An inside account: Bob Freesen

An inside account: Bob Freesen

World War II veteran recalls his time in the European theater

By David Blanchette

He grew up on a Scott County farm, was wounded during World War II, returned home to start one of the area’s largest construction companies, and has been a generous supporter of not-for-profit organizations.

When describing his long and eventful life, O. Robert “Bob” Freesen has a frequent refrain: “I was lucky.”

Freesen’s story begins on the family farm where he was born near Bluffs more than 90 years ago, where “I was a farm boy and I enjoyed farm life very much,” he said. But the Second World War came calling, and once he turned 18 Freesen was drafted into the U.S. Army and headed first to Fort Sheridan in the Chicago area before going to Fort Stewart, Georgia, for basic training.

“My dad was pleased because I had some typing in high school and the Army sent me to clerk-typist school, so I probably wouldn’t be seeing any enemy action,” Freesen said. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”

Freesen was assigned to the 83rd Infantry Division and after graduating from basic training he was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas for additional instruction. One exercise at Fort Bliss involved maneuvers and sleeping in the desert.

“The captain said, ‘Don’t be alarmed if you wake up in the morning and a rattlesnake is curled up alongside of you. When the sun comes up they’ll crawl away,’” Freesen said. “I never had that happen but I was very aware of it. And we would hear the coyotes howl at night and when we slept on the ground they would come up and be close to you.”

The war was heating up at that time and fresh troops were desperately need to replace those who were killed or wounded in action, so Freesen was no longer destined to be a clerk-typist. He was sent for six weeks of infantry training in Paris, Texas where “they taught me a lot of discipline and how to act as an individual.” Freesen was then allowed to go home for Christmas in 1943 before shipping overseas.

And what a ship it was.

“I got on the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted from a passenger liner into a troop ship. We were assigned a bunk to sleep on and we would sleep in shifts and then somebody else would get it for another shift,” Freesen said. “I was lucky, I didn’t get seasick, but the stairs were slimy from the other guys getting sick.”

“The ship was supposed to be so fast that it could outrun the German U-boats so we didn’t need an escort. We had to go to Glasgow, Scotland to get deep enough water for that big a ship to land in,” Freesen said. “I got on a troop train there and went to the English Channel and got on a ferry boat. The life preservers were all wet and bloody because the Germans had sunk one of the ferries just ahead of that and they gave us the life preservers from the survivors.”

Freesen crossed the English Channel in mid-1944 after the D-Day landings and went to Holland, where the people were friendly and Freesen was delighted to see that the residents did, indeed, wear wooden shoes. True to his farm boy roots, Freesen found a barn full of hay in which to sleep as a refuge from the anti-aircraft gun noise at night.

In late 1944, Freesen’s unit was sent to Belgium to replace the thousands of men who were killed, wounded or taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. They were joined by replacement troops from England, many of whom were convicted criminals that had been released from prison to fight for the Allies.

“I was issued an M-1 rifle when we first got to Belgium, all packed in cosmoline, and a five-gallon can of gasoline to clean it up with,” Freesen said. “I knew that people at home needed gasoline, but here they were giving it to us to clean our rifles. I put that rifle inside the sleeping bag to keep it warm. I laid on the ground in the cold and heard the Germans fire rockets overhead to explode in England.”

I never worried about getting killed, I always worried about getting captured. But I was lucky, I never did get captured.”

I saw General Patton come in with his tanks and chase the Germans out of that area. That was a good feeling, I got to see him but I didn’t get to shake hands with him. He was a rough, rough guy.”

Once the Battle of the Bulge concluded, Freesen and his fellow soldiers began the long, hard fighting journey to Berlin. Along the way, they hitched a ride on some English tanks.

“When it came time for tea they would stop the tanks right in the middle of the road and have tea, no matter what,” Freesen said. “They also warned me not to walk in front of the tanks after they had been running because when they were warmed up sometimes the machine gun would go off on its own.”

Freesen and his fellow soldiers crossed the Rhine River at Dusseldorf, using a makeshift bridge that replaced the one the Germans had destroyed. Allied forces entered Hamm, Germany, where Freesen could “hear the bullets from machine guns flying through the air.” That’s where he was seriously wounded.

“There was a German soldier who had apparently come across one of our paratroopers and had taken his uniform and weapon, a submachine gun we called a ‘grease gun,’” Freesen said. “When I came down the stairs on one side of the street he came down the stairs on the other side and as soon as he saw me he opened up on me. He hit me three times in the face and once in my leg.”

He continued, “It felt like somebody had flicked me with a finger. … It didn’t hit any bones, and I was lucky on that score.”

Freesen was given a sedative and woke up in an ambulance with several other men who were speaking a foreign language. Freesen was afraid that he had been captured.

“My steel helmet was laying on the floor and I was going to conk those guys on the head,” Freesen said. “Then one of them turned around and said, ‘What’s the matter, Mac?’ And I knew right then I was among friends.”

Freesen was taken to a military hospital in Nancy, France for recovery. He was going to be sent back to his unit, but contracted appendicitis — so, by the time he recovered, the war was over. Meanwhile, his father had suffered a heart attack in Illinois, so Freesen was anxious to get back home.

“I got acquainted with one of the medics and he grabbed my arm and said, ‘Come on, you can be on board the troop ship ahead of the other guys with me,’” Freesen said. “I said, ‘I’m not a medic!’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you are, all you gotta do is pass out aspirin and seasick pills.’ So I got assigned to be a medic and got on the ship.”

Freesen was discharged from the Army after making it back to the United States and went back to the family farm in Scott County, where his father had recovered and was making plans to supplement their farm income.

The Freesens purchased a Caterpillar tractor and a bulldozer blade in 1946 and used it to move logs and do earth work for other area farmers. Then they started to bid construction jobs, and their construction business, Freesen Brothers, was born.

“Every time we bid a job it would call for more machinery, so we would buy more machinery to do that job,” Freesen said. “When the job was over we kept the machinery and used it for more jobs.”

The company’s big break came when they bid a three-year coal mine reclamation job in Terre Haute, Indiana that required a $25 million equipment purchase, a huge sum at the time.

“We still had that equipment when we got done with that job and reclamation and road work was starting in Illinois, so we used the equipment for those jobs,” Freesen said.

The business, renamed later as Freesen Inc., went on to become one of Central Illinois’ largest and most successful construction firms. The company eventually merged with Illinois Asphalt and the new firm is now known as United Contractors Midwest, or UCM.

Freesen has been generous with the money he’s made from the construction business, and the Jacksonville YMCA that bears his name (Bob Freesen YMCA), plus the local branch of The Salvation Army, have benefited from his generosity.

Freesen is in his mid 90s and now divides his time between Texas and Illinois. He can still recall nearly every detail of his long and eventful life, and although he still bears the scars from World War II, he “was glad to serve.”

He shared some advice for today’s generation: “Always be aware of what’s going on in your country and be willing to fight for it.”

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