It was a time of unfinished things.
Reynolds Coliseum loomed bare, incomplete, its steel framework nearly confiscated to keep the war machine churning. Soldiers outnumbered students on campus, and they too had unfinished business—educations interrupted, courtships halted, careers in the lurch. War was all the world had time for.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, bringing America into World War II, State College was a land-grant school with close military ties. Students were required to take two years of ROTC; it seemed natural that State would mobilize education to contribute to the war effort.
And that is exactly what happened. State College stayed open during the war, but its primary mission shifted from educating the remaining full-time students to providing military training. “Soldier-students” began to arrive in 1943; the 59th College Training Detachment of the Army Air Force brought 800 young men to campus to receive flight instruction and lessons in mathematics, physics, history and geography. The Navy Diesel Program, one of only two centers offering specialized training in diesel engines, and the Army Specialized Training Program brought thousands more to campus for a few months of living and learning. Some dorms became military barracks; many buildings were renovated with federal assistance to meet the demands of the training programs.
In the meantime, as soldiers poured into campus, recent alumni, faculty and yet-to-be State graduates poured out, sent all over the world to contribute to the war effort. Even State College Chancellor Col. John W. Harrelson took a leave from his duties as dean of administration to serve in the 4th Service Command as deputy administrator of the College Training Program. Campus news and publications were filled with war: who was where, who had been decorated, who had been injured, who had been killed. The few regular students who remained on campus pursued a muted version of a normal existence. “It was regular college life, but there weren’t that many students,” recalls Merlin “Patches” Meares (1947) of his wartime stay on campus before he began active military duty. “You could count the cars on campus on one hand just about.”
When it was over, and the soldiers began to trickle home, the GI Bill of Rights put a college education within reach of many veterans. And it became clear there would be no returning to normal. In a matter of years, the campus had grown by leaps and bounds. There weren’t enough beds for these veterans to sleep in—temporary settlements of prefab houses, trailers and barracks sprouted on campus with names like Trailwood and Vetville. Meanwhile, State College expanded along with the student body. The School of Education and the School of Design opened in 1948; two years later, the School of Forestry opened.
But perhaps no change was greater than that in the student body. Ultimately, the war spared the steel of the coliseum, but it took many men who might have sat in it. And those who came home to resume their studies and careers were not the same, just as the life they returned to was forever changed.
“So many of them were just young. Everybody wanted to get into the action till they got there,” Meares says. “When they came back, a lot of them were in their late 20s. They were a little more serious.”
War had shaped a new world and the generation that fought to inherit it. How? NC State gathered the stories of alumni veterans to explore the legacy of World War II.
In Europe on the Ground
Lawrence Apple (1949, 1953, 1955) served in the U.S. Army 99th Infantry Division. His combat experience includes the Battle of the Bulge, the Remagen Bridgehead and the Central Germany Campaign. After he returned to the United States, he enrolled at NC State, where he earned a B.S. in agronomy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in plant pathology. Apple is a professor emeritus of plant pathology and genetics at NC State and the secretary general of the International Association for the Plant Protection Sciences.
I was drafted in 1944 and went into infantry training. The casualty rate after D-Day was so high that they needed infantry replacements. I left the country in December and was shipped directly to the Battle of the Bulge. It was a quick introduction to what war was like. The snow was very deep; we were in a defensive stance in January. We dug these deep holes—lived underground—and our source of light, the foxhole furnace and lamp, was a Coke bottle with a wick and gasoline. We couldn’t burn those very long, because they smoked so badly we would choke. We were just groundhogs.
We left these holes on January 31st on the spring offensive. It wasn’t very springlike. It was raining, sleeting and snowing the night we left. We were pulling sleds loaded with ammunition and went back into the Ardennes, [France], under heavy artillery fire. So from then on—I was with the company until May 8—we covered a lot of territory. And I was fortunate: I was never wounded, never went on sick call. I never slept in a bed from January until May. We always slept in a foxhole, which we dug every night. I had one bath and one full change of clothing in March. That’s just the way it was. We didn’t have another one until after May 8th when the war was over.
I think each soldier in combat has his or her own private world. You don’t share a lot of personal things [with other soldiers] because you don’t know whether they’re going to be there tomorrow or not. It gets next to you. We just used our best survival habits and did our job. We were always tired and hungry. Once there was a guard posted right at my foxhole, and he was killed during the night in an artillery barrage, and I didn’t even wake up. We were sort of insulated against what was going on. We were that tired; we could sleep through an artillery barrage, because oftentimes we wouldn’t get more than three or four hours of sleep.
We just didn’t have any comforts in the field. We would start out many mornings at 3 or 4 o’clock. During the winter, just fighting off the rigors of being cold—the climate was as bad as the enemy, really. Today’s Army—they do these rapid forays into enemy territory, and someone brings them back in a helicopter, and they probably sleep comfortably that night. We didn’t have that luxury. Helicopters didn’t exist to transport our wounded to an aid station. We lost casualties to death because they bled to death when we couldn’t get them out. We only carried what we had to carry. We didn’t even have pup tents—we just slept in the open. We threw them away because we didn’t want to carry the weight. But we would sleep in the watery foxhole, sleep in the rain. And in retrospect, you know, it didn’t bother us. We were tough. And it taught us to live with adversity, to take what life would give us.
Lee Roy “Shorty” Barnes (1941) was inducted into the Army as a second lieutenant when he graduated from State. He served in the 4th Infantry Division in the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion. Barnes’ battalion landed at Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Invasion; he then served on numerous campaigns in France, Belgium and Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge. After his return to the United States as a decorated veteran, Barnes founded Barnes Supply Co. and was active in the Army Reserve.
I came to State in 1937. Since it was a land-grant college, you had to take [ROTC] for two years at that time. Then, if you liked it and were recommended, you could take it for two more years and get a commission as a second lieutenant. The main reason I joined up for the second part was that it paid me some money. I was working my way through school. Of course, I enjoyed it and it was an honor to be selected. But I had no idea we would ever go into combat.
You can study books and you can do all this, but you have to have on-the-job experience in combat. When we took St. Lo, [France], I remember one unit, a little platoon, had been eating to the left of there. They ate there two or three days, and the Germans killed them in a mortar attack. It was shocking, because they were scattered, these 12 or 15 men, legs off, arms off, just killed. But they had made the mistake of eating in the same place for three days. So you learned not to do that.
At Sarrbrucken, we had taken a German command post. We didn’t like to be out in the weather if we could get a building to sleep in at night. Well, normally we would check the basements—all the basements had potatoes—and we would check underneath the potatoes to make sure there weren’t any bombs. But this particular time we didn’t check, because we got in late and wanted to go to bed. Well, the next morning we checked and we found under the potatoes 2,000 pounds of dynamite with a time bomb set. Twelve hours after that, the whole thing blew up.
After the company stopped its march at the Elbe River so the Russians could take Berlin], they were able to take some troops for R&R, for recreation. I was able to go down to Cannes, France, for 10 days, and that was great. You could get showered. During all this time we didn’t get many showers. You took a shower in your helmet. You got some water in your steel helmet and you shaved and showered with that helmet. That’s what’s called a birdbath! Then after that we were occupational troops, and for four, five months we occupied different parts of Germany.
Coming home was a shock. It took me a year to acclimate to civilian life—at least a year, because for two years I’d been in combat. And combat is seven days a week. We always had security around our area. We didn’t have a vacation. The only time I had a vacation was after it was over, when I went to Cannes. When we got back home, we’d just been in a different world, you know? In combat, in the Army.
But it grew you up. It’ll mature any young man. How dumb I was! Man, when I look back—I was ignorant. I was in Oxford, and the farthest I’d been from home by the time I applied to State was Durham, which is 30 miles. I’d never been to Raleigh, anywhere. I was in a small, little world in Oxford, and we just got the local paper.
The only thing good about [combat] was that we beat the Germans. I don’t think I would [have pursued the ROTC] if I had known. I don’t think I would have. I’m very patriotic, but I think I’d have skipped it.
In the Air
Scott Ferebee (1948) was a basic-training instructor when he saw a sign seeking volunteers for parachute duty. He persuaded a sergeant to let him sign up even though he fell short of the 125-pound weight minimum, and he eventually was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st jumped in support of Utah Beach during D-Day. Ferebee returned to State in 1946 and majored in architecture. He eventually established an architecture firm in Charlotte, now known as the FWA Group.
I think we were relieved when we were finally shipped to England because we knew at least where we were going. In September 1943, we landed in England. The whole island was an armed camp. We trained until June 1944 for the invasion of Normandy.
We flew across the [English] Channel, around the Normandy peninsula and in from the other side, so the Germans wouldn’t know where we were coming from or where we were proposing to go. As we came in over Normandy, there were obviously lots of anti-aircraft [guns] firing at us. We were coming in low, because it’s more difficult for them to get the guns trained on us. Normally, you jumped at about 1,000 or 1,200 feet, and we came in that night at about 500 feet. When I jumped, I felt like my chute hardly opened before I hit the ground. A lot of young pilots flying these troop carriers had never gone into combat, just like we hadn’t for that matter. The C-47s were not bombers or fighters; they were just lumbering transport planes without a lot of armor. When all this shooting started, some of the pilots were anxious to get rid of us—I wouldn’t say all of them—but we got scattered very badly. Very few of us in that division made the airborne part of that invasion. Some people came down in very bad places. A lot of them were shot in the air, harnesses hanging in the trees.
Although we were scattered and not where we were supposed to be, we had the advantage of surprise. We didn’t know where we were, so we were very cautious and careful. We assembled and engaged some of their people in small fights without getting caught up in a much larger battle.
My unit accomplished its mission. We were moving south, and on the third day, I was shot. I had gone to talk to the company commanders about ammunition—where it was located and where to pick it up—when we came under heavy German mortar barrage. We all hit the ground and just lay as close to the ground as we could. I got hit in both legs; the worst wound was in the calf of my right leg. It was like somebody had just swung a baseball bat as hard as he could into my leg. A soldier lying beside me was actually killed. I don’t know this, but I suspect from the direction of the blast and the fact that my leg was sticking out beyond where he was lying that that may have saved my life.
So I was evacuated on an LST [landing ship, tank] that brought troops over for beach landings. They were loading up casualties to take back across the channel. I was taken first to a field hospital on the beach, with a big red cross painted on it and lights going. My wounds were treated temporarily there. Rows of us were lined up. Three Army captains who were doctors walked through talking among themselves about what they were going to do to me, and two of them were arguing that they would have to take my leg off. The other one, who seemed to be in charge, was arguing that he didn’t think that would be necessary. So I went under the anesthesia not knowing whether I would have a leg when I woke up. They packed my leg through and through with gauze, stopped the bleeding, cleaned out all the pieces of metal and shipped me back to England to an American Army hospital.
In August, a lot of heavy casualties were coming back to these hospitals in England. People who were ambulatory were taken to another hospital by the Welsh border that wasn’t quite ready to deal with serious injuries. I was ambulatory in the sense that I was on crutches.
In the new hospital, I was lying in the ward on the first night. One of the officers came there with me, and we were talking when these three beautiful women walked through. They were nurses of course, and the next morning I realized that one of them was my ward nurse. I asked her about the beautiful blonde I’d seen her with. Anyway, I later met my wife there in the hospital. Eventually, they shipped me back home. But she and I dated hot and heavy for about two months and of course continued to correspond. When the war ended in Europe, her hospital unit was brought to New York. I was able to get three weeks leave, and we were married in the parachute chapel in Fort Benning, Georgia. And we’ve been married 56 years now. I tell people that the luckiest day of my life was the day I got shot.
, Richard L. Rice (1941) entered the U.S. Army 9th Infantry Division in August 1941 and was dispatched to French Morocco. He was sent back to the United States in 1943 after being injured in Tunisia; he then joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a part of the 294th Engineer Combat Battalion, Rice participated in the invasion of Normandy and provided engineering support to the infantry, building bridges across the Seine and the Rhine rivers, during campaigns across Northern Europe. When he returned, Rice became a principal in the architecture firm Haskins and Rice in Raleigh. He also joined the Army Reserve, ending his duty as a colonel in 1971.
We landed in this little town called Safi, in French Morocco. We were on an old World War I destroyer, which was expendable, we were told. They ran that thing onto a bunch of rocks in the harbor, and we climbed down cargo nets, went ashore and captured the French Foreign Legion barracks, which was really a fort in the town. France had fallen, and the French were collaborating with the Germans.
But we’d always had great relations with the French. They fought enough to preserve their honor, which meant a lot to Frenchmen, and then they quit. And we were really friendly with them after the hostilities ceased.
Then we walked from Safi up the coast of French Morocco—a distance of 258 miles. We went through Casablanca up to the Atlas mountains to Tunisia. It took us three weeks.
On this trip, we passed ancient Roman ruins, and it was not unusual to see pieces of columns lying along the roads. At one stop, I saw a small Roman temple that appeared to be almost intact. I just had to go over to see it. Luckily, I had been trained to watch for mines. All around the temple were German antipersonnel mines—the “Bouncing Betties.” That thing had three little prongs of steel sticking up above the ground looking like blades of grass, and the rest of it was buried underground. And if you stepped on it, a canister would fly out of the ground and burst and throw steel balls about 50 yards in all directions, mowing down everything it hit.
The Battle of El-Guettar in Tunisia was a horrendous fight. We were fighting Germans there. Our regiment lost a third of its troops in that battle. Two of my battalion’s four company commanders were killed. I was wounded and sent back to the States. A hand grenade blew up next to me and knocked me out cold—I had a concussion. The first thing I knew, I was going to the medical station in an ambulance. I was in the hospital for about three months.
[Rice returned to the United States to recover, joined the Corps of Engineers and was sent to Europe.]
Our ship sank going to Normandy for the invasion of France. It hit a mine and started sinking from the stern, the rear end. A few men in the stern were injured, but my unit was near the bow, so we were all right. But we had to abandon ship. Some of us got off onto a British destroyer, and some of us got onto other, smaller ships. We thought they would take us back to England, since we had been ordered to leave our weapons below deck. So we had no rifles, but they took us straight into France. Luckily, the infantry had preceded us, and the enemy was pushed back two or three miles. Some shells were coming in and a plane strafed us as we went across the beach, but we got ashore OK. Rifles were flown in by glider, and we were re-equipped a couple of days later.
But it wasn’t all being shot at. I’ve got a lot of pleasant memories, but most of them were in Europe. It was fun building those bridges unless they were shooting at us, and sometimes they were. We had it much easier than the infantry, as far as danger was concerned.
It was exciting. Sometimes it was pure misery, and sometimes it was a lot of fun. Anything else afterward was an anticlimax.
In the Pacific
Robert A. McAllister’s (1947) education was interrupted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; he joined the Navy and was sent to the Pacific Theater. McAllister was assigned to a minesweeper as an engineering officer and his tour of duty took him to the Philippines and Japan. After being discharged, he resumed his education in chemical engineering, ultimately earning a Ph.D. He worked as a professor of chemical engineering at Lamar University in Texas and was a consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency for 11 years.
Toward the end of the war, not long before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a large part of the Pacific fleet was anchored around Okinawa. There were a couple of battleships, two or three cruisers, half a dozen or more destroyers, lots of American ships, transport ships, supply ships and tankers. About 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon, all hell broke loose. Emergency horns went off on every ship. All these anchored ships stoked up their engines, black smoke blowing out of their stacks, trying to get under way, to get out to sea, because a whole swarm of kamikazes came over. That went on for almost an hour and a half, one wave after another. I heard that almost 300 kamikazes went up in flames that afternoon.
Several crashed into the naval vessels and killed a lot of people and did a lot of damage. They had bombs on these kamikazes, and lots of gasoline, and when they hit a ship, it was just like those planes that hit the World Trade Center. There was a huge blast of flame, and most had bombs. Fortunately for us, the kamikazes were after the bigger ships. Several flew by us, almost eye level on their way to some bigger target. We could see these Japanese pilots in there … it was a pretty scary afternoon. We were shooting everything in every direction we could, but we had to be careful not to shoot anyone on the next naval vessel that was on eye level. That’s what we did. We tried to keep moving as fast as we could and evade the aircraft as best we could.
In the fall of 1946, I came back to NC State. Before I left for the Navy in 1943, I was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. One thing we did in the fraternity, before we split in thousands of directions, was make a pact to meet at the Bell Tower on the New Year’s Eve following the war. And we did. It was like a family reunion. In 1946 and 1947, everything was bulging at the seams. There were students galore. NC State was just deluged with returning GIs. Everything was really busy; we had full, big classes and they were scrambling for professors. It was a glorious time. But we just picked up where we left off.
I had a feeling, which I now know is foolish, that I was invulnerable. I had been through all this mess. Something like the war is bound to change you. It gave me some maturity that I didn’t have before. It gave me a better feeling of community, not only with fellow students but with society. When everybody came back, it was time to build a life. This was what I’d fought for. Coming through the war indicated to me that I had a mission in life, to really do something with my life.
I didn’t see a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, but coming back to State, I heard of more and more friends who died. There was a list of names at our 50th anniversary for the Class of 1947 … just to ponder that is really moving. A campus is like a family. There’s a camaraderie. To know that a significant number of fellow students died because of all this—it’s really heavy on the heart.
When I was a kid, the Depression of the 1930s was a time of gangsters, bank robbers and bootleggers. Everything was cops and robbers. After the war, I never wanted to come near a gun, and I never would let my children have guns to play with. That was one thing that changed, that made a big impression on me. I never could go hunting because I couldn’t bear shooting a deer or anything else. I just couldn’t stand it.
On the Home Front
Cyma Salzman Rubin (1947) was one of six women in the Class of 1947. She arrived at State from New York in 1943 and majored in textile management. During the war years, she was a nurse’s aide and an active part of the somewhat diminished campus life. She returned to New York after graduation and pursued a career that has spanned textiles, interior design and the arts, including a stint as producer of the hit Broadway revival of “No, No, Nanette.”
Traveling was very difficult because it was wartime. I remember my father had to pull all sorts of strings to even get the seat on the train. I was in the seat and on the train when we stopped, obviously near an embarkation station. Suddenly, they scooted all the passengers out of the seats to put the soldiers in. So I was sitting on my bags in the area between cars, and I was sort of falling asleep when the head cook in the Pullman kitchen found me. They had stopped serving meals, and I guess he felt sorry for me. He got a couple of blankets and he spread them on the countertop in the kitchen and hoisted me up there. And that’s where I slept! He also didn’t like the idea that someone 17 years old was sleeping on the baggage with all those soldiers in the car, though they were very respectful.
Then, they dropped me off, still full of this idea of rah-rah college life. I thought I would be greeted by this rousing band. I just stood there, and finally a voice called out to me—they had sent just one person to bring me in.
We carved out a special kind of life. But it was harrowing because people were being killed, and you heard all these things and saw those gold stars in the windows. Everyone was aware; this was when the fighting was really heavy. The presence of all those soldiers … .
We went all out, doing anything we could think of to contribute. We knitted socks. I was a nurse’s aide; I took the training course and helped out in the hospital. I wrote to everybody: anyone who was in this, any guy I went to high school with. It was a mail service. I had all these letter romances. I felt very involved in whatever I could do. We found time to do everything.
My brother was in Europe. Our family was walking on ice with six cousins there. I thought it would be great to send my brother a small bottle of brandy, but you weren’t allowed to do that. We got someone who was past 21 to get a small bottle of Johnnie Walker. My roommate and I baked two big layer cakes. We dug out the center and burrowed the bottle into it, and then we iced it over. And, by God, we sent it to my brother. To let him know it was coming, I wrote a letter and said, “A friend of yours, Johnnie Walker, might stop by one day.” Of course, by the time it got there, the bottle had smashed in the cake. He said they picked the glass out, and it was the best soaked cake they’d ever had.
But there wasn’t anything organized in terms of war effort on campus. We didn’t talk about it a lot. It wasn’t under discussion at class. We enjoyed being young college students. But it was very austere. The pall was there. The cloud was on your head.
By Rebecca Morphis