Saturday, October 30, 2010
Cal's Greatest Generation
(Above: G.I.s hit the beach on D-Day)
Rosamond Castle '43 remembers Dec. 7, 1941, like it was yesterday.
"I was walking through Sather Gate toward Wheeler Hall, and I saw people huddling around, staring at newspapers. By the time I got to Doe Library I heard something about Pearl Harbor. Then inside the library everyone was talking about what had happened."
The news was so incredible, Catherine "Cappy" Vail Bridge '42 didn't believe it at first.
"I thought it was a hoax, like Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' broadcast a few years before."
So began America's entry into World War II, which ended 65 years ago this summer. To celebrate the end of that terrible war, we talked with some of the Golden Bears who lived through it.
The days after Pearl Harbor were a mix of uncertainty and fear.
"It was the middle of finals," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "We didn't have blackout curtains yet, so we couldn't study in our rooms because you couldn't have any light showing outside. So we sat on the floor in the hallways and studied there, instead."
"The great fear was for the young men of our class," adds Rosamond. "The young man I was dating invited me to the Class of '42 graduation ball at the Palace Hotel, even though we were both Class of '43, because he knew he probably wouldn't make it to our real graduation in 1943. And he was not alone."
It didn't take long for tragedy to strike home. In April 1942, Ed Tackle '41, who had been editor of the Daily Cal, was killed on the infamous Bataan Death March.
Four months later, Rosamond's beloved older brother, Gordon Craig, was killed off Guadalcanal when an enemy bomb blew apart the bridge of his ship, right were he was stationed.
"My last image of him was the day he went away, when he turned and saluted me and my mother at the door," she says. "I still miss him every day."
Jean Marchant '45 adds, "Our class had a flag made, and we hung it from the Campanile. Every time we got word that someone from Cal had been killed, we added another star."
A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, tragedy struck the campus in a different way.
"One day, my best friend, Grace Imamoto, who was also Class of '42, asked me if I would keep her tennis racket for her," says Jean Heying Rusmore '42. "I didn't know what she was talking about. I said, 'Grace, don't you like to play tennis anymore?' And she said, 'Jean, I have to go away.'"
Grace and all the other Japanese-American students were sent to detention camps for the duration of the war.
"We wanted to help them," says Clavel Fender '43. "The day before they were taken away, we held a tea party for them, with everyone dressed in pastel evening gowns. How innocent we were!"
As the men went off to war, the women threw themselves into supporting the home front.
"We would pick tomatoes or wrap bandages or make Bundles for Britain," says Jean Marchant '42. "Whatever we could do to help."
"There was such a shortage of men on campus, many of us sorority girls used to go to the USO in downtown Berkeley," adds Gwyneth Caster Page '45. "I asked a Marine captain to escort me to the senior ball. I went out and bought a beautiful black taffeta-and-lace formal and little pearl earrings. I thought I looked very chic. The doorbell rang, and there was my date in full dress Marine uniform. He was prettier than I was!"
Many of the younger faculty also went off to war, which meant the remaining undergrads had the cream of the crop as their professors.
"We had all the big guns," says Margaret Cooney Walton '47. "Glenn Seaborg was my section leader in chem!"
Army Capt. Charlie Fender '41 and his wife, Clavel '43, wrote each other every single day of the war, without fail. Whenever his outfit liberated a new city, Charlie would buy a little charm and send it to Clavel, who put them all on a bracelet that remains her most treasured possession.
Charlie was the military governor of the devastated town of Cerignola, Italy, where he rebuilt the social infrastructure from the ground up, establishing a new judicial system, schools, food supplies, and fire and police protection.
"Every day was a lot of fun because I was being useful," he says. And the locals really appreciated it.
"Twenty-seven years later he took me back," says Clavel. "When we checked into the hotel, the man behind the desk took one look at Charlie and said, "I remember you!" He whisked us to the city hall and shouted to the chief of police, 'Get out of that chair! The governor's here!' You can imagine how that impressed me."
Gordon Binder '40 was an Army field surgeon in Europe, operating under enemy fire only a few hundred yards behind the front lines.
"We didn't have an operating room, not even a tent. Just a field somewhere where we'd put up a sign saying, 'Battalion Aid Station.' We'd just park there and receive the casualties."
Many of the casualties were beyond saving. The best he could do was shoot them full of morphine to ease their agony.
"Nobody can imagine how awful it was. It was just horrible. You assumed you weren't going to make it. You knew you were going to get killed. It was just a question of when."
Bob Breuer '43 served on the U.S.S. Wichita, a heavy cruiser in the Pacific. At 22, he was the old man of the group of 18 and 19 year olds whom he supervised.
"We were like family, and I was their uncle. One day, two of them were killed and several others badly wounded by friendly fire from one of our own ships. I just sat down and cried like a baby."
Chuck Auerbach '42 fought with Patton's Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Some of the things George C. Scott said in the movie I heard Patton say in real life. Unlike Scott, his voice was high and squeaky, but the pearl-handled revolvers were real. He'd race around in a jeep with a machine gun mounted on it, and he really tore down the road. I said to one of my buddies, 'That man's going to die in an automobile accident,' which is exactly what happened."
Not all the heroes were men. Catherine "Cappy" Bridge '42 was a member of the Women Air Service Pilots, or WASPs. Their job was to ferry fighters and bombers from the factory to the airfields, freeing up male pilots for the actual fighting.
"Gosh, it was fun! We just loved it. But it was still dangerous. Thirty-eight of our girls were killed on the job - mostly accidents, not pilot error. One of us would take the body home to her parents, and we would pass the hat among ourselves to cover the expenses."
There weren't many happy days in the war, but one of them was Aug. 25, 1944, the day Paris was liberated.
We've all seen the pictures of ecstatic Parisians swarming over the American tanks, showering the G.I.s with flowers and kisses.
One of the people in that crowd was Tito Moruza '43, who had already been in Paris for three weeks, waiting for the troops to arrive. Tito was an American special agent on a secret mission: As soon as the city was liberated, he was to make his way to Gestapo headquarters and seize all the documents so they could be used in war crimes trials after the war. Which he did.
Tito had landed in France on the morning of D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. Their canvas-and-plywood glider was ripped open by one of "Rommel's Asparagus" - wooden logs driven into fields along the Normandy coast. The three soldiers sitting next to Tito were mortally wounded.
"The youngest, who was only 18, cried for his mama. The second called for the medics, and the third cussed. That was when I lost my religion. I still haven't gotten it back."
While the others were fighting, Tito's job was to contact the French Resistance so they could smuggle him into Paris. He narrowly escaped capture several times, thanks to a heroic couple named Paul and Marcelle Dufour, who operated a safe house for Resistance fighters and escaping American prisoners of war. After the war, he named his first two children after them.
To this day, Tito refuses to watch a war movie. But he does have one happy memory of the war.
"My greatest blessing was that I never had to kill anybody. I'm not belittling those who did; that was their job. I was just lucky."
The war finally ended on Aug. 14, 1945. Jay Jacobus '43 heard the news as his ship was headed from San Francisco to the Pacific for the expected invasion of Japan.
"We all shouted, 'Turn the ship around!' So the ship made a left turn and headed for the Philippines, instead."
Gwyneth Page Caster '45 heard the news when she was in Cowell Hospital with a raging case of mono.
"Somebody sneaked me a bottle of something alcoholic to celebrate," she says. "It made me sick as a dog."
They have been called The Greatest Generation, a term that makes them distinctly uncomfortable.
"It bothers me a lot," says Dave Stewart '43. "I'm no hero. I just did my duty, like thousands of others. The real heroes are the guys who didn't come back."
Dave is being modest. He was awarded the Bronze Star, two combat medals and two Purple Hearts, the second for wounds suffered when he was hit by a German Panzerfaust anti-tank grenade.
"But I still have all my body parts," he says. "So I got out of it lucky."
But the last word belongs to Tom Mulcahy '43, who served on a Navy tanker in the Pacific.
"My two best friends were killed in the war," he says. "One was my best friend from high school, Danny Hurst. The other was Norm Hennessey, whom I rowed with on the Cal crew. I had a chance to get married to the greatest girl in the world, have kids and grandkids, and have a full life. They didn't."
(This story originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of California magazine.)