At night the Germans moved through the dark pine forest and past the American lines. The fresh American troops were not sure whether the shadowy figures were friend or foe. They spoke English, and knew the passwords.
"We challenged them," said Dale Sheets '48. "They gave good answers all the time." The young Americans unwittingly let the German commandos pass. In the morning came the low rumble of tanks. "We said, 'Hey, Patton's coming to reinforce us! What a good deal!'" Sheets said. But they were German Tiger tanks, black against the snow, their 88mm guns bobbing slightly as the heavy metal turrets turned.
"I didn't tell this story for 30 years," Sheets said, wiping his eyes quickly with a handkerchief. "Twenty years more, I still get tears, because it hurts. I didn't want my kids to think it was romantic, or anything like that.
"It was easy to give up," he went on. "When you see an 88mm cannon waving at you, you quit. The whole bunch of us were lined up, and my best buddies were on either side, and we were told to count. And heck, I didn't know German, I hadn't been to school yet. 'Eins, zwei! Eins, zwei! Come on! Go!' OK. 'Eins, zwei, eins, zwei.' I was a zwei. My buddies on either side were eins. OK. 'All eins, one step forward! Heraus! Heraus!' And I thought, 'Boy, those guys are going to get the best choice of everything.'
"Seconds later, they were dead."
Sheets was one of seven Pomona alumni who took part in a panel discussion titled "The Battle of the Bulge and Beyond" during a World War II symposium held as part of Alumni Weekend in April. Six of the speakers on that panel--Sheets, Dick Gist '49, Bruce Adkinson '44, Ed Malan '48, Art Robinson '48 and John Ward '44--were wounded in action.
A dozen panels met during the two-day symposium. The planning began months before Alumni Weekend, after Rosemary Choate '63 volunteered to lead a committee. She was a founder of the topical symposiums that have been held during each Alumni Weekend at Pomona since 1990. "Before then, alumni reunions tended to be entirely social events," she said. "There was nothing that really showed what Pomona people had done with their lives."
For several years she had been interested in arranging a World War II cluster reunion, and with the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor approaching, along with heightened interest in the war, the time seemed right. The first person Choate recruited for the 30-member committee was Verne Orr '37, a gunnery officer in the Navy during the war, secretary of the Air Force from 1981 to 1985, and now dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of La Verne. The committee, assisted by Pomona's alumni office, planned a symposium that would cover the wartime experiences of alumni not just in combat, but at home as well. It was called "Focus on a Generation: Pomona College and the World War II Years."
More than 200 people registered to attend, and several hundred alumni contributed to a book of reminiscences. More than 100 volunteered to provide videotaped oral histories, and the symposium spawned a class on oral history that will be offered in the fall. In addition, an archive will be established in the Honnold Library's Special Collections section.
Art Robinson '48, a scout and radio operator in a battalion that was part of Patton's 3rd Army, recalled a stream of impressions from the Battle of the Bulge, pausing at times to contain his emotions:
"First day of combat: Machine-gun bullets tracing the snow between Joe, the other scout, and myself. I was hit in the face by some cement after a shell hit a concrete telephone pole--this is for real. I turned and looked at a friend of mine going over the crest of a hill. He was killed by a shell we'd fired that fell short.
"Crossing an open snowfield, surrounded by forest, I was joined by our platoon sergeantÉ a real, caring leader... He was killed next to me by a sniper...
"Cold, cold. Frozen feet incapacitated many. Two in our platoon shot themselves in the foot. No sympathy.
"Pulling a ground cover over me in an abandoned barnyard, hiding behind a horse ruptured by a concussion, and having a sheep urinate on the ground cover. Felt warm and good."
Robinson carried a teaspoon that he could use to scoop into any jars of jam or jelly he might find in an abandoned dwelling. One day, he dropped it in the snow, and was panic-stricken about finding it. "I had a terrible premonition," he said. "That night, Joe and I went forward to a beat-up little barn. Joe was very quiet. We moved out early in the morning and were stopped by machine-gun fire. I moved behind a bush, and this bush suddenly blew up. As I was going through the air I saw a piece of shrapnel go under Joe's helmet, and he was killed."
Robinson, after surgeries, was sent home.
"My parents--my father had fought in World War I [and was] shot, hit with shrapnel and gas--and when they received that telegram with the one star that says you were just wounded, my mom saysÉmy dad was very, very relieved." Robinson paused briefly to gather himself, then continued.
"So I didn't like to talk about the warÉin this manner. My father never did. But it started when one of my sons started asking some questions about history. And I hope the more we talk about it, the more we'll do to stop it."
During the symposium, participants could visit a memorabilia room in Smith Campus Center. There were books, photographs, uniforms, unit patches, and a soldier's jungle aid pack containing salt tablets, mosquito repellent and sulfa powder for fighting infections. There were victory seeds: beets, lettuce, radishes; and War Ration Book No. 3, for coffee. On a table was a typewritten copy of Secret Operation Plan No. 5-45, part of preparations for an invasion of Japan.
"Land initially in the Nagasaki Harbor Area or Sasebo Harbor area," it read. "If the Nagasaki-Sasebo area has been secured by the 5th MarDiv, be prepared to participate in the Shimonoseki-Fuluoka Opn by overland and/or Amph Opns as directed. Special Landing Instructions: In Assault Landing: Two companies abreast in the assault, K Co and L Co, with K Co on the right and one in reserve. ABLE-Day-22 September 1945." What's striking today is that these old, yellowing orders--brief, emotionless and vague--constituted a warrant for horrific human carnage. Casualty estimates for the invasion ranged from 500,000 to 1 million or more U.S. soldiers, and at least 1 million Japanese soldiers and civilians. Japan surrendered before the invasion could begin.
In addition to "The Battle of the Bulge and Beyond," other panels covered "The Home Front"; "America's Armada: The Naval War in the Pacific"; "Landings and Invasions in Europe"; "Pomona's Women in Uniform"; "The Land War in the Pacific"; "America's Armies of Occupation"; "The Coast Watchers of the South Pacific"; "Operation Olympic: The Planned Invasion of Japan"; "The China-Burma-India Theater"; "Hollywood or History: Did the Movies Ever Get it Right?"; and "Iwo Jima Retrospective."
The topics reflected the variety of experiences of Pomonans during the war. Gaines Post, Jr., professor emeritus of history at Claremont McKenna College, noted in his keynote address that the war was, and remains, inescapable.
"The lives of everyone in this room have been shaped by the Second World War," he said, "by its moral lessons about freedom, patriotism, resistance, genocide; by unprecedented economic and social change on the home front;Éby the losses and wounds suffered by family and friends; by revolutionary advances in science and technology; by the politics of the Cold War that quickly split the Grand Alliance and lasted over 40 years. Above all, our lives have been shaped by memories of the war. Every generation receives these memories, reinterprets them, and hands them down, just as the ancient Greeks did with stories of their long war against Troy."
"What the average person does not understand," said Ed Malan '48, "is the sense of chaos, frustration, desperation, loss of hope, fear, all of that, that the individual soldier experiences." He spoke of his own recollections of the fighting around the time of the Battle of the Bulge and afterward.
"I was in that cold, cold, cold winter," he said. During an attack by German Panzers, his unit was forced to retreat. "So we got back, and the lieutenant says, 'We've lost one of our squads. Who wants to go with me to find them?' So, I don't know, but I said 'OK, let's go.' We got about a quarter of a mile from the place, deep in the woods in the snow; a mortar shell went off right in front of him, tore up both of his legs. Got me with a piece that penetrated just outside of my heart. And nothing to do but get him back, so I threw him on my shoulder and got him back. Then I was in the hospital for a month or soÉand when I came back, we were preparing for a push across the Rhine."
"So I wanted to tell you that some of us were wounded and got back into action. It was a long push from March to May; it doesn't sound like a long time, but that's a lot of days and a lot of miles. During that push, the closest friend I ever had, we were in a Ékind of depression É and there were two little holes, and for some reason Eddie said to me, 'Why don't you take my spot and let me get over there?' And I said, 'OK, fine.' Within a minute, he took a shell É in his head.
"Why him, and not me? How do you live with that? Do you live two lives after that? So how do you deal with it? I don't know. I've tried."
Orr, the former secretary of the Air Force, said in his closing remarks that the symposium "was never to be just a collection of oh-boy war stories about who fought on Iwo Jima, or who fought on Okinawa. This was to be what Pomonans did during the war years. So we've been anxious to bring in Pomonans of all sorts--on the home front, women in uniform and the Red Cross, the WACs, the WAVEs, women who stayed home. I don't think we do them sufficient justice. If you think back to the hardship of going to bed at night and never knowing what tomorrow would bring: a letter from your loved one, or would it bring a dreaded telegram from the War Department?"
While acknowledging the sacrifices and successes of his generation, Orr questioned its canonization in the current popular culture. "I want to tell you, I'm just a little uncomfortable with the definition that we are the greatest generation," he said. "One of the things that bothers me: If we're the greatest generation, why have we left so much undone? Why are we still fighting to get women equal pay for equal jobs?"
"And we have not yet found a way to solve the race problem. I served aboard ship, and the people we called blacks then, or negroes, were our mess boys and stewards. They cleaned our rooms. Nobody thought of advancing them in rank. They were smart, they were capable, but their station in life was to be a mess boy. I have a friend in Pasadena, a young African American, and he said one of the things that hurts him the deepest is when he crosses the street at Colorado Boulevard and hears the electric door locks click. We haven't solved that problem, and if we're the greatest generation that ever existed, we've got to solve that problem. We can't go on with second-class citizens."
Orr also spoke about the influence of a Pomona education. He said he and his wife have watched weavers in New Mexico as they slowly craft intricate woolen textiles. "If you're familiar with them," he said, "at first the wool strands go up and down; they're hooked at the top and bottom, but they have no strength; you can put your hand right through them and move them aside. It's not until the weaver starts to move in and out, back and forth, that a tapestry begins to take shape. Today, Pomona is that weaver."
Mac McClain '55, the only member of the Battle of the Bulge panel not wounded, was one of more than 40 young men from the College who went en masse to the recruiting station at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro to enlist on a spring day in 1943. They had high hopes of avoiding front-line assignments, but "every single one of us was assigned to the infantry the next day," he said. His unit was posted along the Rhine, "and at one time our sector was so undermanned that the nearest foxhole to me at my gun emplacement was about 150 feet away in the snow, and then beyond him the next one was 200 feet away, across the road where you couldn't even holler.
"And of course the wires were cut by artillery barrages every afternoon and evening. We were barraged at 2, 4, 6 and 10 o'clock every single night, just like clockwork, and shells were landing all around us.
"We didn't know it at the time when we were spread out, but we were just about to be attacked by about 5,000 German Panzer troops, 100 German tanks--Tiger tanks--and I think maybe 25 or 30 self-propelled anti-tank guns, coming right at us, which happened on the 3rd of January, 1945.
"We didn't have any tanks of our own at that particular moment. We were allowed one artillery shell a day per platoon, and our new bazookas, we didn't know how to fire. So we really had no protection from the tanks...
"There was something about combat like that: If you actually stayed in battle and kept on surviving, you became one with your platoon and the men around you, and really began to know what it meant to be part of what some people call a team, but it's the camaraderie of people just utterly dependent on each other. And without that dependency, you can't make it through combatÉ
"Sometimes I say that Pomona College saved my life. Perhaps I really mean that it saved my sanity. Going into the infantry with 43 of your friends all around you is a lot different from the way most people were inducted into the armed services. We would go through training together and we always had people to go to the PX with and sing Pomona College songs and make jokes and talk about our various attitudes--which we all had.
"And even by the time of May 1945, when the war was over, there were still eight of us in the Rainbow Division in various placesÉand so we were always connected; it was almost like having another family, because we were really caring for each other and thinking about each other.
"It feels great coming back to the campus at Pomona. It feels very much like a source of memories, a cultural and intellectual resource, and in its institutional way, a home, or at least a place, for what it has allowed us to become."