the Elbe River, near Torgau in Germany, in what was eventually a successful effort to overtake Berlin. Many refer to April 25, 1945, as an important step in ending the war.

Woods left the Army on May 8 of that same year. Upon returning home, he became the charter commander of Fraser VFW Post 6691, which was formed April 12, 1946, at the Star Ballroom, now known as Vintage House.

The current post on Anita Avenue might not have existed if it wasn’t for him.

Recently, he visited the VFW post for his 97th birthday and was given an Army chest to hold all of his memorabilia. Among the prized possessions are pictures from the war, a book on artillery, Army papers, swords and even Nazi flags.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 20, the first house he ever inhabited while in Fraser, was torn down — nearly 80 years after he had first walked inside.

“It was only a temporary house, and the floors were gone, the inside was gone, the roof was leaking and it had to come down,” Woods said. “It’s pretty sad, it’s … pretty sad.”

The house was previously located in the back end of the property, and Woods still lives in an updated house on the front end of the land. His current home broke ground in 1954 and was completed in 1955.

His brother, who was two years older than him, died in 2002. His wife of 33 years died in 1986. He has two children — a son who lives in Troy, and a daughter who lives in Fallbrook, California — along with nine great-grandchildren.

“I see (my son) at least once a week,” he said. “He calls me every Wednesday and we get together quite frequently.”

At 97, Woods has more vigor than some people half his age. He enjoys reading and seeing friends and his family. He calls himself “very fortunate” for still having such a vibrant mind and memory, still being able to drive and get around on his own. He lives alone and has no issues.

As time has passed, he recalls how much life has changed. People have come and gone, both in his personal life and those that he never got a chance to know.

He said that when he looks back on the early days, it’s amazing to see how far the world has come with the advent of electronics and the Internet.

Though, as the years dwindle, he realizes he’s one of the last WWII veterans left.

“I served with a bunch of real good men,” Woods said. “I kept in touch with them over the years, had Army reunions all over the country. I went to 46 reunions and met guys I fought with.

“I went to the last (reunion) in 2010 and there’s not many of us left.”

The former 25-year shift chief inspector at Chrysler mentioned that while he’s not very active in the VFW anymore, he has helped bury veterans since 1984 as part of the Macomb County Ritual Team. He said it’s “a good feeling to participate” and help the families who have lost loved ones.

When asked if there’s anything left to accomplish, he simply replied, “I’ve been there and done that.” He has traveled to Alaska, California, Florida, Nova Scotia, Belgium and Germany.

He remembers when Fraser’s population was only 900, a small town with a small feel. Everybody knew everybody, he said.

The years have gone by and Woods has seen a city, a nation, a world, grow. He went from knowing everyone to knowing almost nobody, and he lost many good friends and family members along the way.

But on a Tuesday afternoon during a mild Michigan winter, the 97-year-old is content doing his laundry and opening a book on the same parcel of land he has lived on for more years than many people get to enjoy on this earth.