Tag Archives: World War II

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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Military Broadsides

In 1943, World War II was in full swing. U-boats were sinking, London was being bombed, the Trident Conference was taking place, Italy was being liberated by the Allies—and military squadrons were heading to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Why did so many squadrons come to town? They were using Bowling Green as a part of their troop training. We know that our airport was used for training beginning in 1943. The 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron was deployed to the Bowling Green Airport for about four months in 1943 and 1944 and some of the other divisions were probably doing air training as well, though the reasons for a tank division to be deployed here is less clear.

Jim the Pilot

Jim the Pilot

Five military broadsides found in the WKU Archives were apparently made by different squadrons as thank you cards to the citizens of Bowling Green for their hospitality. These broadsides offer some interesting information about soldiers who were about to head off to war. They reveal a sense of humor that underscores the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky, charming, confident American soldier boy. Nicknames like “SNAFU,” “Tough Boy,” and “Toothless” pepper the signatures. Corporal Martin “Snooks” Schnall Jr. is called “Headquarters (Brains of the Outfit)” on one poster. Some posters include references to the battalion’s purpose, like a tank or the outfit’s insignia or a plane, piloted by “Jim,” whose picture has been cut out and pasted into the airplane’s window.  [Click on images to enlarge].



One broadside is a complete mystery, though. Why does it have two ships from different eras passing or a sketch of a dog? Instead of including the signatures of the men in the outfit, there is an illegible inscription at the top and a lot of shorthand at the bottom.



There are a few other unanswered questions. What brought the tank battalion to town? It was the only part of its division to see engagement; did their training here help them get there and get through? Were hand-drawn posters a typical thank you to towns they visited? And what on earth does this shorthand say?



If you have the answer to these questions or know someone who was attached to any of these squadrons, we would love to hear from you! Please contact archives@wku.edu or leave a comment. Use the links below to take a closer look at the broadsides in TopScholar.

These and other university records are available for researchers to use in the Harrison-Baird Reading Room of the Kentucky Building, Monday-Saturday, 9 to 4.

Blog post written by WKU Archives Assistant Katherine Chappell.

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Military Resources in WKU Archives

1917 saw the creation of the Army ROTC program at Western under the National Defense Act of 1916.  In 1918, the Board of Regents allowed for the formation of the Student’s Army Training Corps.  Barracks were provided for participating students.  In January 1919, this group became the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

During World War II the 321st Army Air Force Cadet Training Detachment took up residence on campus. From 1943 through 1944 the group published a newsletter The Open Post, which has been digitized and is now available TopScholar.

A Military Bibliography of primary and secondary sources in WKU Archives has been created.  It documents WKU student military units such as the Pershing Rifles and Scabbard & Blade.  There is information regarding veterans, World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War as well.

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“A Better Person for the Experience”

Dee Carl Perguson, Jr.

Dee Carl Perguson, Jr.

Graduating from high school at age 16, Dee Carl “D.C.” Perguson, Jr. (1921-2010) left his home in Horse Branch (Ohio County) in 1938 to attend Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now WKU).  He earned a bachelor’s degree in history, then entered the U. S. Army.  Perguson served in North Africa and Italy, where he was wounded in January 1944 and sent home to recover.  Earning his master’s degree in 1947, Dee began a life of teaching, travel and volunteerism.

Highlighting the personal papers of Dee Perguson, now part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library, are his correspondence and diaries.  Begun while Perguson was a student at WKU, his diaries offer a detailed account of college life in the shadow of World War II.  During his military service, Perguson kept up a faithful correspondence with his parents in Horse Branch. After being wounded in action, he tried to reassure them.  “My injury is not really bad,” he wrote.  “Two bullets hit my arm, one bone is broken in my upper arm.  Done up in my plaster cast I am in fine shape” and, he continued, “probably a better person for the experience.”

Perguson’s post-war correspondence details his political, church and volunteer activities during his career as a high school teacher in Seattle.  He also kept journals documenting his year in England as a Fulbright Scholar (1949-1950) and his travel to the Soviet Union and Central America.  Ever the historian, Perguson also wrote retrospective essays about his youth and family in Horse Branch.

Click here to download a finding aid for the Dee Carl Perguson, Jr. Collection.  For other collections relating to Ohio County, World War II and more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Charles Kaenzig's prisoner of war post

Charles Kaenzig’s prisoner of war post

Late in December 1944, John Kaenzig of Versailles, Kentucky received the telegram that every parent of a soldier dreads.  His son Charles, an Air Force lieutenant, was reported missing in action, his plane shot down over Italy.  As John read the telegram, a Kreigsgefangenenpost (prisoner of war post) signed by Charles was on its way to Kentucky.  “I have been taken prisoner of war in Germany,” the Postkarte read.  “I am in good health.”

In February 1945, John Kaenzig received two more extraordinary communications.  One was from the pilot of Charles’s downed aircraft, describing its destruction by anti-aircraft fire.  He had seen Charles parachute from the plane and was hopeful he had survived, because Italian civilians (who had helped the pilot to safety) were friendly and the Germans were thought to treat prisoners humanely.  The second was a postcard from a couple in New York City who had picked up a German short-wave radio broadcast carrying a message from Charles “Kinsie.”  He had arrived at a permanent POW camp and was in good health and spirits.  “With our sincere hope that he will return to you safely and soon,” the couple had addressed the postcard to his mother.

Charles did return after his liberation by Russian troops on May 1.  While he waited in Germany, then France, to be shipped home, he wrote cheerfully to his family.  “These last ten days out from behind barb wire have been wonderful,” he declared.  “Going to be mightly nice to get back on the farm for awhile.”

This collection of letters by and about Charles Kaenzig is available at WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more World War II collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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“Je suis aviateur americain”

World War II blood chit

World War II blood chit

I am an American aviator.  My plane is destroyed.  I cannot speak your language.  I am an enemy of the Japanese.  Be so kind as to protect me, treat me and take me to the closest allied military office.  The government of my country will reward you.

They were called “escape flags” or “blood chits.”  Made of silk, about the size of a handkerchief, they reproduced the message above in several languages including French, Thai, Korean and Japanese.  During World War II, pilots shot down in foreign territory used the flags to identify themselves and obtain help from the local population.  If the pilot failed to survive, the serial number on the flag could offer a clue as to his fate.

WKU’s Special Collections Library holds two such escape flags in the collection of Warren County native and U. S. Navy veteran Cecil Murray Elrod (1923-2002).  The first is pictured at left, while the second shows the flag of Nationalist China.  Issued to pilots in the China-Burma-India theatre, it included a request in Chinese to shelter and protect the bearer, a “foreign person” who has “come to China to help in the war effort.”

A finding aid for the Cecil Murray Elrod Collection can be downloaded here.

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A “Letter on a Record”

USO "Letter on a Record"

USO “Letter on a Record”

Before there was e-mail or Skype or DVDs or even cassette tapes, there was the “Letter on a Record.”  During World War II, servicemen could enter a booth at USO clubs operated by the National Catholic Community Service and make an audio recording.  The result was a two-sided, wax-coated cardboard disk, 6-1/2 inches in diameter and playable on a turntable at 78 r.p.m., that could be mailed to friends or loved ones back home.

One of these “letters on a record” is part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Speaking from Camp Crowder, Missouri, Private Thomas W. Sutton extends greetings to Eva Mae Stone in Washington, D. C.  In the few minutes of recording time available, Sutton asks her if she’s heard any good dance records lately (like Don’t Do It Darling), tells her about mutual friends, including “Chuck” (“he had to take a few weeks of basic [training] all over again and of course that didn’t appeal to him”) and, true to the nature of many soldiers, talks about his plans for his next furlough and how much he misses the “barbecue sandwiches and milkshakes” at one of his favorite hangouts.

A finding aid for Thomas W. Sutton’s “letter on a record” can be downloaded here.  For more information on World War II collections at WKU’s Special Collections Library, search TopScholar and KenCat.


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Kentuckians Remember D-Day

James A. Parrish, Sr., writes of D-Day

James A. Parrish, Sr., writes of D-Day

As another anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy passes, here are some memories of Kentuckians who fought on that historic day, and whose reminiscences are preserved at WKU’s Special Collections Library:

We were anchored 12 miles off shore . . . The sound was deafening.  It looked like a tornado from all the dust and smoke in the sky. — Ralph J. Glaser

I had land mines, supplies and men loaded on my truck . . . As I prepared to drive off the boat ramp, my truck stalled just before I got to shore and I had to be towed . . . I was deeply saddened as I looked upon the many American soldiers lying dead in shallow water on the beach . . . it was a shocking sight for a country farm boy who had grown up in the serene countryside of Daviess County. — Beverly Gilmore

It did not dawn on me until we were nearly on the sand that it was not raining.  What I had assumed to be rain hitting the water all around us was actually bullets fired from shore . . . Later I was taken along with the other wounded out to a hospital boat anchored off shore . . . they insisted upon putting me on a stretcher and strapping my arms to my sides.  They they . . . began to hoist me to the ship high above.  The rough seas caused the stretcher to swing out 10 to 15 feet from the ship’s sides.  I screamed awful things on the way up. — Bradley M. Green

We arrived at Utah Beach a little before dawn . . . Off shore with a rough sea running and in darkness, the assault waves climbed down landing nets into the bouncing landing crafts . . . Soon after hitting the beach, my foxhole buddy said, “Man, this is the real thing, isn’t it?” . . . He and I were approximately 20 yards apart at the time, and when I turned to respond, he was hit and killed by a large shell. — Russell C. Goddard



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Mail Call !

Bert J. "Jay" Borrone, WKU Class of 1941

Bert J. “Jay” Borrone, WKU Class of 1941

In the extensive collections of war letters in WKU’s Special Collections Library, no expression is more common than the joy of a soldier who has received mail from home.  In April 1943, Corporal B. J. “Jay” Borrone, stationed in North Africa, wrote to Dorthie Hall, his former classmate at Western Kentucky State College, and vividly described the whirlwind of anticipation, exhilaration, and sometimes disappointment, known as “mail call”:

“The truck driver is pestered all day to go into regimental headquarters for the mail even tho all know that it is not finished being sorted until 4 p.m. . . .  Usually it is about 7 before they get back and no lynching mob in all its fury ever went after a victim like we go after that driver. . . . [F]inally someone grabs the bunch of letters and starts yelling off names.”  Those lucky enough to receive mail, Borrone continued, “go off into a corner and get that beatific look for hours while the other poor guys that didn’t get anything pretend (very poor pretending by the way) that they didn’t expect any anyhow.  Pretty soon the score is tabulated on just how many letter[s] each fellow got and the winner comes in for a lot of kidding.  Then the discarded envelopes are looked at and sniffed at for evidences of female traits and more kidding follows.”

It was 3 a.m. as Borrone wrote these words, but even at such a late hour and so far from home, he was looking forward to “the promise of a grand sunrise and a perfect day” — and, no doubt, the next mail call.

A finding aid for the Dorthie A. Hall collection of World War II letters can be downloaded here.


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