That Sunday was supposed to be a day of triumph, an epic Reed College
prank that would stave off, for a bit, the demands of studying and the
looming specter of the world’s ample troubles. Just a few hours
of innocent collegiate hijinks.
Sophomore Jerry Kelley ’44 and several buddies in Eastport had
spent weeks rounding up the Doyle Owl, the Eastport Owl, the Quincy
Rooster, and another beast of uncertain provenance, possibly from
Winch, going as far as sneaking into the home of a day-dodger in Portland
and distracting his family while fellow conspirators spirited the
purloined fowl out of the basement.
“We had an open house to show them off to the rest of the campus,” Kelley
recalled in an interview conducted for Reed’s Oral History Project.
During the ensuing battle—and it was a spirited one, with students
rappelling down from the roof to reclaim their trophies—Reed’s
tiny fight suddenly took backstage to another, more epic conflict.
“Someone came in with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.”
The United States’ entry into World War II was for Reed College,
as it was for the rest of the country, a pivot point in history. It
has become an event frozen in memory, fixed in black-and-white newspaper
images of oily pillars of smoke rising from shattered ships. It has
been played and replayed ever since, with its predictable presidential
soundtrack, in a seemingly endless parade of World at War episodes
and PBS documentaries.
“I do remember it quite vividly,” said Charlene Welsh Miller ’42
in her oral history interview. “When war was declared—how
we were all ushered into the chapel. The president gave his speech
about the day of infamy and all that. We really didn’t know
how to react. It was clearly—it involved our lives quite materially.”
That pause in Miller’s recollections is a telling one. Her conclusion,
emerging amid a wave of 66-year-old memories, illustrates the difficulty
of turning lived experiences into living history. Even though there
is now broad consensus on the positive narrative of America’s
role in the Second World War, that process of remembering is still
tricky. Many members of the “Greatest Generation,” the
ones who fought “The Good War,” avoid referring to themselves
that way. Having read dozens of transcripts from the Reed Oral History
Project, and conducted interviews with alumni who were at Reed or
at war in the mid-1940s, I have found that, while the individual recollections
of these subjects are startlingly detailed, they strongly resist any
generalizations about the period’s wider implications. I found
no shortage of strong opinions about war and violence, politics and
policies, Vietnam and Iraq. But these tended not to be couched in
reference to World War II and its aftermath.
For those who have lived this history, however, the experience of the
war that birthed the American Century has provided sage perspective.
World War II veteran Fred Rosenbaum ’50, who went on to serve
with distinction as a brigadier general in the Oregon Air National
Guard, summed it up in his oral history interview. “There was
no—in very specific terms, there was no anti-war during World
War II,” he said. “I don’t think—you know,
this war going on in Iraq now and everything, just about everybody’s
against that. I am anti-war, but I am for protecting our Constitution
and Bill of Rights, and the liberties of this country and its borders.
That I would defend. But the stuff that is going on with Iraq and
all that sort of thing — I don’t think this is in my vocabulary.”
Louise Steinman ’73, a Los Angeles-based writer who interviewed
numerous World War II veterans for her book, The Souvenir: A Daughter
Discovers Her Father’s War, said she finds the memories
of the Greatest Generation to be intense and deeply personalized.
Five decades of silence are now dissolving away among many veterans
and survivors, she said. “I was shocked that for so many of
them, it was the biggest experience of their lives, and that it was
so completely present for them.”
courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library