Tuesday, September 25, 2012
About San Diego State...Fall 2012
Ken Kramer puts a human face on Aztec heroes from WWII
Robert Fikes brought them out to show me. Treating each fragile sheet of paper like the treasure it was, he gently, reverently, beheld the words: “The Fifth Army is on the move, and that doesn’t leave much time for writing.”
Within 48 hours of penning those words in 1945, 1st Lt. Russell Newbury, a tackle for the San Diego State football team, was killed in action. There are dozens of such letters from former Aztecs, written 70 years ago in wartime circumstances we can only imagine, and sent to their beloved geography professor and football coach, Dr. Lauren Post.
Eight days before he died in battle in Germany, Army PFC Robert Alber wrote that he was “dreaming of the swell days I had at State.” Army paratrooper Herman Addelson, who sold Cokes at San Diego State basketball games, remembered leaving New York Harbor on a troop ship. “Tough guys had tears in their eyes,” he wrote. Pvt. Addelson would die at Normandy on D-Day.
Post knew the letters he was receiving were an important link between military Aztecs and the home front. He created a newsletter and, careful not to reveal any strategic information, he published the soldiers’ reflections. Nothing else like it was done on any campus, anywhere, during World War II.
For Fikes, an SDSU librarian, the letters became part of a research project documenting the lives of all the Aztecs who gave their lives in service. Titled “Supreme Sacrifice, Extraordinary Service: Profiles of SDSU Military Alumni,” the book puts a human face to names on SDSU’s War Memorial, and in the process, underscores the poignancy of those precious letters to Dr. Post.
Many who died were well-known friends on what was then a smaller campus—Atwell “Milky” Phelps, captain of San Diego State’s NAIA National Champion basketball team, killed in a Navy aerial training accident; and Navy Lt. Samuel J. Patella, a track and basketball star adored by his classmates.
In their letters to Dr. Post, the soldiers showed the same kind of affection for their school as Lt. Alan Thomas, who longed for “the day when we will emerge from our foxholes and return to our sunny homeland and State’s beloved campus.”
Thomas never returned home. He died on the island of Cebu in the Philippines.