Seventy years after WWII began, 10 Bucknellians recount their wartime experiences.
By David Pacchioli
Military sign-ups on campus
“It was terrible what you saw,” Bill Manko ’43, P’75 remembers. “Bodies all over the place, supplies blasted all to hell. You don’t think too much when you’re in the thick of it — you just want to survive. You’re not thinking about making a movie. But you had eyes and ears, you saw the mayhem. It was horrible what you saw.”
Manko landed on Omaha Beach with the 1st Infantry Division — the famed Big Red One — on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He is one of thousands of Bucknellians who served during WWII, both at home and abroad, and one of several dozen who over the last two years have recounted their wartime experiences as part of an oral history project started by associate professor David Del Testa. Thinking about History, Del Testa’s introductory-level class, is co-taught by “embedded librarian” Nancy Frazier and aimed at teaching historical method. “Because of tremendous student interest in the period,” Del Testa says, the class has focused in recent years on WWII.
Starting in fall 2009, with help from the Alumni Association, Del Testa contacted nearly 2,000 alumni of the era between 1934 and 1949. From some 150 positive responses, he paired alumni with Bucknell undergraduates for telephone or in-person interviews. In their final papers, students were required to set these interviews into the larger context of the war effort.
Bucknell President Arnaud Marts, second from left
This summer, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Bucknell Magazine re-interviewed 10 of those alumni. Here are some of their stories.
Manko, now 89 years old, was an underclassman from Shenandoah, Pa., when the war hit home. “I enlisted in the Army reserve program. They told us we’d be going into officers training,” he says with a laugh. “Then they said no, change of plans. The next thing I knew I was landing in Casablanca.” After heavy combat in Sicily, the 1st moved to England to prepare for the Normandy invasion.
Manko’s start on Omaha Beach was inauspicious. “As I get off the landing ship, I stepped in a hole,” he explains. “And I went down. With that pack, my M-1 — I’m not a very big guy, so I was under the water. Fortunately, some G.I. grabs me by the scruff of the neck and shoves me forward. I never saw him. All I know is he shoved me forward.
“After you hit the beach, you didn’t have a picnic,” Manko continues. “It was forced marching, hedgerow fighting. You wondered if you could keep going, the way they pushed and pushed. I thought, ‘I’m a Phi Gamma from Bucknell — I’m not used to this kind of living.’” Still, Manko made it through six months of the toughest fighting in the European theatre, at Saint-Lo, Aachen and Hurtgen Forest, and into the Ardennes for the Battle of the Bulge. For Manko, “The worst part was Hurtgen Forest. It was in their country, bitterly cold, snowing. The Germans were shooting 88s in there, and they were very precise. One shell hit the base of a tree and threw me right up out of my foxhole. I couldn’t hear anything for about a week.”
Robert Applebaum '48
Robert Appelbaum ’48 was also part of the Battle of the Bulge. A Trenton, N.J., boy, Appelbaum flunked out of Bucknell after his freshman year. “For a while I was 4-F,” he says. “When they were scraping the bottom of the barrel they drafted me.”
In late 1944, Appelbaum was sent with his unit to Givet, on the Belgian-French border, to wait for the German armored divisions that were driving toward Antwerp. “We were sent up as replacements,” he says, “a bunch of bewildered guys with no real training in these conditions. We were directed to go out and dig foxholes in the frozen ground and wait for the Panzers. Fortunately we were paired off with guys who’d been through it all.” Appelbaum and his squad waited two weeks. In the end, he says, “The Germans never came. They had run out of fuel. They miscalculated, pure and simple.”
Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Meade Abbott ’48 was island-hopping through the Philippines as a parachute infantryman with the 11th Airborne. From a training base in New Guinea, the 11th advanced to Leyte and Luzon and finally to the climactic Battle of Manila. Abbott remembers the terrific heat and the feeling of isolation, the mix of pride and disappointment that he and his comrades felt on reading newspaper accounts of the European exploits of their sister unit, the 82nd Airborne. “We had more combat days than the 82nd,” he says, “but we were in the Pacific. Not many people knew about us.”
As a member of the intelligence section, Abbott helped with prisoner interrogations and pinpointing the locations of enemy troops. On Feb. 23, 1945, the day Marines raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, his unit was liberating 2,000 civilians from the Los Baños prison camp outside Manila in a daring raid that is still studied by military tacticians.
Ralph Noble ’49 never made it overseas, eager as he was to go. A country boy from Mifflintown, Pa., Noble left high school early to join the Army Air Corps. “I didn’t want to miss it,” he remembers. “My mother received my diploma while I was in basic training.”
Disqualified as a flyer by his eyesight, he served in air operations at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, a research base charged with testing not only American planes but also captured enemy aircraft. “We had Japanese Zeroes and Bettys, German Messerschmitts and Fokkers,” he says. “We were looking for advantages they might have that we didn’t.
“I did everything that needed to be done,” Noble adds. “Dealing with pilots, calculating weights and fuel loads, checking weather and equipment. I felt very privileged to be there.”
B-24 pilot Joseph A. Diblin '40, G'09, center
Joe Diblin ’40, G’09 was already a licensed pilot when he joined the Air Corps. He had lettered in soccer, basketball, baseball and golf at Bucknell, and served as President Arnaud Marts’s personal driver. Diblin eventually became chief pilot at Smyrna Army Airfield in Tennessee, responsible for training flight instructors. “I was trained to teach,” he says, now 93. “They never let me go into combat. At the time I was gnashing my teeth. Now I look back and I guess I did a lot more good for the Air Force and the country by staying where I was.”
Stateside duty was not without its hazards. “We had 2,500 men killed in the Air Corps just in training,” Diblin says. His own flying record, including civilian pilot work after the war, was “40 years without a scratch.” But he did have one close call in a B-24, when a fire in the bomb bay forced him to improvise an emergency landing. “I flipped it over onto another runway and banged it down,” he says. “Nobody got hurt, but it was just by luck I got it back.”
For Sachiye Mizuki Kuwamoto ’48, “the war at home” held bitter irony. Kuwamoto grew up on a small grape farm in the San Joaquin Valley, near Fresno, Calif. She had finished her tenth-grade year at rural Sanger High when, in the climate of fear following the attack on Pearl Harbor, her Japanese-American family was ordered to a relocation camp in Arizona.
“I remember still the feeling of desolation when we first arrived,” she told student interviewer Callie Bruzzone ’14. “We went by train, an overnight train with the shades down, from Clovis to someplace in the desert that we really didn’t know. I remember getting there and it being so hot and disorganized. The first thing they did was give us salt pills because they were afraid that we would all collapse from the heat. We had to fill our cloth bags with straw for our mattresses.
“All this was sad for me,” Kuwamoto said, “but I was thinking of what it must have felt like for my mom, who was trying to lovingly care for all of us kids and trying to bring us all up in this place. It must have been really hard for her.”
Bucknell military band
The echoes of war made their way, of course, even to Lewisburg. “It was a Sunday afternoon,” remembers Phoebe Follmer Bacon ’45. “We were in Bucknell Hall practicing to present the Messiah, the annual concert. It was alto section rehearsal, with Miss Jenkins. All of a sudden a young man named Danny Roop ’45 burst in. He jumped up on the stage and announced that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I can still remember his red hair.”
Betty Middlesworth Moore ’44, M’45, P’77 had gone to St. Francis College that weekend with the debate club. “On the way back we took the newly opened Pennsylvania Turnpike,” she says. “We stopped to eat lunch and were greeted by a waiter who asked us what we thought about Pearl Harbor. We had never heard of it."
“Things changed quickly after that,” Moore recounts. “We went home for Christmas and when we came back a third of the males were already gone.” The exodus continued until the arrival of the Navy V-12 officer-training program on campus in summer 1943.
Couple dances at a Bucknell military ball
Even with the influx of V-12 men, the pre-war ratio of male-to-female students was turned upside-down. “Women had to take over,” says Moore. “They became editors of the campus newspaper, the radio station. I always say there are two things I never learned at Bucknell: to knit — everyone was knitting socks for the boys overseas — and to drink coffee. Women were putting in long hours.”
Moore worked hard to complete her baccalaureate degree in just three years, then stayed on to earn a master’s. By the time she finished in 1945, the flood of arriving veterans had created a demand for instructors, so at 21, Moore was hired to teach history to returning GIs and Navy men. “Most of them were older than I was,” she says, “but I had no trouble with discipline. They knew that if I gave them a demerit they’d have to walk it off on Saturday night. They wouldn’t be able to see their girlfriends!”
Dan Rothermel '38, P'75, Navy ship navigator
Many Bucknellians opted for Navy service. Dan Rothermel ’38, P’75 was teaching high school in New Jersey when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted immediately, and after several hurried months of basic and officers’ training, found himself commanding an amphibious assault craft, landing men and munitions at the invasions of Sicily, Salerno and Anzio.
“It was a new concept,” Rothermel says of the beach landings. “Our ship was 169 feet long. It carried 200 men. But we were to put that bow right up on the beach.” An anchor winch then pulled the unloaded ship back off the shore. Judging where to drop anchor was critical — and tricky, especially at night. “If you dropped anchor too soon, you lost it, and another ship had to come in and rescue you,” he remembers.
Richard Goss ’47 P’74 played a similar role in the Pacific. His self-published memoir, Do Not Thou Forget Me, details his experience as a landing boat officer on the USS Bladen. Goss’s first taste of combat was ferrying ammunition to support the initial assault on Iwo Jima.
“It was still dark,” he writes of that morning, “and I could see the flashes of the guns as they tried to soften up the island. There was a constant roar of the guns, which told me I was finally in the war. I wondered what effect they were having on the Japanese who were defending the island, convinced they could hardly live through it.” Later, “As our boat roared in with the throttle wide open toward the black sand, I said to no one in particular, ‘Well, this is it!’”
Unfortunately, the boats Goss had been given to command were badly overloaded, and the beach was too steep. All three sank before they could be unloaded, leaving Goss and his small crew stranded on Iwo, “in the same situation as the nearby Marines, only they were dug in for protection. The only arms I had was a .45 Colt in a holster on my hip, still neatly wrapped in waterproof Pliofilm so it wouldn’t get wet.”
“We were on a tarmac in Manila when we heard on the radio that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima,” remembers Abbott. “We all thought, ‘What the hell is an atomic bomb?’ Nobody knew. We were getting ready to go right into Japan.”
Rothermel and Goss were in Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Sea. “What a happy day that was,” Rothermel says. “There were lights in the sky and fireworks, even some booze that came out of nowhere. There were more ships than you could count waiting for the big invasion, and every ship exploded with fireworks. Because that meant truly the end of the war.”
Infantryman Manko, after months of crawling in and out of foxholes, was assigned at war’s end to the adjutant general’s office in Paris. “Not only did I survive,” he marvels, “but there I was living on the Champs-Elysees.”
“When the armistice was announced,” Appelbaum recalls, “we were lying around on a lovely, sunny hillside overlooking the Danube. Then the colonel came around. There was a report that a bunch of diehard Nazis had holed up in the mountains down in the Tyrol, and we’d been assigned to rout them out. War was over, but for us it was still on.”
Fortunately, that report proved false, and soon enough Appelbaum was back home in Trenton. “One weekend,” he says, “I hitchhiked up to Lewisburg. I had flunked out in ’42, but I figured, ‘Hey, I got some sense now.’ I went to see Martha Henderson, secretary to the dean. She was really the nerve center of the school. I walked into her office and she greeted me by name. Even though my record was so horrible, they welcomed me with open arms.”
Noble entered Bucknell in March 1946, one of hundreds of married vets who descended on the campus — young men in a hurry. “We wanted to catch up,” he remembers. “I finished my bachelor’s in two years and 10 months.”
“I met a lot of brave people,” says Manko, looking back at his lasting impressions. “We had a Catholic chaplain who would come right up to the front lines with his jeep. Under mortar and cannon fire he would hold mass. We loved him for that.”
For Appelbaum, there remains the enigma of near misses. “My experience of war,” he says, “was a series of bad things that never happened.”
Kuwamoto found her way from that Arizona internment camp to Bucknell through a Quaker student relocation program. “My family was fortunate,” she says. “We were able to continue after the war. But some people lost everything. In some ways, the community never caught up to the rest of the country.”
Goss reflects on the testing of so many, writing, “This was a problem for all of us — what did we do when we were in battle action, how did we respond to fear, did we carry out our duties honorably?”
“I don’t like to speak in platitudes,” Manko says, “but what this country did and won during that time was something fabulous. The way we picked ourselves up and industrialized as we had to, and mobilized, and supported the troops, and won — it was a total effort. It was everybody pulling together. That’s what made WWII so different.”
David Pacchioli is a freelance writer in State College, Pa.