Friends and Fellow Americans…this is an updated reprint of an article I wrote for The Pitt Blather on Memorial Day 2015. I want to share this with you because of the interest this article generated when it was first published. If memory serves this was read by around 800,000 people in the first week and was reprinted in a few national and private publications. Please read it and please remember just what this day is really for…
As the years’ calendar turns to the end of May and the start of what we all see as the spring and summer season, or as we PITT football fans say “the time when no football things are happening” one date always jumps out at me.
It’s on that day our Memorial Holiday falls. In addition to the store sales, reunions, parties, parades, and picnics Memorial Day also holds a meaning that strikes a deeper and more significant cord in many of us. You all know that I’ve reference my professional life as a military officer before. Because that career and my experiences serving in that capacity filled almost my whole adult life, from age 22 until I retired seven years ago, it is the lens in which I see, think and feel almost everything through.
So while wool gathering yesterday to try to figure out the next thing to write about Pitt football it occurred to me that I’ve never done a separate Memorial Day piece and that is because it seems to have nothing to do with Pitt football. But after some serious reflection I do believe Memorial Day and the University of Pittsburgh, in all their respective facets, have deep ties and are intertwined both historically and in the present.
Many Pitt fans have friends and relatives who have served in the Armed Forces at some point, or maybe they themselves have. Pitt students fought in our Civil War in the 1860s… on both sides. Early in the 20th century some of our grandparents who attended or were affiliated with the university volunteered to serve and were sent to Europe during WWI. Many of our parents, aunts and uncles had their Pitt educations interrupted to join the fight in World War II. My father, two of my aunts and an uncle went directly from being students at PITT into the military then overseas to Europe and China-Burma.
Of course my mother, a younger woman, stayed home and attended Pitt until my dad came back from his duty as a Army Air Corp pilot in China-Burma and they could get married in Heinz Chapel in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning. A scenario repeated thousands of times across college campuses I’m sure. It is true that “They also serve who only stand and wait”.
PITT had many other students and alumni who served and some who gave ‘the last full measure’ as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated. There has never been a war or an armed conflict without PITT personnel involved. Here are just a few examples.
During WWI Colonel Joe Thompson, a PITT student, football player and later the school’s head coach, won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award issued by the United States to our military members.
Thompson was educated at the University of Pittsburgh, where he played football from 1904 – 1906, during which time the Panthers compiled a 26-6 record. He captained the Pitt football team to its first perfect season in 1904 when the Panthers won all ten games and surrendered only one touchdown. Thompson graduated from Pitt in 1905 and continued on with post-graduate work in the School of Law completing his law degree.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
Counterattacked by two regiments of the enemy, Maj. Thompson encouraged his battalion in the front line of constantly braving the hazardous fire of machineguns and artillery. His courage was mainly responsible for the heavy repulse of the enemy.
Later in the action, when the advance of his assaulting companies was held up by fire from a hostile machine gun nest and all but one of the six assaulting tanks were disabled, Maj. Thompson, with great gallantry and coolness, rushed forward on foot three separate times in advance of the assaulting line, under heavy machine gun and antitank-gun fire, and led the one remaining tank to within a few yards of the enemy machine gun nest, which succeeded in reducing it, thereby making it possible for the infantry to advance.
The University itself has also recognized their student’s military sacrifices. Here is how a 1942 PITT yearbook describes the growing Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) because of the need for active duty servicemen to contribute and fight in the Second World War. That link leads to a 10 page section of that yearbook that shows all the units and events of the PITT Military Corp of that year and is a very interesting snapshot of what we are discussing here. Those are the young men who went directly into training then into combat.
Our school has continued the course of providing it’s men and women an opportunity to for higher education studies via the ROTC, then to graduate and become military officers, at a higher rank than non-ROTC officer candidates, if they choose to do so. Pitt’s Three Rivers Battalion is a vibrant legacy program that offers scholarships along with training and education for our students to become leaders in all walks of life, not just in military service.
This passage in the book Pitt: the story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987 states how the PITT News issued this challenge of wartime service by Pitt in the spring of 1942 soon after President Roosevelt committed our Armed Forces to the war effort in Europe:
We must fight and now. Only by losing themselves in helping to win the war can universities and colleges find themselves. Only by sacrifice can they help save the values for which this nation fights.
Convoluted? Yes, it was a student newspaper, what do you expect? But true? Also yes and that challenge was met time and again and without complaint.