The summer of 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. Muhlenberg College: Voices of World War II represents and honors the many voices of Muhlenberg men–students, faculty and staff–who contributed to that great effort.
In this chapter, we hear from Muhlenberg men as they reflect on their experiences on campus and abroad while on active duty. Through oral histories, correspondence, photographs, and archival film footage, we celebrate and value these mediated representations of voices from past and present.
In all their candor and curiosity, they express, in richly-textured details, their evolution from young, provincial college men to worldly military men, and their love for Muhlenberg and country: accounts that few history books capture with such intimacy and passion.
On July 30, 1945, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed in the Pacific as she returned from her top-secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb. She sank in twelve minutes.
Aboard was Lt (jg) Paul L. Candalino ‘43, life president of his class. The son of Italian immigrants from Hawthorne, NJ, Paul won a scholarship to Muhlenberg and was a leader from the moment he stepped on campus. A member of the Mask & Dagger theatre club and the wrestling team, this chemistry major led scrap metal drives, served as an air raid warden, was part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s escort on campus in 1942, and married his Cedar Crest sweetheart, fellow class president and chemistry major, Eleanor Goeringer.
His loss was a blow to Muhlenberg and its servicemen. Upon hearing the news, his friend Robert Hale ‘44 wrote to Gordon Fister:
“If ever anyone deserved more to live and influence the lives of others – it was Paul. The only consolation we have in his loss and other Muhlenberg men is that from their example we who have, may be spurred to greater achievement than their example then we would have. We can be ever thankful for their supreme sacrifice. I can hardly believe that Paul is gone. He was so real and steady – so much to be admired.” (November 11, 1945)
We dedicate this celebration to the memory of all the Muhlenberg men who gave their lives in service to their country.
August 14th, 2020
–75 YEARS SINCE VICTORY–
World War II, by all accounts, will always be history writ large. As part of that history, Muhlenberg and its community proudly served the United States in many capacities, including serving as a Navy V-12 training unit, while many of its students and alumni were active duty men stationed at the four corners of the earth. During their service, Muhlenberg men wrote first-hand accounts of their experiences in letters to Alumni Secretaries. The letters exemplify their unique windows to the war, perspectives that often serve as allegories for broader cultural issues.* For example, many active duty men learned quite early that the values and traditions in other communities, even in the United States, differed. Once stationed outside the U.S., their letters reveal their own hegemonic views as well as their wonder and awe about others’ customs, food, language, money, and religions, to name a few cultural differences.
In writing about the war, men seldom described it as World War II or the Second World War. Instead, many of them called it “this mess” or “this thing” or “this business” or “this chaos.” For example, one soldier wrote, “You can bet your bottom dollar that I, for one, am looking forward to the day this mess is over so I can get back and finish up at ‘Berg.” (John More ’45; 23 November 1944). Another man, a Navy chaplain, wrote, “We’re all hoping and praying for an early settlement of this mess, and for a peace arrangement that is worthy of the high standards of our country.” (Arnold P. Spohn ‘39; 21 March 1945).
Embedded in these letters about the war were narratives about how they traveled, whether moving from different military bases within the United States or to destinations around the world. James F. Feeman, ‘44, for example, wrote about his 40-day journey of 17,000 miles from France through the Panama Canal and then to Luzon in the Philippines.
John More ’45 wrote about his travels for extensive training beginning with aviation gunnery school in Hollywood, Florida and then to O.T.U. training at Jacksonville Fla, and then to Hutchinson, Kansas for more training on a different plane (23 November 1944). Lewis Fluck wrote about moving in 1942 from Miami Beach to Amarillo TX and then to Hendrix College, Arkansas, Austin, Texas and then to Long Beach, California in 1944. Of course, with all these moves, letters were often waylaid, leaving the men waiting for news. Men often endured long train or bus rides when moving from one base to another and, often, wrote about those long rides or about extended periods of time at sea. In fact, the type of transportation was often a source of amusement or dread or amazement, as seen by the men’s correspondence. As a form of banter, they devised nicknames for ships or used military acronyms, a type of shorthand language. George Berghorn ‘42 wrote from his ship, “I’m tired of being on a tin can for months” (15 June 1944).
Responding to the men’s abbreviations, acronyms and nicknames, college Alumni Secretaries learned the lingo quickly. For aircraft, the military assigned a letter designation depending on whether it was a bomber, a fighter or a transport. A B-17, was an early bomber, while a P-51D Mustang was a well-known fighter-bomber able to pursue enemies. Alumni Secretary John Wagner, in a letter dated April 13, 1943 to Lewis Fluck, wrote about Fluck’s role as an instructor in B-17 mechanics school, “I am sure your job is valuable to the war effort because the B-17s will not fly unless they are properly serviced” (13 April 1943).
Hollywood films about the military and war, as might be expected, revealed just how utterly different active duty training was, whether it was the Army, Army Air Corps, Navy, or Marines. As expected, Muhlenberg men shared their training experiences revealing just how different the silver screen version was than their own. Some of the training seemed repetitive to them, some was disgustingly and viscerally real. The reactions to the types of training ranged from proudly rugged and competitive to the simple pleasurable life of non-training by staying busy with golfing until their unit was in full swing.
Active duty men encountered the enemy on many fronts around the globe. Whether they were chasing Germans in the air, parachuting behind enemy lines, strafing an airfield, or torpedoing enemy ships, their letters offer a priceless recollection of courage, endurance, tactical and strategic rigor, as well as unique perspectives seldom captured in historical textbooks or official military accounts.
During wartime, promotions were frequent. Men rose through the ranks rather swiftly from enlisted to officer, from ensign to lieutenant JG, or private to private first class, to name a few examples. James F. Brown, Jr. ‘41, Lt., Army, wrote to John Wagner, “I hate to be the first to tell you this, but since no one else knows about it, it is the only recourse. At any rate, after five months as a second boy I am now wearing the silver bars of a 1st. And let me tell you this. It’s a bigger thrill to get that first promotion than it is to receive the original commission. I really feel like a veteran now that I have elevated from that despicable lot better known as “shavetails”. It’s the same feeling a sophomore has when surrounded by freshmen” (25 February 1943).
Mulhenberg’s men left their private liberal arts college and entered a world unlike they’d ever imagined. Faculty and staff prepared them with an abundance of care to understand different languages such as French and German, to compose well-written letters and reports, to apply their chemistry and history to their new careers, and to appreciate the collegiality of campus life. Reflecting on their experiences across the globe, our active duty men found both profound differences in how others lived as well as comforting similarities in the desire for good food and drink and the company of women.
The correspondence that Gordon Fister and John Wagner conducted with Muhlenberg’s servicemen provided a lifeline to home and normalcy. In anticipation of the sheer volume of stationery that men in the service would use, the Alumni Office thought of a master stroke: send stationery, embossed with an image of the new statue of General John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, to the students and alumni in the service as a Christmas gift. John Wagner notes in letter to Robert P. D. Burkart (15 April 1943) that he sends letters to men every two weeks and also says “Under separate cover, I am sending you a cardinal and gray writing kit which is Muhlenberg’s gift to men in the service. I hope this kit will prove useful and if at any time you are in need of a refill, drop me a line and I will shoot it out to you.” According to James Hemstreet ‘44, “Many college men here [who are] seeing our stationery, ask us about it. All are impressed by what Berg does for its fighting alumni. No school we have heard of yet—and there are plenty here that we associate with—has a plan such as you are using. It is a good job, John, and you deserve a pat on the back!” (Tuesday night, N.D.)
The packets kept coming throughout the war. Walter Feller ‘44 called his “the most useful gift that I received this Christmas.” and the men expressed appreciation not only for the supplies, but for the spirit of connection they represented and facilitated.
In addition to the individual correspondence that John Wagner and Gordon Fister maintained with men in the service, they also issued a biweekly newsletter that summarized the news of the College, as well as sharing highlights from letters written by fellow servicemen, and regular address updates so that ‘Berg men could correspond with each other. This pipeline of information, published under various names from Mule Kicks, to To the Front to (typically) Victory Flashes from Muhlenberg, contained updates on Muhlenberg’s sports teams, events, policy changes (including the plan, later scrapped, to introduce coeducation in 1948), and notifications of men killed in action. These newsletters were a more frequent, less formal organ than the Alumni Magazine, which was also sent to the men.
Unlike many collections of World War II correspondence, which may have been written to family members or sweethearts and reveal intimacies of a more personal nature, this collection reveals the deep feelings that Muhlenberg men had for their school, and the dedication with which the College’s staff maintained the connection. The men spoke often about the appreciation they had for what their instructors had taught them; they were passionate about Muhlenberg’s success at athletics, and often referenced the few dollars they could send to the Loyalty Fund as being the least they could do after all Muhlenberg had done for them.
*In the original letters from WWII correspondence between Muhlenberg College and Muhlenberg active duty men, there are cultural references that, while considered problematic today, reflect 1940s terminology, attitudes, and biases. Neither Muhlenberg College nor Muhlenberg Memories Project condones this language, but include it in the interests of historical accuracy.
The Oral Histories
In 2015 and 2016, the Muhlenberg Memories Project team interviewed Muhlenberg alumni from the World War II era, including men who were part of the Muhlenberg’s Navy V-12 program. From a retired physician’s memories of being both a V-12 and pre-med student on guard duty to a gunner’s anecdotes about fighting the Germans in mid-air, these intimate interviews illustrate the idiosyncrasies of young men coming of age in the turbulent 1940s. These oral histories give us a window into the lives of active duty men as they served across the globe.
Muhlenberg College: Voices of World War II represents and honors the many voices of Muhlenberg men–students, faculty, and staff–from 75 years ago. This chapter of the Muhlenberg Memories Project reflects only a portion of the material held by Trexler Library’s Special Collections and Archives. The Special Collections and Archives Librarian welcomes researchers and family and friends connected to the men represented here (and to those men whose letters we’ve yet to digitize and publish) to view additional materials.
As Project collaborators, we are humbled by the men who gave their lives for America’s freedom. We are indebted to the active duty men who shared their World War II military and personal experiences with the Alumni Secretaries. To those Alumni Secretaries–Charles Garretson, John Wagner, and Gordon Fister– your correspondence was an act of compassion, generosity, and collegiality. For many men, it was surely a sign of optimism and belief in the men. And, finally, it is with deep gratitude to each other’s interest in digital scholarship that we continue to find joy in bringing innovative ways to share Muhlenberg College’s history.