“Persons of Interest” is a weekly series exploring the lives of students, staff and faculty, both on- and off-campus.
BERKELEY — Most UC Berkeley students enrolled in American studies 101A, which examines America’s involvement in World War II, experience the course through the detached lens of academic curiosity.
David Gan isn’t your typical Berkeley student, though. He can draw on first-hand experience of the battle to liberate Europe from the grip of Adolf Hitler.
“I was there on the battlefield fighting the Nazis,” says the 87-year-old Berkeley alum, almost 60 years to the day since he left the Army. “But as a participant I saw only one tiny part of what happened.”
The American studies course, he says, “seemed like a great opportunity to gain a better understanding of the big picture, the different aspects of the war and its historical context.”
Gan has been auditing classes on campus since he retired 20 years ago, taking a handful of courses almost every semester. His studies run the gamut from physical and social sciences to art and music, literature and philosophy.
This semester, Gan is most excited about classes on animal behavior, Italian culture and, of course, the American studies class in which he will give a presentation outlining his wartime experiences.
“So many people take life for granted, never exploring the world around them,” Gan says. “I swore that if I made it out of the war alive I wouldn’t make the same mistake, so I’ve always tried to treat life like a never-ending adventure.
“Coming to campus and learning new things everyday keeps me alive and I plan on taking classes until I drop,” he adds.
In 1943, the 18-year-old Gan dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army to join the fight against fascism in WWII. He landed at Utah Beach with the 9th Infantry Division on June 11, 1944, less than a week after the D-Day invasion had established a beachhead in northern France. As the battle for Normandy raged about him, Gan was gravely injured during an artillery barrage and spent the next six months in an English hospital.
“I could feel the shells as they whizzed past me,” Gan says. “Then one round landed next to me and I don’t remember anything after that.”
Discharged from the Army on medical grounds, he returned stateside to continue his recovery. In June 1945, having completed high school at the behest of Army brass, Gan waived his disability exemption and re-enlisted.
Posted to Germany in the aftermath of the Allied victory in Europe, Gan found himself stationed in Nuremberg in the midst of the war crimes’ trials of leading Nazis.
Gan recalls coming face-to-face with one high-profile figure in Hitler’s Third Reich, former Nazi Party deputy leader Rudolf Hess, who was sentenced to life imprisonment during the tribunals.
“Here was this hugely powerful Nazi leader sitting there alone in his cell waiting to be sentenced. He seemed so very small, pale and plain, an unremarkable man,” Gan recalls.
Gan spent the postwar years heading up an Army outreach program to re-socialize German teenagers, many of whom had joined Nazi paramilitary organizations. Returning to the Bay Area in 1952, he earned a bachelor’s degree in public health and microbiology from UC Berkeley with the financial support of the GI Bill.
Gan joined the California Department of Public Health in 1957, where he worked for 35 years, training microbiologists, inspecting lab facilities and, from time to time, investigating disease outbreaks and pollution incidents across Northern California.
Following his retirement in 1992, Gan’s desire to stay active and put his scientific experience to use helping young students led him back to Berkeley.
In 1999, the retired microbiologist discovered the perfect outlet for his scientific expertise and intellectual curiosity when he audited the Mars 2012 course taught by former NASA engineer Lawrence Kuznetz. The research and practical-learning program brought together space-agency staff and university faculty, students and volunteers to tackle mission-critical questions at the core of NASA’s exploration of the Red Planet.
Working with a team of Berkeley students, Gan cobbled together everyday equipment, including a bell jar and vacuum pump, thermometers and dry ice to simulate Martian atmospheric conditions, and designed an experiment that successfully demonstrated that liquid water, essential to life, could exist on Mars.
Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center replicated the experiment and verified the results. Gan and Kuznetz published the findings in a co-authored paper that appeared in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Astrobiology in 2002.
“Think about it,” he says, “NASA experiments about life on Mars, I got such a kick out of that class,” Gan says. “I even got to meet Buzz Aldrin.”
NASA’s latest Mars rover Curiosity touched down in August 2012 as part of a two-year $2.5-billion mission to study whether the Martian environment could have supported microbial life at one time. Curiosity has already discovered the most convincing evidence yet that water once flowed on the planet’s surface.
When he isn’t expanding his universe of understanding, Gan helps out at the California Alumni Association, looking over scholarship applications and meeting with students to share academic, career and life insights.
Army to the core, Gan is actively involved in campus and community veterans groups, volunteering with the American Legion, raising money for former service members in need and visiting local VA hospitals.
He is also a regular visitor to the Cesar Chavez Student Center, which houses veterans services, offering advice and encouragement to veterans of more recent conflicts as they face the demands of civilian and college life.
“I know how tough coming out of the Army and adjusting to civilian life after war can be for these guys, so I try to do whatever I can to help,” he says.
To dare is to do, they say, and Gan has certainly seen and done more than his fair share over the course of his 87 years. From battling fascism on the beaches of Normandy to scientific explorations of life on Mars, looking back, he harbors few regrets.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he says “but I think I’ve achieved most of my objectives.”
One exception that still rankles, however, is Gan’s failure in 2000 to make it beyond the final round of contestant interviews for the first season of the TV show Survivor.
“Sure, I was 74 years old at the time, but in the Army I learned to try — learned to do the impossible,” Gan says. “I just didn’t have the right character for reality TV, I guess.”
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