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Stories from the front: Alumni share their wartime experiences

Posted on July 15, 2009


PAW invited alumni to share their accounts of a memorable wartime experience. Their responses follow, ranging from the dramatic rescue of a group of French schoolchildren to a “mini-reunion” in a cold tent in Korea. If you would like to share an experience, e-mail paw@princeton.edu or send it to PAW at 194 Nassau St., Suite 38, Princeton, NJ 08542.

Edgar M. Buttenheim ’44 

Grant K. Goodman ’46

Milo B. Sampson ’62

Avery Chenoweth ’50

Jack Gore Collins ’52

John T. Jameson ’50  

Pete Armstrong ’50

Frank Bailey ’48

Rocky Semmes ’79

Henry B. Wehrle Jr. ’43

Eli Arthur Schwartz *60

Rosamund P. Bell w’35

Robert G. McHugh ’50

Brooke C. Stoddard ’69

Close call for French children at Elbeuf


By Edgar M. Buttenheim ’44  

My Princeton ROTC program and the courses I took later at Officer Candidate School did a good job of preparing me for most of my combat experiences as an artillery forward observer during World War II. What I never imagined was that at times I would be fighting a war in the midst of civilians who were trying to carry on their normal lives. Farmers did not plow on the rifle ranges at Fort Benning, Ga. kindergarten classes did not stroll across artillery target areas at Fort Sill, Okla. Today some of my most vivid memories are of French citizens coping as we fought around them.  

In August 1944, I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant of artillery with the 28th Infantry Division as it swept out of Normandy. When we approached Elbeuf, perhaps 50 miles from Paris, I was told that my artillery battalion would be part of a task force, including infantry and tanks, with the mission of liberating the city. “It is only a mopping-up operation” was the summary. I had already learned to dread the phrase, as my experience with the Germans thus far indicated they were firmly opposed to being mopped up.  

Aug. 25 was a clear, sunny day. Infantrymen in a single column on each side of a dirt road were moving forward through rich farmland, accompanied by Sherman tanks. There in the fields were a few farmers plowing.

As we got closer to a crossroads surrounded by a few houses, the Germans opened up with rifles and machine guns, and our infantry and tanks returned fire. Forgetting the farmers, I walked along with the two men who carried my radio equipment near the rear of the infantry and behind the tanks. One of the Shermans reached the crossroads, only to be knocked out by a German tank. My captain ordered me forward to direct artillery fire on that tank, and by radio I called our 105mm howitzer into action, which accomplished the mission.

An infantry major told me to catch up with an advance company of our soldiers. My two men and I dogtrotted up the road to narrow the gap, feeling more than a little nervous and lonely. We were alongside a prosperous farmhouse surrounded by a wall when a camouflaged German machine-gunner suddenly opened fire. We dropped to the ground and crawled quickly around the corner of the farmhouse. As we caught our breath, we heard voices coming from behind a bricked-up window. A brick was pulled inside, and a woman asked, “Would you like a piece of cake?” I knew enough French to say, “Yes, thank you,” and three glad-to-be-alive Americans took a quick “cake break.”

We moved on around the back of the house and caught up with the infantry company at the edge of Elbeuf. As we walked through the outskirts of the city, a pattern began to develop with the very friendly French. Anxious to welcome us, they would come out of their homes and offer us fruit or glasses of beer. Then the Germans would begin firing, and the French would just disappear, all of them experts by now at this survival technique.  

We reached the center of the city as the sun began to set. As we moved forward, we came upon a crowd of French civilians marching toward us. Members of the French Maquis, or underground, were in charge, and they were herding a group of women, naked to the waist, their heads shaved. Collaborationists, they were being driven out of town in disgrace, and French citizens along the road jeered and shouted at them.

Beyond the square we entered a street with affluent homes and yards surrounded by walls. As dusk approached, the atmosphere became more eerie. Suddenly a German machine gun in an alleyway just ahead of me fired tracer bullets perhaps 18 inches in front of my eyes and killed a soldier across the street. Everybody scattered, and I rushed into the house I’d just passed. I was immediately welcomed with great enthusiasm by an older couple who were just sitting down to dinner. Nasty street fighting at close quarters is not an artilleryman’s business, so I stayed inside for a few minutes while the infantrymen went to work. The man of the house responded to my efforts to communicate by rushing upstairs to bring down his medals from World War I, which he proudly showed me. We had a few minutes of awkward conversation, and when the firing outside subsided, I left to rejoin the infantry.

With darkness at hand, our company moved into a warehouse, and we slept as best we could. We guessed the Germans were withdrawing their last men across the Seine River bridges. We did not know they were positioning their artillery to hinder our pursuit the next day.

Conditions seemed calm in the early morning of Aug. 26 as we left the warehouse, but at about 9 the Germans began firing medium artillery similar to our 155mm howitzers. We threw ourselves on the ground as the first barrage screamed in, and a shell hit 10 yards from us, wounding one of my artillerymen. Luckily, first-aid men quickly gathered several injured soldiers and drove them off in a jeep. I shall never forget my man, ashen-white, waving a feeble good-bye.

After the first explosions, I began to time the German rounds, which were coming in at three-minute intervals. One of our tanks was parked across the street, close to a stone wall, and I decided that getting between the tank and wall was the best available cover.

My remaining artilleryman and two infantrymen joined me behind the tank. My watch indicated we had 45 seconds until the next shelling. And then suddenly I saw them – two women coming down the street, escorting about 15 children perhaps 5 or 6 years old. Frightened by the first barrages, they must have decided to go to the nearest air raid shelter, signs for which I had noticed about 150 yards back at an intersection. The children were in extreme danger and could not possibly reach the shelter or retrace their steps in time. I yelled “Venez ici tout de suite,” and the two teachers began to run toward me, scurrying behind the children like mother hens protecting their chicks. When the women and kids reached us, I told the men to pack all of them in, one on top of another and on top of us, forming a human pyramid. I heard the screams of approaching shells as we lifted the final child into place. There were four thunderous explosions, the middle two about 30 or 40 yards on either side of the tank. Razor-sharp shell fragments blanketed the street, but not a single person behind the tank was hurt.

When the smoke cleared, I told the women they had a little more than two minutes to get to the air raid shelter. We helped the children get out on the street and off they went, some crying, some stunned, some holding hands. Finally they reached the corner and disappeared. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and smiled.

Three days later the 28th Division was selected to be in the Paris liberation parade. It was Aug. 29, 1944. An estimated 1 million French cheered us as we went down the Champs-Elysées and saluted the top generals at the Arc de Triomphe. It was a thrilling experience, but it was no more satisfying than my feelings of relief and thankfulness when I saw those children and their teachers reach the shelter before the next artillery barrage at Elbeuf.

Conducting prisoner interrogations

 

By Grant K. Goodman ’46

In the following excerpt from his book, America’s Japan: The First Year, 1945-1946 (Fordham University Press), Grant K. Goodman ’46 recalls the experience of interrogating Japanese prisoners in the Philippines during World War II. At the time, Goodman was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and a member of the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS).

Even though the battle for the Philippines had already been won by the Americans, we still wanted information from the Japanese prisoners. This was because, while there was little doubt that in the battle for Okinawa we would also be victorious, the next operation – “Operation Olympic,” a landing on the Japanese mainland – was already being planned and prepared for, and for that purpose it was crucial to gather information about conditions within Japan.

The Japanese reinforcement troops sent to the Philippines were reservists who had not received very much training, but most of them had left Japan just a few months earlier, so if they were skillfully questioned, one could obtain the latest information about circumstances in Japan.

I conducted the interrogation of some Japanese prisoners. The place where we did the interrogation was a small wooden hut with an earthen floor, a dark room with almost no windows. The Japanese prisoners were brought into this dark room stark naked, then they would suddenly have a spotlight shone on them and the interrogation would begin from a place high above them. The interrogation desk must have been elevated some 10 feet above the floor.

I have no idea who came up with this stage design, but it was remarkably effective. All the prisoners had been fed propaganda to the effect that if they were captured by the Americans they would be killed, and when this was added to their weakened physical and mental condition, due to wandering exhausted and sick in the jungle, most of them gave up all resistance and answered the interrogation honestly.

They told us a lot of things – about how their homes had been destroyed in American air raids, about how many people had been killed, about how their homes had been burned down by fire, about their family members left behind in their native towns, about their wives and children, and so on.

We asked them what sort of movies were being shown currently in Tokyo. This was because we could make certain inferences about the living situation of ordinary people if we knew whether or not people were able to go to the movies. The answer, in most cases, was that it was possible to go. That is, it seemed that they enjoyed going to the movies, and they talked to us about the movies that they had seen.

I was totally devoted to my role as a language officer, and I limited my work to translating and interpreting Japanese, but I think that at least the Japanese prisoners felt no incongruity about the fact that I was interrogating them in Japanese, and they answered me submissively. I think this was the fruit of my over two years of Japanese language training, and it demonstrated the value of the “special training” I had received at the University of Michigan and Fort Snelling. …

During this period – six weeks from the beginning of July to the end of the war on Aug. 15 – there were as many as three practice attempts to mount “Operation Olympic,” to invade the Japanese mainland. Each time I stuffed all my clothes, provisions, and dictionaries into my backpack, and we headed en masse for Manila harbor, where we boarded the waiting transport ships. …

“Operation Olympic” was practiced three times, as I said, and each time it was called off, but frankly speaking I don’t really know why. Perhaps it was simply a sort of exercise, or perhaps the policy was changed in midstream, or maybe it was a combination of both. I can only say one thing for sure. If this “Operation Olympic” had gone ahead, an inconceivable number of Japanese soldiers, Japanese civilians, and American soldiers would have been killed and wounded.

A.B. “Sandy” Smythe ’46: Battling through the hedgerows

 
Submitted by his nephew, Milo B. Sampson ’62

The following is from a précis for Chapter V of “A Brief Account of the Careers of Three Civil Engineers Named Smythe,” a memoir by the late Alexander Barclay “Sandy” Smythe ’46, who served in both World War II and the Korean War.

In early May of 1944 I was shipped to southern England and assigned as over-strength for the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion of the Third Armored Division. We ate ham, chicken, and beef three meals a day to add an extra 15 pounds to each of us.   We then traveled by LST [landing ship, tank] across the English Channel and spent many days on that craft as things were not going well ashore.

D-Day notwithstanding, the real problems were the hedgerows of the Cotenin Peninsula, where each farm field is surrounded by an earth mound about four feet high with dense shrubbery on top. German infantry and armor defended these fields one by one and first efforts to blow a hole big enough for a tank through the hedgerow were made using a case of TNT and a hand grenade. Zigzag runs across the fields were not always successful, so I quickly took the place of an unsuccessful fellow in Company B. and was luckier, losing only the heels off both shoes to rifle fire. I otherwise survived until a tank dozer appeared and punched a hole through the hedgerow. Unfortunately, tank dozers sometimes found a Panther tank carefully hidden, which drilled the front armor as well as the bulldozer blade with an 88 mm shell. The ultimate answer to the hedgerow problem would be a P-47 fighter plane with a 500-pound bomb.  

The breakout from St. Lo was a day I never shall forget, as 500 B-17s leveled the town and everybody in it. I was a half-mile back but on top of a hill and could see the whole affair. From then on it was: ride, ride, ride until I was hit by shrapnel in the eye with a sliver of metal near Chatres, France. The metallic fragment was extremely painful and remained in place for two days and 400 miles of travel looking for an eye surgeon. He was finally found in a town called … Montagne.

Early September brought me back to the Repple Depple [replacement depot] and I ended up in the wrong place with the 17th Armored Engineer Battalion of the Second Armored Division. This division was Regular Army, mostly from Georgia and Mississippi. More than a few were illiterate, most had given up any hope of ever getting home, but few, except me, seemed to be scared of anything. They were as tough as the touted SS troops but never said so. Even the cooks worked hard and provided the best anyone could do with field rations. Everyone shaved every day and wore clean clothes. No excuses were ever accepted for any shortcoming, and officers were rarely seen as each man knew his job after all the years together. I was never happier, even though just a private. Months later, Gen. Eisenhower made everyone in a combat unit a private first class, but there were no stripes available to sew on so it was an empty gesture – except on pay day, when there was $4.50 more to one’s account.

Korean War “mini-reunion”

 
By Avery Chenoweth ’50
, Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Retired)

“Well, well – haven’t seen you since our Modern Art precept,” greeted me from a figure huddled next to a small wood stove and trying to toast a piece of bread on top of it, as I tossed my seabag onto an empty cot in the cold, pyramidal tent.

He then introduced himself: “Nick Trapnell. Class of ’48. Welcome. Hah! Now we can have a mini-reunion.”

I, fresh out of the Class of ’50 with my A.B. in art and archaeology – which was not going to get me very far as a Marine rifle platoon leader – had been rushed though officer basic course and flown straight to Korea to replace a platoon commander who had been killed. I had arrived shortly after the entire First Marine Division had fought an incredible, two-week battle in sub-zero weather on its way back from the Chosin Reservoir deep in North Korea, 75 miles down to the Sea of Japan for evacuation. The Marine division had been the only United Nations force to maintain its unit integrity while destroying the 10 Chinese communist divisions surrounding it. U.S. and South Korean army units had “bugged out” and fled, leaving their weapons behind.

Trapnell was one of those who had been fighting heroically and continually since the Marine amphibious landing the previous September at the South Korean port of Inchon. Four months of uninterrupted bloody fighting, and now a brief respite. It was Jan. 16, 1951, and I would have the opportunity of fighting both Chinese and North Koreans for the next 11 months.

Once I ran into Marine Lt. Col. Horace E. Knapp, who had been professor of military science and tactics at Princeton and who had sworn me in as a second lieutenant in Nassau Hall under the Charles Wilson Peale portrait of Gen. George Washington at the Battle of Princeton.

The generation following the “greatest” one still held to the righteous causes that underpinned the nation’s continuing fight against despotism, now in the form of worldwide Communist aggression.

Our precious “Ivy Leaguers” were not immune – especially Princeton. A good percentage of the officer corps of all the services then were from the Ivy League.

Sadly, that time has long passed.

“Emergency Turn Niner”


By Jack Gore Collins ’52

Task Force 77, call sign Magistrate, was a part of the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet. It was a powerful force of one to five fast aircraft carriers. At its center was a battleship or heavy cruiser with an admiral in command, call sign Jehovah. It was screened (surrounded for protection) by at least a dozen destroyers. It operated off North Korea in the Sea of Japan, providing air support for the United States Army and Marines and the Republic of South Korea's army during the Korean War.

On June 6, 1952, I had been commissioned a regular ensign in the Navy. This took place after my graduation from Princeton. On Aug. 9, I came aboard the USS Princeton CA37, a fast-carrier, in Yokosuka, Japan, call sign Passbook. I was assigned as administrative officer of the operations department and stood watch in the Combat Information Center (CIC) and as assistant officer of the deck on the bridge at sea. It was all very new and demanding.

In the fall of 1952 the task force was steaming at normal night speed of 15 knots, on course due north, about 80 miles south of Vladivostok, Russia. I was standing watch in CIC. The sea was calm and very cold. The Manchurian winter had begun. It was a quiet watch with an hourly radio check by Jehovah.

About 10 p.m. the radios came alive. A destroyer in the starboard screen reported being hit on its port quarter; its fire room was flooding and a dozen were dead, but it was able to maintain 12 knots. Jehovah immediately ordered, “Emergency turn niner. Standby. Execute.” This was quickly followed by “Emergency speed flank. Standby. Execute.”

Almost immediately a destroyer on the other side of the screen reported a sonar contact and proceeded with an anti-submarine attack. We were all glued to our radars to see if in the turn of the force any ships were going to collide because the force was blacked out and coming to flank speed of 33 knots. Another destroyer went to the damaged ship, and they departed for Yokosuka, Japan.

Was the damaged destroyer hit by a Russian torpedo from the sonar contact? Had Russia entered the war?

The Princeton was coming to battle stations. Magistrate turned 90 degrees to the east and came to flank speed.

The destroyer had been hit with a Russian mine that floated in the sea of Japan in hopes of hitting the force. It had. The sonar contact was a whale. We all were aware of the gravity of these events.

I was and remain deeply impressed with the calm crisis command of Jehovah’s watch officer. The seamanship of the force was superb.

With the morning, air operations resumed.



A bombing mission to remember

 
By John T. Jameson ’50  

I was a lead navigator in the 8th Air Force, 94th Bomb Group, 410 Squadron, located at Bury St. Edmunds, England. One of our last missions was to Berlin, a maximum effort for the 8th with 1,000 bombers. The date was April 18, 1945. We left the runway at Rougham Field at 0800 and assembled at 6,000 feet. Heavy contrails were present over the IP [initial point] and target, with moderate to heavy accurate flak all along the bomb run. Just after dropping our six 1,000-pound bombs on a rail yard, we seemed to drop back out of formation. Our pilot, Dick Roberts, reported that our No. 1 engine was out and couldn't be feathered. The top cylinder, we found out later, had been blown off. We fell back from the formation after losing 2,000 feet off the target at 180 IAS [indicated air speed] through heavy turbulence, haze, and contrails. We made our way back from the rally point over Germany alone until a P-51 joined us and flew on our wing, telling Dick he would see us safely home – which he did. We landed an hour later than the rest of the formation. We had holes in both wings, and one main spar had to be replaced. We got a fist full of flak out of No. 1 engine. They said we sounded like a German buzz bomb as we came in to land.

The war was essentially over in Europe some 12 days later, April 30, 1945. This was the day that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. And this was my 20th birthday! I had done all my fighting when I was 19 years old. We were so young.

A mission to be remembered.

‘Laddie’ Murray ’50’s heroism in Korea

 
Submitted by class secretary Ken Perry ’50, based on correspondence with Pete Armstrong ’50

Benjamin H. “Laddie” Murray ’50 is one of Princeton’s most highly-decorated war heroes. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest military honor, for “extraordinary heroism as a Forward Outpost Commander” in the Korean War. On the night of March 26, 1953, he suffered severe wounds while exposing himself to rally his men and repulse a fierce enemy attack. Laddie went on to be an outstanding rider on the Maryland point-to-point circuit. Unfortunately, he died prematurely in 1964, perhaps in part from the trauma of his Korean wounds. Pete Armstrong, whom we lost in March 2007, had written that he was no more than 2,000 yards away from Laddie that night. Pete added, “If you were an infantryman as I was, you might as well have been 100 miles away. The world of an infantry platoon commander is a very narrow one. I never learned about Laddie’s award for months thereafter.”

Death in a foxhole


By Frank Bailey ’48

It is the year 1945. Consider a private first class, assigned to the 2nd Platoon, E Company (“Easy” Company), 126th Battalion, I58th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), 32nd Infantry Division. The area is northern Luzon, Philippine Islands. It is just another day of patrolling, pushing the Japanese further back into the inhospitable mountains. The operation is called “Mopping Up.” This morning, the private is assigned as point man for this patrol. We set off on a trail leading we know not where, but no doubt toward the Japanese. After a few hours of walking and climbing, the point man is about to round another bend in the trail. He is not well versed in the mechanics of combat yet.

You may perhaps recall the feeling of driving in your car down I-79 and rounding a bend at a speed a bit over the speed limit and suddenly seeing a state trooper with his radar gun on you.

As the private rounded the bend in the trail, he suddenly saw a Japanese infantryman in a foxhole with his rifle pointed at him. Being somewhat surprised that there was no rifle fire aimed at him, and too startled to realize that he might have just exited from this world, the private kept walking up to the foxhole, his own rifle at the ready. It soon became apparent that the Japanese infantryman was sound asleep. The private was somewhat dumbfounded as to what to do until the second man in the patrol put one bullet into the sleeping Japanese and said to me, “I think we had better get out of here,” which we did.

Do you suppose that sleeping individual, if he had lived, could have become a doctor, a scientist, an advocate of world peace and understanding?

Members of the Princeton ROTC program in 1944. Front row, left to right, are Gelly Hinds '44 and Hamilton Caruthers '44. In the back row, from left, are an unidentified student, Karl Harr '44, and Rock Semmes '44.
Members of the Princeton ROTC program in 1944. Front row, left to right, are Gelly Hinds '44 and Hamilton Caruthers '44. In the back row, from left, are an unidentified student, Karl Harr '44, and Rock Semmes '44.

Rock Semmes ’44: ‘It’s almost all over now’

Submitted by Rocky Semmes ’79

Rock Semmes (my father, now deceased) was an accelerated three-year graduate of the Class of ’44, and went straight into artillery through what was essentially the ROTC program on campus (though I am not sure it bore that particular designation at the time). He was commissioned a first lieutenant and assigned as the forward observer for a battery of 8-inch howitzers, the largest field gun of the Army. He landed at the French port of Le Havre with the other heavy war materiel shortly after the beachhead was secured at Normandy, and from the first day there his unit was in constant action pushing steadily through France and into Germany.

A forward observer regularly was close to the action. That was the nature of his duty. He was frequently beyond his own front line and well within enemy lines, into hostile territory. Rock undoubtedly saw a lot, but he never shared anything in detail about the broken bodies and common carnage he often must have encountered. That was an unspoken rule. And it seemed universal, from what I can tell of those who returned from the experience. It may have collectively preserved the sanity of that whole generation. That is hard to say for sure. Rock’s father and brother, for example, each returned from the war with individual Distinguished Service Crosses to their credit. This is the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor. But the details of their respective actions were never forthcoming. It just was not brought up, ever.

But from Rock’s memory an occasional story would come forth when coaxed out by a curious member of the family. Such stories were always cleaned up, whitewashed, and sterilized of any of the horror. This discipline was determined and unbending. The demons -- if they existed, and I must presume they did -- always were contained.

There was the story he told of combat action in Germany after crossing the Rhine, not too long after the Bulge. It was sometime late in February, or maybe March. Rock told of making surveillance on a German field gun and crew that he was targeting for his battery. That German gun was actively shelling American positions. Lying in concealment, Rock relayed the target coordinates to his guns over his field phone. Then, pausing before giving his battery the command to fire, he noticed a sudden surge of activity by the German team at the gun. He trained his binoculars back onto his target and watched with professional curiosity as he observed those enemy artillerymen suddenly limber up their gun and wheel it around a full 180 degrees. Unbelievably, they then continued their line of fire but in the completely opposite direction.

It was an evident act of desperation. And it was at that very moment that Rock realized what he was witnessing. He thought to himself, “It’s all almost over now. This war can’t last too much longer.” And so it was. V-E Day was May 8, 1945.

That night off Salamaua

By Henry B. Wehrle Jr. ’43

I was shipped up and down the part of the New Guinea coastline that our forces controlled for most of December 1943, before arriving at Buna on Christmas Eve. These voyages were untroubled even though the Japanese still were firmly entrenched in most of the rest of New Guinea and New Britain. During this same short time, however, the LCT [landing craft, tank] 384 and its crew had an experience that was referred to many, many times in the long months ahead as “that night off Salamaua,” which was a small village about halfway between Buna and Cape Cretin on the northeast New Guinea coast.

The LCT 384 had been sent alone to carry supplies to Cape Cretin, our furthest point of advance on the coastline. For some reason the crew members were traveling at night with their lighting all functioning, which made them something of a sitting duck. It was no surprise, then, when they were attacked by a squadron of Japanese planes, which started dropping bombs all around them.

The LCTs did have armaments of sorts mounted on the rear deck. These consisted of 20mm guns, which were only about two or three times larger than rifles used today for deer hunting. When the Japanese dive-bombers took several runs at the 384, the gunner’s mate was able to shoot down three of the enemy aircraft. That might be called “the good news.” The “bad news” was that one of the bombs scored a direct hit on the bow. And in one of the most incredibly fortunate developments for these men, that bomb went right through three layers of metal in the bow and did not explode. Thanks to watertight compartments, the 384 was able to limp back to its destination at Buna.

Shortly before I reported to the 384, the crew proudly had painted three Japanese flag decals in a prominent location on the wheelhouse to commemorate shooting down three Japanese planes. A small bomb with a slanted arrow through it, to show they had taken and survived a direct hit, was painted beside the three flags.

In the annals of World War II this very minor dogfight certainly would be far from noteworthy. I must add, however, that I always felt very proud of the 384 for having successfully held off a number of Japanese planes and surviving a direct hit. And not for one moment did I regret that I had missed that night off Salamaua on board the LCT 384 by only a few days.

Frederick J. Yeager *59: Raising POW morale

Submitted by graduate alumni memorialist Eli Arthur Schwartz *60, the following is an account of Frederick J. Yeager *59’s experiences as a POW during World War II. Yeager died Feb. 20, 2009, at the age of 93.

Frederick J. Yeager *59 was graduated from West Point in 1940. Stationed in the Philippines before World War II, he was captured by the Japanese, survived the Bataan Death March in 1942, and then was held in captivity for three and a half years in five POW camps. While imprisoned, he learned Russian from another POW. Faced with unimaginable living conditions, Yeager raised the morale of his fellow POWs by forming the “I Like It Here” club. Yeager’s heroism and duty to his country were reflected in his receiving the Silver Star medal, two Bronze Star medals, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and the Legion of Merit. His wife June enlisted in the Red Cross and served in Europe during his internment. After the war, Yeager and his family moved all over the world, as his military career took him to Moscow, Berlin, London, and Washington, D.C.

A change of orders: ‘Our fate was sealed’

By Rosamund P. Bell w’35

In World War II, many women chose to serve rather than stand and wait. I joined the WAVES and was assigned to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. There, despite thousands of lonely men on the staff or in training, all I could think about were the men serving in battle outside our country. I corresponded with many of them, old friends. Remember V-mail?

Aboard the U.S.S Princeton (CVL-23) were two I had known before the war: Lt. (jg) F. Rolland Carson, Princeton Class of ’42, and Lt. Frank E. Bell ’35. They had become friends. “Rollo,” who was married, encouraged Frank to write me. We had never dated, but I had known him through a college classmate.

Frank’s letters became increasingly warm. I figured the guy was lonely, cruising around the Pacific Ocean. There was plenty of action; he did not mention it. Once, when the ship returned to Bremerton Navy Yard for repairs, he called me in Illinois to see if I could fly out to Washington for a quick visit. Goodness, no!

Oct. 24, 1944, I arrived for a new duty assignment near Washington, D.C. To my shock, The Washington Post headline announced: “U.S.S. Princeton sunk.” I felt sick. I had written Frank that I was engaged to be married to an old friend in January. Now I only could imagine what distress his family felt. Like other families of survivors, they had to wait for days to know that he was safe. Though I had written him of my new duty assignment, I did not know whether I would ever see him again.

I did not hear from him, nor did I expect to. What was I waiting for?

My story ends – or begins – one night in December 1944. Unexpectedly, Frank was sent to Washington, D.C., for a change of orders. He decided to ask me to dinner, our first date. After two martinis, our fate was sealed.

We were happily married for 51 years and sent our two sons to Princeton, Frank E. Bell III ’68 and Charles E. Bell ’76.

The chrysanthemums

By Robert G. McHugh ’50

It was the last week of August, 1945. World War II had just ended a few days earlier, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9. On Aug. 19, I had witnessed informal surrender of the Japanese on Ie Shima, a small island just west of Okinawa, where I was based.  

I was a Fifth Air Force navigator and our crew was assigned to fly Gen. MacArthur’s honor guard to Japan, prior to his arrival in Yokohama later that day. Anxiously, unsure of what lay ahead, we landed in Atsugi at a Japanese fighter base just south of what was left of Yokohama after repeated bombings.

We were greeted by an elderly, civilian Japanese man. I say “elderly,” since I’d just had my 20th birthday in July. He introduced himself in fluent English as Mr. Toda, informing us that he would be our interpreter. He was dressed in a white linen suit, welcoming us with a bouquet of beautiful, large yellow chrysanthemums.

After dispensing with the brief military matters, I had a chance to speak privately with
Mr. Toda, and asked how he had learned to speak English so fluently. He told me that he and his family had in lived in Portland, Ore., for a few years prior to the war. He had worked for the U.S. office of a company in the import/export industry.

Somewhat hesitantly, he told me that his young children had complained repeatedly of being teased by their schoolmates because of their Asian appearance and awkward English. After several discussions, the family decided to return to Japan in 1939. His oldest daughter, Martha, asked to remain in the United States to complete her education. She planned to attend Smith College in Northampton, Mass. When I told him my sister, Aileen, was currently a student there, his eyes filled with tears. He asked if I could have my sister contact his daughter. The family had been out of touch since the start of the war. He wanted his daughter to know that the family had survived the B-29 bombings after moving to the mountain region outside Yokohama. I told him I would certainly relay his request in my next letter home, and did so. I never saw Mr. Toda again.

After numerous flights recovering allied POWs from their confinement camps in Japan, Korea, and China, I returned to my Trenton, N.J., home in 1946. My sister told me that Martha Toda had graduated from Smith in 1945 and that she had been unable to contact her.

Fast-forward 50 years later to July 1995, when I had an opportunity to return to Japan. I learned from the Smith College Alumnae Directory that Martha Toda had married and was living in Renton, Wash. Fortunately, I was able to phone her. I related the whole story and that I would be flying to Japan and wanted to renew my friendship with her father. Sadly, she told me that the family had reunited, but that both parents had died in 1975.  

I did return to Japan, but unfortunately was unable to renew our brief WWII encounter.   However, my memory of Mr. Toda and his yellow chrysanthemums lives on.

A surprise encounter in Manila

By Brooke C. Stoddard ’69

(Note: The following was first published online June 28, 2001, as a letter to the editor of PAW.)

My father, Brooke Stoddard ’37, rowed varsity heavyweight crew for three years. Once graduated, he soon joined the Army, war clouds then arising. He was in the cavalry because he liked to play polo, but alas, the cavalry was in the process of surrendering their horses for tanks.

Once war broke out, he had various assignments around the United States, but, being a large and athletic man, superiors soon noted a skill for combat and had him trained as a commando. In 1944 the Army had an assignment for him: secretly land with one other American officer by submarine on the island of Luzon, Philippines, before the U.S. invasion to work with Filipino guerillas at sabotage and intelligence-gathering.

My father met with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea in order to coordinate how radio transmissions and other intelligence gathered from behind the lines would be sent to MacArthur's headquarters. Then he as a young lieutenant, along with one captain, set out by submarine to Luzon.

For four months and through many adventures they worked with Marking's Guerillas in the hills and mountains outside Manila, blowing up bridges, otherwise harassing the Japanese, and sending intelligence back to MacArthur.

Once the Americans landed in January 1945 the Japanese had to retreat back into the hills, and this, my father always said, was when affairs heated up even more. But by March and with the Americans in Manila, my father was ordered to work his way through the Japanese lines. Sick with beriberi, malaria, and hepatitis, he did so in a dugout boat paddled by Filipinos across the large lake called Laguna de Bay.

Having traversed the Japanese lines, he reported to the 1st Cavalry Division in Manila. He presented his papers to the first officer he could and saluted. The young man looked at my father's papers.

"Brooke Stoddard," the young officer said to himself. "Brooke Stoddard. You went to Princeton University." "Yes," my father said. "That's right. Brooke Stoddard, Class of 1937." The other officer looked up. "I thought so," he said. "Bob Goheen, Class of 1940."

End note: My father won two Bronze Stars for his service in combat, returned to civilian life after the war, was called up for the Korean War but served only in this country, returned again to civilian life to raise a family, and ended his Army career as a lt. colonel in the reserves. He died of cancer at age 51 in 1965.

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1 Response to Stories from the front: Alumni share their wartime experiences

Kate Carson Says:

2009-11-10 11:11:46

What a wonderful story. I am so glad your husband listened to my wise father's advice. One never knows how a small suggestion can turn into something amazing. Sincerely, Kate Carson
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