By Paul Wood
SAVOY — You can thank Western Illinois basketball for steering Sgt. Don Moran toward protecting U.S. interests in Western Europe.
“No Cold War Russian military ever set foot in Champaign County while I was on duty in Germany,” the self-disparaging Moran likes to say.
Now 84, he admits that he was no hero in holding off the communists, whom he would have liked to have fought in Korea.
He grew up during the Depression in just about every town in Champaign County.
“Whenever they raised the rent, we moved,” he says.
At Rantoul High, the team badly wanted to beat Monticello. His junior year, Moran’s team lost to a team that featured the News-Gazette’s own Loren Tate by a couple of points; his senior year, the Eagles got their revenge.
Largely on the basis of that senior year, the center was recruited by Western Illinois Teachers College on a scholarship, the first in his family to go to college.
The freshman was disappointed not to find his name on the varsity roster.
When his coach put him in for a varsity scrimmage, Moran took a pounding from older players — “while Coach just stared at the ceiling.”
Moran decided he would show the coach, by quitting the team. Goodbye, scholarship.
Returning to Rantoul, Moran was subjected to maternal hell: “You shouldn’t have quit” was her chorus, he said.
When he was 18 or 19 years old, he was determined to participate in the Korean War. Moran made two attempts at enlisting in the Army, and he was rejected because of his height — 6 feet, 7 inches.
“They didn’t have uniforms that size,” Moran sort of jokes. He’d later get a very nice tailor-made uniform.
Still frustrated, Moran took a friend to the Air Force recruiting station.
“That’s when the Army recruiter suggested that if I wanted to try again, I should go to Mattoon and enlist and be sent to St. Louis. Those folks sent me home again,” Moran says.
Some friends suggested joining them in the Urbana National Guard unit, with enlistment paperwork claiming he was 6-foot-5 — the assumption being that he would “grow” a couple inches while he was already in the Guard and could transfer to active duty after six months.
The Illinois National Guard was federalized in February 1952 and sent to California for an overall “tune-up” evaluation. He thought he would finally be joining many of his fellow Guardsmen and be sent to Korea.
Instead, the Army put him on a ship for another adventure — 14 days crossing the Atlantic and “sea sick every one of those days.”
He spent two years in Germany where “with the mission of preparing to reject any militant activity by Russia.”
He moved in to the artillery, with self-propelled anti-aircraft guns aimed toward the east. But Moran was again taken away from the action, assigned to quartermaster duties, where he whipped the unit into shape to please the inspector general.
But things were never quiet in the early Cold War. The Soviet Union gradually extended its push West and had a presence in Germany since 1945.
“I was stationed in the French Zone of Germany, and it was our job to keep the Russians back,” he says.
That came to mean constant alerts: You’d never know when the alert would come, where you’d go or how long you’d stay, he says.
“Sometimes it was for a few hours, sometimes a week,” he says.
His unit had quad .50 caliber machines guns mounted on half-tracks, and twin 90 mm cannons on reconnaissance tanks.
“The Russians never came to attack us,” he says. “Occasionally, the Russians would capture an American GI caught in their zone and hold him hostage. But I don’t have any gory stories.”
Moran’s unit would also move their ordnance on German rail lines into the mountains and practice shooting down radio-controlled target planes. Again, he laughs at how poorly his unit did at shooting down the targets.
For his return to the U.S., the same ship that took him to Germany awaited.
Moran was told he could keep from getting sea sick by sheer will, and this time he did it.
He returned to college at Eastern Illinois University — “the Harvard of the Midwest,” he jokes — and became a high school teacher, then a Parkland College instructor and then an administrator there. His wife Judy also worked there.
Moran has three daughters and four grandchildren.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.