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.
Along with the general student population Pitt’s nursing school grads contributed directly to winning WWII with their selfless service to others. One such lady was Pitt alumni Katherine Nau, one of “The Angels of Bataan” . She had lived in Japan while doing social work there in the 1920s then returned to the Pacific during the Second World War.
She served in the Philippines as a civilian Red Cross Field Director and personally administered medical care and supplies to the wounded men at the gun batteries on the front line. Throughout the first part of the war until the fall of U.S. Headquarters in Manila she volunteered to tend to the U.S. servicemen on those islands who were casualties of the intense fighting.
Then her true heroics kicked in as seen by this description of her actions written after the war had ended:
“On Christmas Eve 1941, Nau and a group of military nurses were evacuated by truck to the Bataan Peninsula as U.S. and allied forces fled Manila. On April 9, Nau and the nurses escaped Bataan to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay.
After the fall of Corregidor, Nau was recaptured by the Japanese and was taken to the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila, where she remained until December 1944 when she was transferred to Los Banos prison camp. Los Banos was liberated by American forces Feb. 23, 1945.
Nau, the News reported Sept. 22, 1946, “recently received presidential recognition in the form of the Army’s Bronze Star Medal for nearly three years of ‘marked devotion to duty’ while interned in Japanese prison camps. …
The citation signed by President Harry S. Truman paid tribute to Nau for performing ‘high beneficial services in caring for the sick and wounded, in giving assistance to orphaned children and in contributing energetic and capable efforts toward the recreation and entertainment of her fellow prisoners.’
Another heroic PITT grad was Lieutenant Colonel Boyd David “Buzz” Wagner who became the first United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) fighter ace of World War II. As a 1st Lieutenant Wagner commanded the 17th Pursuit Squadron at Nichols Field, Philippines, when the Japanese attacked there on December 8th, 1941 one day after bombing Pearl Harbor.
In the following days, LT Wagner destroyed five Japanese aircraft in aerial combat and countless more on the ground while piloting his P-40 aircraft. Grounded after he received glass in his eyes during a dogfight with enemy aircraft, Wagner was evacuated to Australia where he became the Chief of Pursuit Aviation for Fifth Air Force.
In that capacity he trained newly formed aerial combat pursuit units. Leading one fledgling P-39 unit on their first combat mission out of New Guinea, he shot down three more Japanese aircraft. He rotated back to the US in Sep 42 with a total of eight kills to his credit.
This man didn’t have to go back into arial combat but he did because true leadership demands personal sacrifice.
More recently we’ve seen our men and women serve with distinction in Vietnam. One of the more highly profiled was Pitt Chancellor Wesley Posvar who after graduating from the West Point Military Academy …” rose through the Air Force ranks to become a brigadier general, serving first as a test pilot, and later as a strategic planner in the Pentagon, a military academy professor and a Vietnam combat flier.”
Posvar was a highly decorated war veteran and is buried with full military honors in the West Point cemetery. He may not have been a PITT student but he certainly was a PITT Man. On a personal note I was good friends with the Posvar family growing up and dated his daughter for a time and we are still great friends. Before I abruptly enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1978 I asked for the General’s advice and sat … and listened…. and his advice changed my life.
We all know about Dr. Posvar’s impact on the university and its football program but very few people know the true depth of the man himself.
These men and women weren’t the only military members with Pitt ties who served outr nation valiantly. Here are some others who went on and fought with great distinction also:
Gust Avrakotos — (A&S 1962) — CIA agent responsible for arming the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s. (Well… maybe not great distinction in this case.)
Samuel W. Black — (A&S 1834) — Colonel, hero of the Mexican and Civil wars.
Patricia Horoho — (NURS 1992G) — the United States Army’s 43rd Surgeon General and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Medical Command.
Roscoe Robinson, Jr. — (GSPIA 1965) — First African-American Four-star General. In 1967 he served as battalion commander in Vietnam. For his achievements there he received the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 11 Air Medals, and two Silver Stars.
James Martinus Schoonmaker – Civil War Medal of Honor winner.
Those many individuals, all with close ties to the University, are the epitome of who we memorialize on this special day. Along with thousands of others they served, fought, killed, healed others and died for us and our families. What they did so bravely was to make sure that we Americans had the protections set forth in our Constitution then and forever.
One of those protections was the First Amendment rights. The right to criticize the government, the right of assembly and, most importantly, the right and the freedom of speech and dissent. The University of Pittsburgh was a platform for all of those and in turn again meshed with the military and our citizens.
I distinctly remember the end of the war in Vietnam when many Pittsburgh men and PITT students who served in-theater over there and came home to the catcalls and insults from some angry and disappointed citizens. They also served their country well and honorably and in my opinion they had it much harder than our previous war veterans all around.
It wasn’t easy for them when fighting in the jungles, on the seas around and in the air above Vietnam but they did it, and it damn sure wasn’t easy for them when they returned home – if they got home. Some of those Vietnam Veterans are currently administrators, teachers and employees at PITT and continue to serve us well in a different capacity.
In addition to producing war heroes our university also had major ties to those protesting the war and holding peace vigils on campus to dissent and disapprove of the governments’ actions in the Vietnam era. One of the first Pittsburghers to burn their draft card was Pitt student Joshua Chasan. PITT’s campus also was the site of other protests and some of the university’s professors were vocal about ending the war as well.
A Pitt professor challenged President Bush’s War Powers; Jules Lobel, an associate professor of International and constitutional law brought suit, unsuccessfully, to prevent the President from launching an Iraq offensive without Congressional approval.
Pitt’s involvement in the international arena of conflict and the studies of the military and war didn’t end there. More recently in October of 2011 Pitt held a summit of 24 worldwide historians led by five Pitt professors to discuss “JAPAN’S WORLD WAR II IN ASIA: 70 YEARS ON.” The university has had its irons in the fire with every aspect of war and peace since it inception and that surely won’t stop any time soon.
In closing, and because this is a sports blog, let’s take a look at the world of Pitt football as it pertains to military service.
To understand the contributions our football programs have made in times of war we only need look at those great last three football seasons, from 1937 until 1939, which Jock Sutherland had as head coach at Pitt just prior to WWII. Pitt ran up a record of 25-2-1 and won a Rose Bowl (and refused to play in a Rose Bowl in ’38) while doing so.
Our star halfback and All-American on those wonderful ’36 and ’37 teams, Marshall Goldberg, joined the Navy in 1943 and served for two years as a Lieutenant in the South Pacific combat theater.
During that three season run our defense gave up an average of 4.2 points per game. Strong, unyielding and winning… the same traits our servicemen later showed in their calls to Service. Those young men, already tough kids and now learned in discipline and drilled in the desire to win, went on to excel in the service’s officer corps during the war.
The Army, Navy and Marine Corps took our graduates and put them in their leadership positions at once. You just know those Sutherland Panthers who were called up had a head start in that department and I’ll bet a dollar they were the best of the bunch in their Officer Candidate School classes.
But that wasn’t the first time PITT players had succeeded the trial by fire on the football field and then used those same lessons on the field of battle. Pitt’s Pop Warner’s 1915 to 1918 teams went 30-1 and were considered the best football teams of that early century. They also were defensive stalwarts allowing only 3.1 points per match.
Those kids on those Sutherland and Warner teams weren’t just good football players, they were championship football players and there is a huge difference. Think about it, only one university can make that “College Football Champions to Winning Warriors”’ claim in both world wars and that is the University of Pittsburgh. Warner’s squads went through 30 games undefeated and won three National Championships.
Do we think these young men were going to ever go backwards on any battlefield no matter where it was? Do we believe those young men were going to settle for anything less than total victory during the war and do their part in that with strength borne on the football field?
Hell no. That wasn’t possible; they were Pitt boys, born and bred with their feet and hearts firmly rooted in that Monongahela bituminous coal seam that ran under their homes, their city and our school. Strengthened by millions of years in the making, that coal seam was the highest quality and the most pure in the world.
To meet, tame and mine that coal our men and their families had to have the fighting strength to make that deep seam give up its coal, and then they worked in a Hell Hole of a mill to turn it into the best coke for the strongest steel. The men of Western Pennsylvania who did that; who built American on their work were born in the dust, bred in the belief that hard work equals true success and then raised to be young men who not only won college football championships but then went off and won wars.
We Pittsburghers do love to point out that our people and our mills made the steel for the engines of war that defeated our enemies and kept our United States safe. We did that and many other aspects of our American lives were better because of the men and women who worked the mills to make it happen. That is the tempered legacy DNA left to us Pittsburghers by those who went down in the mines and worked the blast furnaces in the past. No matter what our walk of life is… it carries on inside us.
However, we also tend to overlook the many great contributions of Pitt’s students, who had fought valiantly overseas, then came back home and finished their educations by graduating from the university via the WWII GI Bill. Some went on to get their interrupted Masters and Doctorates on Uncle Sam’s dime. They were to be and have been the teachers, leaders and builders of our future.
The Greatest Generation was made up of not only strong leaders and brave war fighters but also those who men and women became the professors, engineers, doctors, lawyers and scientists who had Pitt educations and then spread their experiences and good works through the local communities and the nation to build our country into the strongest and the greatest ever known. Bar none.
So, on that day, the one day we Americans have set aside as a memorial to all who have served and to all those who died while in that service, let us raise that first soda pop or that first beer and say ‘Thank You’ from our hearts. Then I’ll ask you to send out a prayer that those Pitt men and women, and indeed all others who serve us in far away, strange and dangerous places, will come home safe and sound in mind and body to a caring and welcoming nation. It is what they deserve and it is what we all need to remember to do… On This Day.
Hail to Pitt.