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reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

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.”

All photos courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library

Waiting for War


I remember that when I was in high school, a group of Reed students, seemingly much older than I was—maybe three or four years older—had picketed a German ship on the Portland docks in protest against the Nazis. They were arrested, of course; in those days you didn’t do that sort of thing. I was very impressed with their political activity and the like, so I came to Reed. . . .

   It was a terribly depressing time, the spring of ’40. Because here it was, an exceptionally lovely spring, and yet you knew what was going on elsewhere. The world situation was very, very critical. I remember one of the visitors we had sit in on a political science class was Denis Brogan [professor of American government at the London School of Economics]. . . . I remember he outlined what to us seemed a shocking but preposterous scenario . . . the long-term German-Italian, but primarily German, plan—and Japanese, of course—for world domination. It even included, I remember, South America, which had never occurred to me. That afternoon sticks in my memory: it added to the depression of that time. You suddenly said, “My God. The end of the world as we know it is a very strong possibility.” And it was.

Quotes edited and excerpted from Reedís Oral History Project. Research by Lisa Silverman

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007