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Beloit Goes to War

Beloit Goes to War
A Long (and Surprising) Tradition

By Terrence Bush, '85

     A number of inquiries this summer from alumni interested in honoring classmates who died in World War II -- through contributions to a "memorial room" in the new Athletic Center -- piqued our interest in Beloit's involvement in America's wars. What we discovered were some surprises, but also some frustration: the college has little documentation on Beloiters in either the Korean or Vietnam wars. Still, even with these shortcomings, we think that the story of Beloit's role in America's military service is one well worth telling. -- Editor

      The opening shot fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861, began not only what proved to be the decisive struggle in America's long-simmering battle between freedom and slavery, but also a long and honorable Beloit tradition. By the time the Civil War ended, more than 400 Beloit men, over one-half of the eligible students and alumni since the college was founded in 1846, served the Union cause -- and Beloiters have served with similar distinction in America's armed forces ever since.

     More than anything else, it was the college's religious heritage which caused so many students to volunteer for General Grant's Union forces. The faculty, New England-born and Puritan, had long believed that slavery must perish by God's design, and while not overtly abolitionist, their teachings reflected the inviolability of their convictions. Professors taught moral responsibility as the primary subject of liberal education, and their success at instilling moral values can be seen in the numbers of students who responded to President Lincoln's call to service.

     In mid-1862, 44 undergraduates had left campus for the war. By late 1863, 69 students and alumni had joined Union regiments, along with another 66 from the college's Preparatory School; only 86 students remained on campus. And in 1864, the entire senior class of 43 men enlisted as temporary soldiers. Their departure for Memphis forced the cancellation of commencement that year, since there was only one other member of the two higher classes remaining on campus. All told, 46 Beloiters gave their lives in the war.

     Beloiters served in various Army and Navy regiments during the Civil War, with more than half becoming officers. Many joined Wisconsin and Illinois units; others served such far-flung regiments as the Texas Army corps, the Massachusetts Infantry and the Pennsylvania Cavalry. A trio of students with the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry rode with General Sherman in the capture of Atlanta. One of them, Dexter Hill, from the class of 1866, wrote movingly of his southern journey. In a letter to Professor Joseph Emerson, Hill described Sherman's exploits and then told of his disillusionment with the realities of war:

     "When I entered the service I was very anxious to see the elephant. I have now seen the show -- seen enough to satisfy me for a long time. This war is a horrid and awful thing. All my ideas about it were incorrect till I cam and saw for myself. I can join with the almost universal prayer of the soldier: Give us peace, sweet peace!"

The "War to End All Wars"

     There is no complete record in the college archives of Beloiters who served in the Spanish-American War, or in any of America's military "adventures" over the ensuing half-century. But when the challenge of the "war to end all wars" was thrown at a new generation of Beloit men early in 1917, they showed that not much had changed.

Beloit     As the Great War was raging in Europe, some Americans resisted entry. Senator LaFollette of Wisconsin filibustered against President Wilson's Armed Neutrality Bill, a measure to prepare America for war. The Beloit College faculty, however, would stand for no such equivocation and voted to support Wilson. "From the Alleghenies west, the people do not appear to have sensed the seriousness of our national situation," said one professor at the time.

     When America finally did enter the war in April, 1917, there already were 120 college volunteers for a military corps on campus. At the end of May, 70 Beloiters were in the service, and by the fall 250 students, instructors and alumni had volunteered or been drafted. Earlier, a handful of Beloit-area men, including some college students, had left to join the fledgling ambulance corps (see accompanying profile of Orson Loomis, '17), and five faculty members had become commissioned Army officers. In fact, only 42 seniors out of a total college enrollment of 326 remained on campus in the fall of 1917.

     By the end of the war, over 600 Beloiters had served in some capacity. Many went into infantry and artillery; others entered the new signal corps, medical detachments and naval brigades. Fifteen died in action, and their deaths reflected the horrors of modern war. Marine Pvt. Raymond H. Eames, '14, died from the effects of mustard gas at Belleau Woods, France, in 1918. Lt. Maderson Lehr, '18, an ambulance driver and aviator for the French, was shot down in July, 1918.

     On campus, courses relating to the war became part of the curriculum; they included mechanical drafting and topography. A Beloit College Red Cross unit was organized at Emerson Hall, and Beloit women met twice a week to knit sweaters, socks and scarfs and to make bandages for men overseas. Later they sewed the huge Beloit service flag which hung in Eaton Chapel, attaching a blue star for each man in service and a gold star for everyone who sacrificed his life in the war.

     As the war dragged on through 1918, the Army devised a plan to keep men under 21 in school but still ready for action. That summer, seven Beloit men traveled to Fort Sheridan in Illinois to be the forerunners of the Beloit encampment of the Student Army Training Corps, a military training unit under the instruction of Army officers. By the fall, all 144 men on campus who had not already joined the service enlisted in the S.A.T.C.; Scoville Hall and the gymnasium became their barracks, and Chapin Hall was their mess hall.

Soldiers     The armistices of November, 1918, made their mission unnecessary, and the unit was demobilized before Christmas. Upon the announcement of the war's end, the nation celebrated with delirious joy, and Beloit was no exception. The city was overtaken by "wild, hotten-tot demonstrations," as one observer put it. Men who had been in the service returned to their studies, and on Liberty Day in May, 1919, over 10,000 people from town and campus joined in tribute to the 700 men -- college students and alumni among them -- memorialized on the city's service flag.

Another Call for Service

     Historians may argue with hindsight about the ultimate reason why the "war to end all wars" failed to do so, but they cannot argue that no one saw the second great war on the horizon. Careful observers of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis provided warning of what was to come. One such observer was Beloit Professor Frederic E. Sweet, who toured Germany in 1937 and wrote a prescient series of articles which eerily foreshadowed the war.

     Once again the outbreak of American involvement found Beloit prepared. In November, 1941, weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the college proposed a rigorous defense training program to fill the shortage of science-trained men in the military, by deferring inductions until students had completed their educations in subjects vital to national defense. It was to be the college's version of an R.O.T.C. program, and it began in the curriculum in the spring of 1942. Men could train for the military in their civilian field of choice with a faster progression of coursework and summer school, allowing graduation in only three years.

Training     As hundreds of Beloit students and alumni received the call to arms, enrollments declined, and the college took the radical step of canceling all varsity sports competition to conserve scarce fuel and devote the athletic department to the training of servicemen. In 1943, the campus gained the 300 cadets of the 95th Army Air Force College Training Division. They settled in Haven and Scoville Halls for five months of campus courses in math, physics, English, and history, and flight training at Machesney Airport south of the campus. Successive classes of cadets trained at the college until the 95th C.T.D. was decommissioned in 1944.

     The real story of Beloit in World War II was the record of the hundreds of Beloiters who served throughout the world, in ranks from private to general. A plaque in Eaton Chapel commemorates the 40 from the college who gave their lives. Many died in combat; others in support positions behind the fronts. Some were among the school's greatest athletes, such as Francis "Dutch" Fagan, '41, and Eddie May, '40.

     A Phi Beta Kappa graduate and "B" blanket recipient, Fagan lettered in football, basketball and track during a distinguished college career. In the Marine Corps for two years, he was killed Feb. 27, 1945, while leading a platoon of soldiers in the battle of Iwo Jima; he was one of the 4,700 Marines who died there.

     May had trained to be a pilot with the Army Air Corps but was refused the position because he was black. He subsequently served in a segregated unit of the Corps of Engineers and died nearly three weeks after the end of European hostilities in May, 1945. Fatally wounded by a disgruntled soldier under his supervision, May is buried in the American cemetery at St. Laurent, France, near Omaha Beach in Normandy. At Beloit, he earned nine letters in basketball, football and track. In 1964 the college honored his achievements by electing him to the Athletic Hall of Honor.

     James E. Miller, '34, served three years in the southwest Pacific. An orthopedic surgeon, he was awarded an Asiatic Pacific Campaign ribbon with four battle stars and a Philippine Liberation Campaign ribbon with two battle stars. Geoffrey, '41, died in Tunisia, North Africa, attempting to string communication lines across a battlefield; he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart medal posthumously. Jean Cunningham, '41, the only Beloit woman to be killed during wartime service, was a staff maintenance and supply officer at Camp Morris near LeHavre, France; she died in an automobile accident.

     Chester "Chet" Allen, '34, was one of the few Beloiters who served in both World War II and Korea. He earned a Bronze Star for his heroic efforts with the Sixth Army Division in the Philippines, taking over responsibility for movement of the troops when his commandant was wounded. In Korea, he was stationed at the Army Joint Operations Center in Seoul, which coordinates peacetime training and attack operations during war. He later became head of the ROTC program at the University of Wisconsin.

     On campus, the women and few remaining men conducted War Bond drives, made bandages and collected clothes for the Red Cross. V-E Day in May, 1945, brought no wild celebrations as the Armistice had in 1918. "There was no wild hysteria, no joyous shouts; what little there had been of noise had happened the day before," one student noted. The campus scene changed drastically after the war. At Beloit, like at universities and colleges throughout the nation, enrollments swelled and set records. The words "veteran's shacks" became a part of the campus vocabulary, for they were home to married returning G.I.s continuing or furthering their education here. The dwellings were located near Pearsons Hall and "old" Chapin Hall, overlooking Highway 51.

     The Korean conflict a few years later affected enrollment, too, but in a different way. Many men opted for military service other than in the Army, so Navy and Air Force enlistments ran high. At Beloit, quite a few men enlisted in 1950-51 so they could have their choice of service, even if it meant a four-year commitment. Others decided to take their chances -- and received deferments to finish their education before being drafted.

The War at Home

     A generation later, America's most controversial war had significant but different effects on Beloit. Some Beloiters served in Vietnam, but their numbers were small. Much of the campus community was passively or actively opposed to the war, and several incidents from the era stand out ass indicative of Beloit's antiwar stance.

     The first, in 1968, involved an Army recruiter who had attempted to speak with students in the Union. A peaceful demonstration against his presence threatened to break out in violence, so the recruiter left when demonstrators began to confiscate his literature. "That man doesn't have the right to free speech because of what he is advocating," said one of the protesters.

     The actions of the obstructionists were met with an outpouring of criticism from the campus. "To limit a person's right to free speech is unacceptable. Force is no counter to peaceful demonstration. We cannot condone their actions on either a practical or philosophical level," the Round Table editorialized, summarizing the view of much of the student body.

     The period immediately following the deaths of four anti-war protesters at Kent State in May, 1970, was one of strife on many campuses. Over 300 schools experienced paralyzing student strikes. At Beloit, a protest march beginning on the residential quad and winding downtown was "hauntingly quiet" and orderly, according to the Beloit Daily News, which added, "The contrast between the conduct of the Beloit students and that of students on some other campuses is eloquent."

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     Today, campus sentiment is probably best characterized as "passively anti-military," with much animosity directed toward the Reagan administration's foreign policies. At the same time, attitudes toward military service itself seem to have changed. A military recruiter appeared on campus without incident last year, although some students attempted to use a state antidiscrimination statute to block his efforts. Moreover, a small but steady number of Beloit graduates in recent years have chosen to put their degrees to use in America's armed forces.

Orson Loomis     Orson Loomis, '17, typifies the spirit of the Beloit men who served in the First World War. One of nine Beloit-vicinity men who left for France in 1915, Loomis became an ambulance driver for the fledgling American Field Service. The AFS banner rode proudly on ambulances manned by American volunteers, carrying thousands of wounded from French battlefields.

     Since the U.S. had not yet entered the war when they left for overseas, Loomis and the others had to obtain support from their communities to cover their travel expenses. The city of Janesville, his hometown, assisted Loomis in financing his journey, but when America entered the war in 1917 and the AFS became the Army Ambulance Service, Loomis and the other men found they had funds unspent.

     Seeing an opportunity to further American good will in Europe, the young soldiers in the AFS set up a scholarship fund with the remaining funds. Today AFS scholarships provide assistance to thousands of cultural exchange students worldwide, including many past and present Beloit students. Loomis died in 1983.

Of the Beloiters who made the military their careers, three who have risen the highest are Robert Fergusson, John Samuel, and Fred Ascani. Coincidentally, all three attended Beloit in the 1930s and left the college to complete their degrees at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and all obtained the rank of major general.

Robert Fergusson     Maj. Gen. Robert Fergusson, '33, was the first of them. After three years at Beloit, he graduated from West Point in 1936 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army cavalry. Stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, Fergusson served in the Pacific during World War II, landing in the Aleutians and the Marshall Islands and aiding in the liberation of the Philippines. He later served during the first year of the Korean campaign.

     Fergusson says Beloit was important in preparing him for the service. "I would have had a difficult time getting through West Point had I not attended Beloit. The academics and liberal arts background helped me greatly." The alumni association honored Fergusson with a Distinguished Service Citation in 1973.

John Samuel     Maj. Gen. John Samuel, '36, also says his Beloit education aided his military career. "There's no question that it was useful. It improved my ability to reason, I matured greatly, and I had the advantage of a broader perspective." At Beloit for three years, Samuel earned six letters in football, basketball and track, and was elected captain of both the football and basketball teams. He earned two football letters at West Point and graduated as a "distinguished cadet," the military equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. Samuel was elected to the Beloit College Athletic Hall of Honor in 1967.

     Greater achievements came for Samuel during the war, however. An Army Air Force officer, he flew with a bombardment wing from England in 1944, and commanded a similar wing over France and Belgium in 1945. He was decorated with a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross, among numerous other awards. France also honored him for his service to the French Republic during the war.

Fred Ascani     Maj. Gen. Fred Ascani, '39, born in Beloit, attended the college for two years on a scholarship before accepting an appointment to West Point, where he graduated in 1941. Trained as a fighter pilot, he went overseas and became an Army Air Corps squadron group commander in Italy. One of his squadron commanders there was a young pilot named Chuck Yeager, later the pilot to break the sound barrier. Several of Ascani's reminiscences are highlighted in Yeager's recent best selling autobiography.      Ascani was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for daring bombing raids over France, and he won another Flying Cross for his assistance to the Czech resistance. France later honored him for hastening the liberation of French territory during the war.

     After the war, Ascani shattered the world speed record for the 100-km. Course by flying an F-86 Sabre jet at over 600 m.p.h. He later served in several high-level Pentagon posts. Beloit College President Carey Croneis presented Ascani with a Distinguished Service Citation in 1952.

     While anti-war sentiment dominated the campus during the Vietnam conflict, not all Beloiters demonstrated against the war. A handful fought in it, and though some might think that they would have been unwelcome on campus, one Beloit veteran of that era says quite the opposite was true.

     "Beloit has historically accepted people, and they accepted me," says Rolf Katzenstein, a government major from the class of 1970. Katzenstein attended Beloit for one year before dropping out and enlisting in the Marine Corps. Trained in avionics, he served 30 months and saw heavy combat in the jungles of Vietnam. Honorably discharged, he returned to Beloit to complete his education at the height of the campus protests against the war.

     "During the war, my primary concern was the protesters had a legal right to protest. I felt it was my duty to see that those people were protected," Katzenstein says, adding that no one at Beloit ever held his service against him. "Beloit was so much more sophisticated than other schools. The attitude was, 'We don't particularly like with Rolf did, but he's one of us.'"

     As with many veterans, the war took its price on him psychologically. But, he says, returning to Beloit helped him to recover. "Beloit saved me. I had a wonderful time because the campus accepted me and because I improved my reading and writing skills greatly. I attribute my success to Beloit College." Today a copartner of a multi-million dollar business consulting firm in Chicago, he has a law degree from the University of Wisconsin.

     Katzenstein is proud of his Marine Corps service. "I had more responsibility there than I could ever have in any company. Forty people out in the field depended on me to stay alive." He was awarded a National Defense Service medal, a Vietnam Service medal and a Republic of Vietnam Campaign medal during his enlistment.

     Terrence Bush of Elkhorn, Wis., graduated magna cum laude from Beloit this spring and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. A government major, he spent the summer of his junior year researching the Federalist Papers with Professor Paul Pollock on a National Endowment for the Humanities Younger Scholars Fellowship. He plans to pursue a journalism career.