Posts with the tag: WWII

The Archivist’s Nook: War Comes to Campus – CatholicU Students in a Time of Crisis

Catholic University Receives War News Calmly

WWII Memorial, originally dedicated in McMahon Hall in 1945. Made by local sculptor, Frank Zuchet, it reads at the top, “We ask a memento for these students of the university who have died in service of their country”.

So reads the main headline of the December 12, 1941 Tower — the first issue of the Catholic University student newspaper published after the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. But reading into the article it headlines, and the many articles and letters that are in this same issue, one finds a variety of emotions on display beyond just “calm.” Many members of the campus community expressed fear and anger, patriotism, or even disinterest. This particular issue is a symphony of emotions and uncertainty. Students, faculty, and staff report hopes for peace, desire for revenge, or even attempts at making jokes. Columns advocated for a quick response by the college student to the crisis facing the nation and world. Rumors swirled about what would happen. The uncertainty about the length and severity of the conflict, or even if universities would be able to continue operating the same way in the short- or long-term weighed on many minds in December 1941 and in the months and years ahead.

In hindsight, it is easy to assume that everyone understood what was happening at the time and shared in a collective response. The hindsight of history has provided us with a perspective of the days and weeks following the US entry into World War II that can be uniform and seem well-planned, with every person and institution on the same page. But people and history are seldom so simple and clear-cut. And looking through the student-led Tower during the war years reveals the anxieties, hope, adjustments, and ultimate triumph of the campus community in the face of a global challenge.

Catholic University War Bonds Fundraiser in Mullen Library, 1943

To better understand their place and how their university may respond, students turned to the last major global conflict — World War I. The Tower reports efforts to understand how campus offices functioned and how groups such as the “Student Army Training Corps” operated at the time. Articles reflect on students enlisting and highlighted the way students rallied both to the nation and to the campus during the “Great War.” The paper also took pride in highlighting the service of WWI veterans among the current faculty and alumni community. In its column “C. U. Men of Yesteryear,” the focus shifted from job promotions and weddings to reporting largely on military enlistments. In the August 20, 1943  issue, the Tower casually reported on Class of 1912 alumni: 

Major-General Terry Allen, who so successfully commanded the first U.S. Infantry Division in North Africa, is currently leading the same outfit in the Sicily Campaign. 

Generals Omar Bradley (left), Terry de la Mesa Allen (center), and Dwight Eisenhower (right) pictured on November 10, 1944 in Grenzhof, Germany.

But it was not all focused on the war fronts, as campus life did continue. Changes to college life during the war years were anticipated, with a November 1942 Tower article discussing rumors about changing academic calendars, adjustments to how classes may be taught, and even shifting commencement dates. As the author put it: 

It indicated that the men in charge of the war effort, having solved the major problems connected with transferring the processes of civilian life to the methods of total war, were coming round to putting an end to the difficulties of the position of the colleges in war time.

As the war continued throughout the early 1940s, material and demographic changes occurred on campus. In addition to some dances and social gatherings, USO training sessions were held and military exercises occurred on campus. Publications like the Cardinal Yearbook were suspended from 1944-1947, and more women were able to enroll on campus.

1517th Army unit specialized training program at Catholic University, August 1943, marching in front of the now-vanished Albert Hall

As recounted in an earlier blog, the admittance of women to Catholic University was still relatively new and often limited to programs in the School of Nursing. But with so many male students enlisting, women began to take more active roles on the campus. In early 1943, for example, nine School of Nursing students joined the Tower staff as its first women members. But these writers were not merely replacements meant to keep the newspaper afloat, they were active agents shaping the future of the campus.

Among the nine writers, columnist and member of the Tower business staff Margaret Clarke ‘44, wrote:

It seems that throughout history women are facing some form of competition, some barrier, some challenge. Just in the past World War I days the women of the entire nation faced a challenge when they tried to gain the legal right to vote. But they overcame this challenge, and the country really doesn’t seem any worse today for it…Maybe if the few of this University would come to the realization that the women, too, belong to the University, that they are worthy of having an interest in what goes on about them on their campus. And yes, they have a right to partake in the various campus activities…maybe some day the few will learn to accept these students – and the University really won’t seem any worse then for it.

Catholic University War Bond Drive in McMahon Hall, 1943.

Despite the war ending in 1945, it would take several years for certain pre-war elements of campus life to return. For example, the Shahan Debating Society ceased operations during the war years and only returned in 1946. But other changes were fast and permanent. Women were more prevalent and active in the campus community. Not to mention, the G.I. Bill also led to an increased enrollment, dramatically ballooning the size of incoming classes. And with this increased enrollment came more and more new programs on the campus, from the School of Music to aerospace studies.

But students did not forget the war. Many of those present on the campus in the late 1940s and beyond were veterans. Memorials, both in print and in stone and wood, were established to remember the students and alumni who had passed away in the conflict. 

The November 12, 1946 sports page in the Tower memorialized those lost in the war. The caption reads: “The Editors of The Tower dedicate this potion of our paper to men of C. U. who made the supreme sacrifice, in World War I, and II, and whose names would have appeared on this page in various activities.”

During a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, Cardinals expressed various emotions and turned to the past to understand present challenges. But once the initial shock wore off, members of the campus community rallied both on and off campus, finding ways to win the day and build a University community adapted to the times. While sacrifices were made, opportunities also arose as the campus emerged out of the war years having forged new ways forward. Out of the crucible of crisis, Catholic University’s students adapted and persevered.

The Archivist’s Nook: A Venus Fixer Goes to War

A devastating scene during the Italian Campaign of WWII.

“It’s been a strange way to do my wartime service but somebody had to do it and, since…I wondered inside who will take care of the monuments and the objects of art, I’m afraid I rather asked for it and so it was not improperly myself who was chosen.” – Staff Sargeant Bernard M. Peebles to Colonel Ernest T. DeWald, 1945

The Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Subcommittee, more popularly known as either the Monuments Men or Venus Fixers, was a program that focused on protecting and restoring cultural and historic sites and materials during the Second World War. Consisting of scholars of art, manuscripts, and architecture, the members of the MFAA often operated in active warzones across North Africa and Europe with limited resources. Not only did they work to assess the damages rendered to cultural sites and archives, but they worked to guarantee the survival of missing or pillaged art or manuscripts. Long-time Catholic University Professor of Greek and Latin (1948-1971) Bernard M. Peebles was one such Venus Fixer, serving in Italy from 1943-1945.

German Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring allegedly referred to the Italian campaign as “waging war in a museum.” With limited resources and combat raging across a culturally-rich and highly urban peninsula, the Allies relied on informational flyers and posts and local aid to secure sites.

Peebles was born in Norfolk, Virginia on January 1, 1906. He received his Bachelors in Greek and Latin in 1926 from the University of Virginia, and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard University in 1928 and 1940 respectively. During this time he was also a fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934. While in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow scholar by the name of Wolfgang Hagemann. The two would later be on opposing sides of the war effort, with Hagemann engaged in art and translation work with Rommel’s armies in North Africa and Italy.

In the years prior to the war, Peebles’ teaching career blossomed as he taught at Harvard (1937-1939), Fordham University (1939-1941), and at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1941-1942). With the US entering WWII, Peebles enlisted in 1942, being assigned as a chief clerk for the MFAA . As one of the earliest members of the Program, he began his service in Sicily in the fall of 1943, where he was regarded as a “discoverer of manuscripts.”¹ As a report dated 20 January 1944 from Palermo, Sicily relates:

Visiting a hardware shop in Via Cassari, [Peebles] saw there some old MS. Documents loose on the counter and apparently about to be used as wrapping paper. Upon showing interest in the documents he was allowed to examine them and, afterwards, a larger number which apparently had been removed from the same bound volume and comprised some sheets of parchment, one with heading in gold. Upon offering to buy the smaller batch of documents, he was told that he have them as a gift… A second visit to the neighborhood to determine the precise location of the shop found it closed but revealed that several shops in the Via Argenteria were using similar old MSS. (along with other documents of more recent date) to wrap fish and other edibles.²

Right photo: Peebles (L) with Hagemann (R), together on a hike in Verona in 1933. Left photo: Peebles during his MFAA tour in Italy.

Among the documents recovered were those belonging to the Palermo state archives, including early eighteenth-century manuscripts from Philip V of Spain! Peebles continued to serve with the MFAA in Italy throughout the remainder of the war. In 1945, a request came in for him to transfer to Austria to assist the Monument Men there. Writing to Colonel DeWald, Director of the Italian MFAA, he expressed a desire to finish the job in Italy – a mission he referred to as “[his] baby” – and then return to his wife, child, and academic career in the United States. He was awarded this opportunity, along with the Bronze Star and British Empire medal.

Peebles returned to the US in 1945, and began teaching at Catholic University in 1948. He served with the Greek and Latin Department – including an eight-year stint as Chair (1962-1970) – until his retirement in 1971. A scholar with wide-ranging interests in Latin manuscripts, he is most well-known for his work on the Church Fathers and Patristic studies. Sadly, he died during a robbery attempt in 1976.

In addition to recording his long academic career, the papers of Bernard Peebles catalogs his experience of the Second World War, with Allied reports, maps, and propaganda material.  It may be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/peebles.cfm

A small sampling of the WWII documentation and objects contained in the Bernard M. Peebles Papers, including his Bronze Star.

¹laria Dagnini Brey The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II (New York: Picador, 2010), 71-72.
²Ibid.