Tag Archives: World War II

“Hands, wits, and guts”

Stephen Ambrose’s 1994 book about D-Day bore this dramatic image.
Inset: Bert J. Borrone

June 6: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the best- and worst-kept secret of World War II. 

It was 1944, and everyone knew this would be “the year of destiny,” when the Allies would launch a massive cross-channel invasion of Europe to mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.  But until it happened, no one knew precisely when or where the assault would take place. 

Bowling Green’s Bert Borrone was deeply interested in the question.  Stationed with a signal service company in North Africa, the U.S. Army sergeant was responsible for radio broadcasts that would keep his military audience informed about the course of the war.  Late in May 1944, he prepared two 15-minute programs for the American Expeditionary Station News Bureau to ready his listeners for the invasion, “so that when the day does come. . . and General Eisenhower says ‘Tonight, we strike,’ we shall be able to follow the hourly news, be it good or bad, with understanding, with confidence.” 

Borrone’s first program painted a vivid picture of the invasion landscape: the English Channel, both a “ready-made highway for assault” and “an itinerary to death”; the minesweepers, those “unsung old ladies of the sea,” spearheading the fleet; the arc of invasion vessels stretching across the horizon; the bombers, fighters and paratroop transports.  Beaches were necessary to land troops, and ports to supply them, but “no one knows better than the Nazi what is potential invasion land,” Borrone warned.  The enemy would be ready with mines, landing-craft traps, anti-tank obstacles, machine-gun and mortar emplacements, pill-boxes, bunkers, fortified towns and “hundreds of thousands of the Wehrmacht’s finest, dug in for the showdown.”

Then would come the landings, as “battle-wagons, with their escorts of the sea and air, plunge toward the pre-assigned beaches,” and all the plans, rehearsals and calculations were put to the test.  Many had performed their duties in advance: if Nazi fighters or weapons failed to appear, or if the enemy’s reserves arrived too late, or if his mines failed to detonate, it was because a production facility had been bombed day and night, or an intelligence operative had directed just where to place an explosive, or an underground fighter—“a Hans or a Pierre or an Emil”—had carried out a successful sabotage.  Ultimately, however, the invasion would be “committed into the hands, and wits, and guts, of a few hundred thousand.”

Borrone’s second program was a tutorial on the tactics of a coastal invasion, the nuts-and-bolts calculations of everything from enemy firepower and types of forces needed to anticipated numbers of sea-sickness among the troops.  Tides, terrain, defenses, roads, availability of reserves, and the timing, makeup and objectives of each “wave” of the invasion—these and other innumerable considerations, Borrone explained, needed to be weighed “against the single most important factor in any military action . . . initial, tactical surprise.  Only then,” he declared, “can the supreme commander point his finger at one definitive spot along all the vast shore line and commit it irrevocably to the fates who weave human destiny.”

Bert Borrone’s radio broadcast scripts delivered in anticipation of D-Day are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections on World War II and D-Day, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.   

75 years ago (@BeschlossDC)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

The Rohna

HMT Rohna

HMT Rohna

Seventy-five years ago today, on November 26, 1943, one of the greatest and least-known losses of Americans in a single naval incident took place when the troopship HMT Rohna sank in the Mediterranean Sea.

Built in 1926, the Rohna was a converted British cargo ship—“crummy and dirty,” remembered soldier Charles Finch—with an Indian crew and an Australian commander.  Carrying 1,981 American troops, it was part of a convoy headed from North Africa to the China-India-Burma theater.  Late in the afternoon, a German aerial attack sent the vessel to the bottom of a cold, rough sea.  Of the 1,138 resulting deaths, 1,015 were American—only 162 less than the toll aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

The incident was quickly shrouded in secrecy.  Survivors and families of the dead were told little about what had happened.  Only with the passage of time and the declassification of military reports did the story become clearer.  The 8,602-ton Rohna had perished in 30 minutes after a single German aircraft launched a new and terrifying weapon: an early “smart bomb,” propelled by a rocket engine and guided to its quarry by an operator via radio signal.

When WKU history professor Carlton Jackson set out to write a book about the Rohna disaster, he gathered letters, narratives and official testimonials from survivors, witnesses, and families of the victims.  The stories he received were harrowing: of the fiery inferno ignited when the bomb slammed into the engine room, of men trapped below decks, of the ensuing chaos as the Rohna’s civilian crew abandoned their stations, of lifeboats that couldn’t be lowered because of rusted pulleys, of desperate men clambering down ropes to the sea or simply jumping, of rafts crashing down on the heads of men in the water, of German planes strafing overhead, and of the ordeal of injured survivors awaiting rescue for hours, clinging to debris or trying to remain afloat in heavy seas with only small inflatable lifebelts.

On board the nearby HMS Banfora, Abe Kadis remembered the Rohna with a hole blown completely through it, the screams of wounded men, and “heads bobbing in the water.”  Nevertheless, the rest of the convoy was forced to sail on until it was safe for rescue ships to return.  “I felt so alone and completely helpless,” remembered Charles Finch, who had gone over the side by rope.  “There was now nothing in sight except the dead bodies that continued to bump into me from time to time.”  The USS Pioneer eventually picked up Finch and many of the Rohna survivors.  One of them, Private Henry Kuberski, spent weeks in hospital recovering from burns.  “Hank,” read the telegram to his wife, had been only “slightly injured.”

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Hank Kuberski recovers from his injuries

Carlton Jackson’s research for his book Forgotten Tragedy: The Sinking of HMT Rohna (reissued as Allied Secret: The Sinking of HMT Rohna) is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Comments Off on The Rohna

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

“The Pore Has to be Fed”

Naomi & Lester Woosley, Luxembourg, 1948; Bert Raldon Smith

Naomi & Lester Woosley, Luxembourg, 1948; Bert Raldon Smith

During World War II, many WKU students serving overseas kept in touch with their friends and professors on the Hill.  Collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Library Special Collections attest to the bonds that faculty such as Frances Richards and students such as Dorthie Hall maintained with those in military service.

After the war, students continued to write home about lives, theirs and others, that had been changed forever.  In 1948, Naomi (Thurman) Woosley sent greetings from Munich, Germany to Bert Raldon Smith, her former education professor.  A 1940 graduate, Naomi had been teaching at a military dependents’ school while her husband served as chaplain at an American hospital.  Lester Woosley’s duties were somber; they included hearing “many sad stories” and officiating at the funerals of servicemen and their family members lost to accidents and illness.  Nevertheless, the Woosleys had had an opportunity to visit several European cities including Rotterdam, where they were immersed in the excitement of an international soccer game, and The Hague, where they took a snapshot of Eleanor Roosevelt and Crown Princess Juliana.

In Munich, however, Naomi was struck by conditions among the poor.  “I’ve seen some of them taking food from my garbage can,” she wrote.  She could not surrender completely to compassion for the German people—her brother had been a prisoner of war, and she was aware of the atrocities committed at Dachau—nevertheless, “hunger,” she declared, “is a terrible thing.”  She was reminded of a remark she had once overhead in front of WKU’s Industrial Arts Building on her way to Sunday School.  The speaker was Dr. Smith himself, reminding a friend that “the pore has to be fed.”

Click here for a finding aid for Naomi Woosley’s postwar letter to Bert Raldon Smith.  For other World War II collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

Comments Off on “The Pore Has to be Fed”

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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

Comments Off on Japanese American Student at Western During WWII

Filed under University Archives

“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.

Comments Off on “A great deal to answer for”

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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.

Comments Off on Mrs. Moore Goes to War

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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.

Comments Off on G.G. Craig, Jr.

Filed under University Archives

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

Comments Off on The Holiday Spirit in Japan

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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.

Comments Off on His Dream Home

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives

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

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

Filed under Manuscripts & Folklife Archives