Tag Archives: World War II

Japanese American Student at Western During WWII

Kany Stickles Letter

Kany Stickles Letter – Click to see entire image

Alumni often encourage others to attend their alma mater. In 1940, Julius Kany persuaded James Takeichi Oshiro to attend Western Kentucky State Teachers College in Bowling Green, Kentucky, even though it was far away from his home in Hawaii. James Oshiro enrolled at Western in September 1940, but this wasn’t just any time in history, and James Oshiro was distinctive among the student body at the time due to his Japanese ancestry. The attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, prompted the United States to enter World War II. The severity of the attack engendered fear and hatred for Japan, and, by extension, anyone who looked Japanese.

In the official history of WKU, Lowell Harrison described James Oshiro and his situation. “Born in Hawaii of Japanese parents, he lived in Japan for sixteen years before returning to Hawaii. Nine years later he was persuaded by a Western alumnus to go to the Hill. The short, slight, twenty-six-year-old student enrolled in September 1940 to major in history. His financial support from a brother-in-law in Honolulu was suddenly cut off after the Pearl Harbor attack, and no one could predict the reaction of Western students and Bowling Green townspeople. ‘It breaks my little heart even to think of this horrible war between two nations,’ James wrote President Garrett in late December; he would gladly fight for the United States, ‘and I am sure that God will forgive me having fought against my parents’ country.’” (2) Continue reading

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“A great deal to answer for”

Letter to Hitler from Fort Knox, Kentucky

Letter to Hitler from Fort Knox, Kentucky

Early in the morning of April 29, 1945, Adolf Hitler married his mistress, Eva Braun.  The next day, with Soviet troops only blocks away from his bunker at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, he and his bride committed suicide.

Among the millions who received the news without a flicker of mourning was Martha (Woods) Potter.  The 76-year-old lifelong resident of Bowling Green had followed Hitler’s rise to power with outrage.  “Isn’t Hitler the last word in audacity or is it Mussolini?” she asked as early as March 1936.  “That pair could come over here and take America away from us if they took a notion.”  In September 1938, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain negotiated with the Nazi leader over the fate of Czechoslovakia, she observed to her daughter that “Hitler will have a great deal to answer for if he lets the world go to war.”  After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, she understood the Fuhrer’s grip on his people, declaring “We all hate Hitler and blame him instead of the Germans.”  In June 1940, with France about to fall and England in the crosshairs, Martha was in favor of America sending the British “all the armaments they want,” and deplored Congressional reluctance to do so.  “They are all afraid of what Hitler will think,” she complained.  “Who cares what the Hun thinks?  He needs a rope around his neck and while they are tying they might get Mussolini’s neck caught in the same noose.”  At news of the Fuhrer’s ignominious death, Martha was triumphant.  “Now if we can give Hitler’s dead body a few kicks it will be to suit me,” she wrote her children.

Martha’s animosity was nothing, however, compared to that of an unknown soldier at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  In “A Letter to Hitler,” he laid out in explicit verse the indignities awaiting the dictator–specifically, the fate of certain of his body parts and the pristine splendor of his “palace”–once American GIs caught up with him.

Click on the links for finding aids to these letters, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Mrs. Moore Goes to War

It was courtship of a different kind.  From September to December 1943, the War Department conducted a 10-week nationwide drive to attract 70,000 recruits to the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).  In order to free up more men for combat, women were urged to sign up for military duty as clerks, mechanics, electricians, parachute riggers, weather observers, truck drivers, radio operators, hospital technicians, and much more.  Kentucky’s goal for the campaign was 1,512 recruits, equal to the number of casualties the state had suffered in the war.

Mary Leiper Moore; publicity for WAC recruiting drive

Mary Leiper Moore; publicity for WAC recruiting drive

In Bowling Green and Warren County, where the goal was 27 recruits, citizens assembled in committees to organize the drive.  Among them was Mary Leiper Moore, WKU’s Kentucky Librarian, who was named chairman of the publicity committee.  Across her desk came draft press releases and other literature from the War Department to be used in the recruiting effort.  The Park City Daily News published articles based on these materials, touting the service opportunities awaiting women who became WACs.  Appealing to pride and patriotism, local businesses subsidized ads urging them to join.  “You Can’t Top Kentucky Women,” read one.  “They make the best WACs in the World!”

Not all, unfortunately, went as Mrs. Moore had hoped.  One of the major recruiting events was a stage show and dance at WKU on November 12, 1943, featuring a troupe of Army Air Force players and musicians from Louisville’s Bowman Field.  Coordination with the military brass, however, had broken down in the days leading up to the event (the appropriate military acronym for the consequences of such misfortune can be inserted here).  Confusion reigned regarding travel and accommodation for the performers, changes in venue (from an “unheated tobacco warehouse” to WKU’s Van Meter Hall, and then to the gymnasium in the Physical Education Building), and the timing of the show, which finally took place at the late hour of 10 p.m.

Afterward, Mrs. Moore write a stinging letter to the commander at Bowman Field.  The best efforts of local organizers, she complained, had been frustrated by the Army’s poor communication.  “Result, utter confusion and dismay of the public and auxiliary forces!”  The blame, she charged, lay not with “the women and the WACs” but with “the men and the Army”. . . specifically, its upper ranks: “If a Captain, Majors and several other officers can’t plan and successfully execute, over a few obstacles, a small show in a small town,” she asked, “what are they going to do when they get into combat?”

Click here for a finding to Mary Leiper Moore’s papers relating to the Warren County WAC recruiting drive, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections on World War II and the WACs, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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G.G. Craig, Jr.

G.G. Craig, Jr.

G.G. Craig Jr.

This is G.G. Craig, Jr., son of Gavin Craig the WKU penmanship instructor from 1922 to 1965.  G.G. graduated from WKU in 1943 and soon enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served with the 405th Infantry Regiment in Europe where he was killed in action on March 1, 1945.  Craig is interred in the American War Cemetery in Margraten, The Netherlands.  The Dutch are in the process of adopting the graves of the 10,000 Americans who died during the war.  They have created the Fields of Honor Database and are creating records for each serviceman’s grave.  WKU Archives was contacted this morning to supply a photo of G.G. Craig for this project. We are proud of his and countless other WKU alums who have served their country and given their lives in battle.

For more information on this project check out the Faces of Margraten.

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The Holiday Spirit in Japan

One of many interesting features of the papers of WKU librarian Margie Helm, available in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives unit of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, is documentation of Margie’s unique friendship with Hana (Kato) Kaku, her Japanese-born classmate at the Pratt Institute Library School.

Kaku family Christmas card to Margie Helm

Kaku family Christmas card to Margie Helm

Fluent in English and in Western ways, Hana returned to Japan to help in the rebuilding of its libraries following the devastating earthquake of 1923, but soon left the profession to care for her ailing husband, retired diplomat Michio Kaku.  Then World War II brought economic destruction, driving the couple from their comfortable life in Tokyo to subsistence farming in a small village at the foot of Mt. Fuji.  Hana made extra money as a translator and craftsperson, but was never able to fulfill her desire to return to library work.

For years after the war, Margie Helm sent Hana and her family gifts of clothing, medicine, toiletries and food (Hana’s stepdaughter June was delighted by a gift of marshmallows, for she didn’t know that “such a delicious thing existed,” and ecstatic when she received her first new dress in seven years).  Their many letters of thanks included descriptions of the difficult conditions for ordinary citizens in postwar Japan: inflation, food and housing

Kaku family Christmas card to Margie Helm

Kaku family Christmas card to Margie Helm

shortages, and a “moral mess” that was tempting some to embrace communism.  After Hana’s sudden death in 1951, her husband Michio told Margie that her support had been Hana’s “oasis” in a life filled with deprivation and sacrifice.

The upheaval in their country and the postwar communist threat also made the Kakus receptive to Christianity–Michio would formally convert in 1953–and the beautiful Japanese Christmas cards they sent Margie spoke to their evolving faith.  Over the years, Margie received Christmas cards from other Japanese friends, tributes to her continuing interest in her former classmate’s country.

Click here to access a finding aid for the Margie Helm Collection.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Christmas cards to Margie Helm from Japanese friends

Christmas cards to Margie Helm from Japanese friends

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His Dream Home

J. C. Browning

J. C. Browning

In thousands of World War II soldiers’ letters in the collections of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, servicemen express their patriotism, love of family, apprehension, boredom, determination, and a host of other emotions.  Reading of a man’s hopes for the future, however, is especially moving if we know that he didn’t make it home to realize those hopes and dreams.

Edmonson County, Kentucky native James “J.C.” Browning left his teaching job, wife Lila and infant daughter for service with the U.S. Army at Fort Knox in August 1941.  He trained in Ireland, then embarked for North Africa, where he was killed in November 1942 during the Allied invasion campaign known as Operation Torch.  But J.C.’s letters to Lila rarely dwelt upon the threats he faced (he seemed more worried about what would happen to their baby if Lila died while he was overseas!)  Instead, he returned time and again to one of his fondest wishes: that after the war they would purchase a home.  As these excerpts from his letters show, J.C.’s dream was vivid, and no doubt sustained him until his death:

If we really save while I am in the army this year we can make a down payment on our home somewhere. . . . We would admire it and love it as we made it better and better.  I’m really looking forward to that.

I would like to buy a home as quickly as we can. . . .  It takes an awful long time to build up a farm home that we would be proud of.  That is what I want and I will never be satisfied until we get started on it.

We want a very fertile farm close to town.  It should contain about 80 or 90 acres and have the modern conveniences of town.  In other words we want a town home out in the country.

Remember that we have a home to establish and it is a semi-country home.  It should contain about a hundred acres of good land and a tenant house because most of our work will be done for the public.

We must select a good location, one that we would like when we are old as well as now.  We should know what we are going to be doing 10, 20 or more years from now.  We must think and plan things to the best of our ability.

Click here to access a finding aid for J. C. Browning’s letters to his wife Lila.  For other World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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V-J Day: “It has passed like a tornado”

Happy warriors: Dee Perguson and Chester Travelstead

Happy warriors: Dee Perguson and Chester Travelstead

Kentuckians heard the first report on August 13, 1945: the war with Japan was over.  Stationed at a center for returning servicemen in Miami, Florida, Ohio County native Dee Perguson reported that “a scream rose to the roof” among his fellow soldiers listening to the radio.  On duty at an air base in India, McLean County native John Owens witnessed joyful men “firing off flare guns, machine guns, pistols and hollering at the top of their voices.”

Unfortunately, the report was premature and quickly retracted.  As surrender negotiations continued, Perguson stayed close to the radio, “hoping to hear the longed-for news.”  Angry at both the false report and Japan’s apparent recalcitrance, he declared himself “all in favor of dropping some more atomic bombs to help them decide to accept.”

Still, when the surrender was confirmed on August 15 — Victory in Japan Day — Perguson had a hard time believing that, at last, “the United States is not at war.”  Navy officer Chester Travelstead, stationed in Seattle, agreed.  Writing to his mother, WKU music teacher Nelle Travelstead, of the atomic bomb, the negotiations and the surrender, he remarked that “It has passed like a tornado.”

But there was little calm after the storm.  First came the celebrations.  In Miami, Dee Perguson witnessed streets filled with people and cars, a Navy band playing, Russian trainees bellowing out songs, and soldiers and sailors trading hats in a communal expression of joy.  Bars and liquor stores had closed the moment the surrender was announced, but “many people who had prepared for the day had their bottles.”  In Seattle, Chester Travelstead wrote, “Everybody kissed everybody.  Paper was thrown from the buildings by the wagonload . . . . The horns tooted a constant din; people shouted and ran.”

Then came the avalanche of work, gathering force since V-E Day, that would be necessary to accomplish the orderly demobilization of millions of soldiers.  The day after V-J Day, Travelstead found himself deluged with directives and orders.  Perguson, working in one of many Miami hotels commandeered by the military, expected to be kept busy either reassigning soldiers who remained in service or providing occupational counseling to veterans returning to civilian life.  And both men were thinking about where they stood in the long line of servicemen eager to get their discharge papers, go home and get on with their lives.

Letters of Kentuckians about V-J Day are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click on the links to access finding aids.  For other collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

American bald eagle logo

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“V” for Victory

Winston Churchill; signing pen for his honorary U.S. citizenship proclamation

Winston Churchill; signing pen for his honorary U.S. citizenship proclamation

It first appeared in Nazi-occupied Europe, then took hold in Great Britain.  Promoted by the BBC, the “V for Victory” campaign of World War II featured the letter “V” defiantly chalked on walls, sidewalks, streetcars and other public places, and its Morse code equivalent, three dots and a dash, musically rendered in the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth.  But its most iconic manifestation was the two-fingered sign unforgettably employed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  “The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny,” Churchill declared in a special message broadcast on July 19, 1941.

In 1963, Kentucky Congressman Frank Chelf took the floor of the House of Representatives as a co-sponsor of legislation to make the British leader an honorary U.S. citizen.  The son of an American mother, Churchill already commanded the deep affection of Chelf and his countrymen, but more importantly, Chelf declared, “as long as any of us shall live we shall carry the memory of the resolute, valiant Churchill . . . always holding his hand aloft, with his fingers forming his famous V-for-victory sign, standing as a shining symbol of hope and man’s determination to remain free.”

A week after Chelf’s speech, Churchill wrote a letter thanking him “for the very agreeable things you say about me and for the graceful way you expressed them.”  On April 9, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the proclamation conferring citizenship on Churchill, Chelf received the signing pen as a souvenir.

The papers of Frank Chelf, which include his work for Churchill’s honorary citizenship, are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more political collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Apple Blossoms and Horseradish

Red Cross Motor Corps, 1944 (Elizabeth Coombs first row, second from left)

Red Cross Motor Corps, 1944 (Elizabeth Coombs first row, second from left)

Bowling Green native Elizabeth Robertson Coombs (1893-1988) spent much of her youth in New York City, but returned to Kentucky after the early death of her father, a railroad executive.  When the U.S. entered World War II, Coombs, who had worked for a decade as a reference librarian at WKU’s Special Collections Library, was ready to volunteer her skills.  In 1942, she filled out an application to serve with the local branch of the Red Cross Motor Corps.  She noted her proficiency in French, gave WKU uber-librarian Margie Helm as a reference, and for some reason boldly lopped nine years off her date of birth.

The Motor Corps was no delicate feminine pastime.  In their dark grey uniforms and caps, and with an identifying metal disk attached to their licence plates, volunteers undertook a variety of tasks related to the civilian war effort: carrying messages and deliveries, ferrying public health officials to their duties and children to hospital in Louisville, driving mobile canteens, transporting supplies for the blood donor program, doing office work and assisting at public gatherings.  Members attended meetings at the Bowling Green Armory and were liable to be discharged if they missed more than three; an acceptable excuse, however, was having a husband home on furlough.

In order to qualify for the Motor Corps, Coombs completed Red Cross first aid training, then took a 30-hour course in motor mechanics where she learned to change tires, put on chains, adjust brakes, and replace spark plugs.  But the Motor Corps also provided support to the civil defense authorities, and consequently Coombs received additional education in war’s worst-case scenarios, including the possibility of chemical attack.  She learned about the telltale odor of tear gas (fly paper or apple blossoms), mustard gas (horseradish), and paralyzing gases (bitter almonds or rotten eggs), the symptoms of exposure, and what aid to administer.

Fortunately, for Coombs and her fellow citizens, the discomforts of the home front did not extend beyond coping with a scarcity of consumer goods and a federal system of rationing and price controls.  Instructions on her books of ration stamps for food and gasoline gave her the right “to buy your fair share of certain goods” at reasonable prices.  “Don’t pay more” on the black market, warned the Office of Price Administration–and, conversely, “If you don’t need it, DON’T BUY IT.”  Some commodities required special clearance; completion of a two-page form allowed Coombs and her mother to apply for a “home canning sugar allowance” subject to an annual limit of 20 lbs. per person and a warning to “only apply for as much sugar as you are sure you will need.”

Material relating to Elizabeth Robertson Coombs’ life during wartime is part of the Coombs Family Collection housed in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For more collections relating to the home front during World War II, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Homemaker's pledge; ration stamps

Homemaker’s pledge; ration stamps

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“We wish once more to be as a human”

Aina Raits and family in 1949; and her notes on their clothing sizes

Aina Raits and family in 1949; and her notes on their clothing sizes

In 1949, WKU foreign languages professor Sibyl Stonecipher received a request from the Kentucky Division of the American Association of University Women.  Post-World War II Europe was still struggling with a massive refugee problem, and the Kentucky AAUW had resolved to send food, clothing and other assistance to university women who had become displaced persons as a result of the war.  Could Miss Stonecipher and the Bowling Green AAUW “adopt” a 35-year-old Latvian teacher and musician named Aina Raits and her family, then living in a refugee camp in Germany?

Within two months, Miss Stonecipher had established a correspondence with Aina.  Once happy in Latvia, with a husband, house and garden, Aina, a graduate of the Latvian State Conservatory of Riga, had seen her siblings sent to Siberia and “my man . . . fallen in the war.”  Now, she was passing time in the refugee camp giving concerts, teaching music, and hoping that either the U. S. or Canada would allow her, her new husband, mother, and young children to emigrate.  We wish once more to be as a human and to work and live as the other people in the world, she declared in her careful English script.

Over the next two years, Aina wrote to “My dear, lovely Sibyl” of her life, past and present, and responded gratefully to the packages of food and clothing sent from America, including one from Miss Stonecipher’s colleague, Frances Richards.  But still, she sighed, her family could only “wait, and wait” for a promise of work that would allow them to leave Germany.  She yearned to begin life again.

Finally, late in 1951, Aina and her family emigrated to Jackson, Michigan.  Miss Stonecipher not only kept in touch, but visited them twice before Aina’s death in 1977.  “They are really wonderful people,” she reflected, glad for the opportunity given to her and Bowling Green’s other university women to help a fellow teacher.

Aina Raits’s letters to Sibyl Stonecipher are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to download a finding aid.  For other collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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