Virginia Tech's Greatest Generation
by Clara B. Cox '84
The onward march of time may have dimmed some of their memories, but their experiences in the last great battle for American freedom remain fresh in their minds, as if those events had happened within the past few months rather than some 60 years ago.
Lt. Col. David T. Coiner (industrial engineering and operations research '38), Maj. Gen. W. Thomas Rice (civil engineering '34), Chief Warrant Officer Pleasant C. Shields (general agriculture '39), and Col. Richard F. Wilkinson (conservation and forestry '42) were four of the 7,000 Virginia Tech alumni on battlefields throughout the world in the early 1940s. They all have vivid memories of World War II, including some so painful they still can't talk about them.
Members of what NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw has called "America's greatest generation," these four Virginia Tech alumni are quick to say, "I'm no hero." Their medals--and their experiences--prove otherwise. The war changed their lives, seared memories into their psyches they would like to forget, and left them thankful to be alive.
The liberator of Spa
Dave Coiner reported for active duty on January 2, 1941. After completing artillery school, he requested a transfer to Hawaii, landing there in July 1941. He was assigned to the 98th Coast Artillery Anti-aircraft as a platoon commander of Battery A.
Five months later, the young, single lieutenant secured a 24-hour pass so he could attend a dance at Fort Ruger. Following the dance, as he slept in a room he had rented for his short leave, he was awakened by a woman screaming, "They're bombing Pearl Harbor!"
"Hurriedly getting into my civilian clothes, I ran a block or so down the street to Waikiki Beach, where I could see a portion of Pearl Harbor," he remembers. "The air space above the naval base was swarming with planes. Like myself, others who had been so rudely awakened at about 8 a.m. on this particular Sunday morning [December 7, 1941] were observing this strange spectacle and attempting to determine just what it meant. Exploding bombs, plane markings, and the bursting of anti-aircraft artillery shells provided a conclusive and astonishing answer: Japanese warplanes were attacking Pearl Harbor!"
Coiner hopped into his 1934 Chevy coupe to return to his platoon at Schofield. "People were driving like lunatics. There were crashes at every intersection. It was chaotic," he recalls. During his drive, the Japanese assault continued, and the Arizona received a direct hit into its magazine section, sinking the battleship and killing 1,177 crewmen. Coiner still remembers that "a tremendous column of intensely black smoke ascended high into the sky from the large warship." Passing Wheeler Field, he also spotted the burning wreckage of hangars and planes.
When he arrived at Schofield, the place was deserted. While changing into his uniform, he noticed holes in the ceiling from machine-gun fire. "I was lucky I wasn't in my room," he says. Luck, however, wasn't with 2,280 American servicemen and 68 civilians who died that day as Japan forced the country into a war that threatened America's very existence as a free nation. Fortune, it seems, had spared Coiner for another role in the war.
The Tech grad remained in Hawaii until December 1942 and then returned to the states. He successfully requested transfer to the military government organization then being formed and ultimately landed in Europe. When Patton's march across France following the D-Day invasion inspired anticipations of the liberation of Paris, Coiner accepted the opportunity to journey to the French capital and became part of the liberating force. Even coming under fire his first day in Paris didn't dampen Coiner's spirits as he celebrated the German defeat alongside ecstatic Parisians.
On September 13, 1944, following instructions to establish a base in eastern Belgium to provide administrative support to civil affairs detachments throughout the area, Coiner marched his company of men to the resort of Spa to set up headquarters. There, he asked the mayor for the use of a hotel and was told that the hotels were all under requisition of the German army. "I told him that that was water under the dam, and he [the mayor] provided a hotel for my company," he recalls.
The next day, Belgium flags began to fly as the citizens of Spa fully realized that they had been liberated. Belgium awarded Coiner a Military Cross for his work in Spa. Since the end of the war, the resort town has involved him, as its liberator, in numerous ceremonies.
Enlisting for "one year"
Pleasant Shields married his wife of 59 years in April 1941 and enlisted in the Army as a private the following June for what he thought would be one year of active service. But after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor later that year, the United States not only had to defend itself on the Pacific front, but the country also joined its allies in fighting the Axis armies that were trying to sweep through Europe and northern Africa. Shields' one year extended to four and a half.
Europe became the newlywed's destination. He took a circuitous route to Great Britain, finally crossing the English Channel in July 1944 to land with the 5th Armored Division in Normandy. In France, he learned firsthand the gut-wrenching realities of war, as several close buddies died during their first battle. More friends fell as the division became the first to enter Belgium, the first to reach Luxembourg, the first to fight on German soil, and the first to break the German's Siegfried Line.
Tagged "Patton's Ghost Troops" because it was always on the vanguard, the division pushed through Germany to within 45 miles of Berlin. "We were ready to move [on Berlin] when we got the word from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied European Forces that the Russians would take Berlin," Shields said.
Earlier, the Tech alumnus had been wounded just before the Battle of the Bulge, but he refused evacuation for his minor wound. "I stayed on duty," he remembers. "I didn't want to leave the unit because chances were you wouldn't return to the same unit. You developed comrades, and you knew they would die for you--and you would die for them. If you changed units, you wouldn't have that comradeship." In addition to the Purple Heart for his wound, he received the Bronze Star for meritorious service, the Combat Infantry Badge, and five battle stars.
The retired chairman of the Virginia Parole Board has not returned to Europe since his active service ended in late 1945; the memories are too painful. "I have no desire to go back," he says. "I left a lot of buddies there."
Keeping trains on-track
Straight out of college, Tom Rice went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. But after the U.S. entered the war, he was called to active duty as a first lieutenant on April 9, 1942, his son's third birthday. Because of his railroad experience, the Army sent him to Iran in November as part of an engineer railway operating battalion to operate the railroad between the Persian Gulf and Teheran. American troops conducted the operation, with Russian guards on the trains; British colonial troops guarded the railway bridges and tunnels as the trains supplied Russians with implements of war. "The language differences created quite a problem," Rice recalls.
Conditions in Iran were extreme, with temperatures climbing as high as 125 degrees F in the summer. "The heat was breathtaking. We had to put the soldiers with heat exhaustion in hammocks and throw water over them to cool them off," Rice remembers. He had his own problems with prickly heat, which he calls "miserable."
But heat wasn't the only difficulty he faced. German troops in the area knew the purpose of the trains. "We had some rough times. There was a lot of sabotage going on. They [the Germans] told us over the radio they were going to get us," he says. Many of his memories of those times are among the ones he wants to forget, and he doesn't talk about them.
When the war in Europe ended, Rice thought he would get to return home. Instead, he received orders moving him to the Pacific Theatre, where he was assigned to the 6th Army headquarters in Manila. "Some Japanese were still in northern Luzon, so keeping them bottled up was a problem," he remembers.
The American troops were massing to invade Japan. "Then we were told one day in a staff meeting that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. It was through the grace of God that that bomb was dropped. I saw where we were to go ashore; the Japanese were ready for us. The loss of life would have been unbelievable if we had landed there like we did at Normandy."
Now a member of the Transportation Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Eustis, the retired chairman and CEO of Seaboard Coast Line says that he and the other soldiers "came home thanking God that we were Americans."
That homecoming provides him with his fondest memory of World War II. Returning to Fort Meade at 2 a.m. on Christmas day 1945, he learned that his wife and son, whom he had not seen in several years, had traveled to the base to meet him. "I asked the sergeant if Mrs. Rice was there, and he said she was in the officers' guest house," he says, a quaver in his voice. "I walked into a large building with a long hall. Not a soul was in sight. I yelled her name, and the second time, a door opened down the hall, and there she was. It was quite a Christmas. God had brought me back, and I'll be forever grateful."
The king of the hill
Dick Wilkinson graduated from Virginia Tech in June 1942 and immediately went to Fort Benning. In September, 2nd Lt. Wilkinson received orders to go overseas. He linked up with his men--Company C, 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division--in Northern Ireland, and after going through training, the division proceeded to Africa in November 1942. Little did Wilkinson--or the other soldiers in the division--know that they would see over 500 days of combat, more than any other American division in WWII--or that 21,362 of them would become casualties of war. The division moved into Tunisia in February 1943. "Field Marshall Rommel decided to strike the American force [of three divisions] to show the world that his German troops were superior to ours," Wilkinson remembers. "He drove the other two divisions back 33 milesand then came right at my division. We never gave up a foot of land."
Wilkinson had been given a platoon to command. "Our job was to take the high ground so we could cut off the German tanks. We could see four miles of the front--8,000 troops--in the assault wave that had to cross a desert valley. I received word from 'above' to save my men, so I ordered them to hit the dirt. An enemy artillery barrage hit, and the other troops around us were killed, but my men were saved." Twice Wilkinson received that mystical message; twice, heeding it saved his men. During the battle, Wilkinson's captain was wounded, and the Tech alumnus was made company commander; he continued the attack. His actions in leading his men up a steep and rocky mountain to take the enemy positions earned him the Bronze Star.
Wilkinson's mother had taught him the importance of taking the high ground. Predicting in 1932 that Mussolini and Hitler would try to take over the world and that her son would be fighting them in 10 years, she took him "to Little Round Top at Gettysburg and told me to take it and hold it. Then I had to take Big Round Top. She told me to take the higher ground and hold it, so when I was told in battle to take a mountain, I was confident because of what my mother had taught me."
In a later battle, Wilkinson led his troops up a 1,700-ft. mountain held by the Germans. For six days he and his men faced German artillery fire from behind a wall 100 yards away. The barrage reduced the 40 men in his company to eight. To make the Germans believe he had been reinforced, he "had all of my men fire like mad toward that German wall. Then I saw one white flag go up, then two, then three. I told the enemy to jump up on the wall--there were about 50 of them. I told them to jump off, then march forward. They got within 40 yards and started reaching for grenades, and I ordered my men to fire. We captured about 20 of them. We had the high ground--like my mama said." His men recommended him for--and he received--the Silver Star for that battle.
When the 34th Division moved into and through Italy, Wilkinson was the man it turned to when it needed to take a mountain--this time, a 4,000-ft. peak that several other regiments had failed to take. He lost one man in his successful night-time, guerilla-type assault, prompting the battalion commander to say, "There is probably no other company in the war that fought a more efficient battle." But Wilkinson is quick to add, "It was not perfect, as we sustained the loss of one very good man."
The final mountain that Wilkinson took, 3,766-ft. Mount Venere, was defended by German paratroopers. By then he had become the infantry battalion commander, and, employing the cunning that had become his trademark, he moved his men to attack the enemy rear at midnight. For that assault, his unit received the Presidential Unit Citation, which indicated that each of the 600 men--and their leader--deserved the Distinguished Service Cross.
Wilkinson also fought in the Cassino Valley but couldn't bring himself to discuss that battle: "It brings back too many memories of horrors," he says. He was wounded there in a mine field. "War is horrible," the career soldier sadly shakes his head, adding, "They shouldn't be fought."
Perhaps remembering what these men--and the other soldiers who fought in WWII--experienced will make us less inclined to repeat those horrors. But remembering should also make us grateful, for these veterans changed the lives of all Americans through their actions in the first half of the 1940s: they became the embodiment of Virginia Tech's motto Ut Prosim, and their service kept our freedom intact.
World War II Veterans: We want to hear from you. To honor Virginia Tech's greatest generation, the Office of the Commandant plans to establish a website that would include your experiences in the war. If you want to share those experiences (in words and/or photographs), please send them electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to R. J. Webb, Office of the Commandant, 143 Brodie Hall (0213), Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061.