Francis “Frank” Gau, a daring World War II tail gunner and former state highway builder who oversaw work near Sacramento that closed the last gap in Interstate 5 to complete a single, unbroken roadway linking three North American countries, died Sept. 17 at age 92, his family said.
Mr. Gau spent 38 years as a construction engineer at the California Department of Transportation during the era of big highway projects that followed World War II. He worked on stretches of major freeways in the capital region, including Highway 50 and Interstate 80.
In 1979, he supervised workers who spent two days pouring concrete on side-by-side bridges crossing the Mokelumne River about 20 miles south of Sacramento, the last segment of one of the biggest construction jobs on the West Coast. Several weeks later, Gov. Jerry Brown gathered on the bridge near Benson’s Ferry with officials from Oregon and Washington state and dignitaries representing the United States, Mexico and Canada to celebrate the completion of I-5.
“They had to do a major push at the end to finish on time,” Mr. Gau’s son David said. “Closing the last piece of I-5 was so significant. He was very proud of all the work they did.”
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Mr. Gau retired from Caltrans in 1984 amid reductions in state spending on highway construction. He worked for a time as a consultant for engineering firms building Sacramento Regional Transit’s light-rail system.
His career building highways and light rail contrasted with service in the Army Air Force as a B-24 tail gunner in raids that destroyed enemy roads, railyards and vital industrial centers during World War II. He was credited with 50 missions aboard B-24s that flew out of North Africa and Italy, and he was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and other medals, his family said.
In 1944, he flew with waves of U.S. and British planes that bombed German defenses along the coast of Normandy hours before Allied troops hit the beach on D-Day. He survived heavy anti-aircaft artillery that downed many B-24s and inflicted heavy U.S. casualties in a major assault in 1943 on enemy oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania.
“He didn’t talk much about it until later years,” his son said. “He was like all the guys who served and just came back, married, started careers and raised families.”
The son of a carpenter, Francis Michael Gau was born in 1922 in Burnstad, N.D. He was the youngest of eight children, including three who died before adulthood.
During the Great Depression, his father left home to work at a shipyard in Portland, Ore. As the eldest son, Mr. Gau was responsible for moving his mother and siblings to Oregon. At 19, he went to the shipyard to apply for a job and met a man in line who had a family to support.
“They offered my dad a job, but he just said, ‘Give it to him,’ ” David Gau said. “After that, he enlisted in the military.”
Francis Gau settled in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento after the war and met Rosalie Driscoll at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. They married in 1947, raised five children and lived off Fruitridge Road in Sacramento for 58 years.
He was active in Fruitridge Little League and volunteered at festivals and fundraising events at Immaculate Conception School. He enjoyed golfing, working on home projects and spending time with five generations of family.
“He was a very fun man to be around,” his son said. “He had a good outlook on life. He said that after you’ve gone through war, nothing else can really challenge you. He appreciated every day of his life and his family.”
In addition to his wife of 67 years and son David, Mr. Gau is survived by two other sons, Thomas and Steven; two daughters, Collette Gau-Cunningham and Patrice Gau-Johnson; 13 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
A funeral Mass was held Monday at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services or any charity.