The footage of U.S. Army Rangers parachuting into southern Afghanistan last Friday may soon become a regular scene on televisions across the world, but for most Yalies, combat seems beyond the realm of foreseeable experience.
There have been times, though, when many Yalies have been fully aware of what goes on in a soldier’s mind under fire.
Gaddis Smith ’54, professor emeritus of history, once asked a student who had resumed studies at Yale after fighting in Vietnam to speak informally to his class. The student mentioned three simple, chilling rules of combat.
“If it runs, kill it; if it hides, kill it; if it’s dead, count it and wait for your promotion.”
In its 300 year history, Yale has sent countless students to battle, most recently to Vietnam, but as Woolsey Hall attests, also in great numbers to both World Wars, the Civil War and even the Revolutionary War.
The Army trained approximately 21,881 soldiers at Yale during World War II. An additional18,678 Yale alumni served, and 514 Yalies died in that war.
Although Woolsey’s rotunda lists the names of the dead, many of the Yalies who saw combat lived to tell their stories.
“A good day was when nothing much happened,” recalled John Cox ’67 about his days in Bien Hoi, a region outside of Saigon. Cox, though he entered the Vietnam War relatively late, in 1971, remembers his days under fire well.
“I was in a helicopter once that took fire, and the pilot put the chopper through gyrations that you wouldn’t believe.”
With his first child on the way, Cox chose to avoid the draft by volunteering for Officer Candidate School, where he would have more options as to what kind of role he would play in Vietnam.
Cox ended up a captain and commanding officer of a maintenance crew, working seven days a week. Usually he ran two shifts a day, but when critical equipment went down, said Cox, he worked 24 hours a day until it was up again.
After being attacked by rockets for the first time, Cox not only realized how “you could be sleeping in your cot at 2:00 a.m., and a rocket could hit you,” but also became fully aware “that there were people not so very far away that would do everything that they could to kill you.”
As a soldier, “you couldn’t let fear get in the way,” Cox remembered. “If you were engaged in something critical and could not stop, you kept at it, but you were scared,” he said.
F. Steele Blackall III ’45W, said that “one never knows in advance how he will respond to fire. Some are frozen into inaction through fear; others, often to their own surprise and that of their associates, perform feats of incredible bravery.”
Blackall said that he has dealt with “a lifetime of self-shame” because he was in rehabilitation for a broken foot when his company lost a great number of lives at the Battle of the Bulge.
Others were less fortunate.
According to a memorial volume compiled after World War II, Laurence Harper ’40, a drama critic for the Yale Daily News during his college years, appreciated the war’s value as spectacle.
“During the last few days I have had ‘two on the aisle’ for the greatest show on earth,” Harper said. “From where I sit it looks to me as thought it will have a … successful run.”
His own personal run ended on Nov. 21,1940, when he was killed as he flew over Germany on a bombing mission.
John Finney ’45W is reluctant to romanticize wartime experiences. Going to war, he said, had nothing to do with “that Brokaw crap about the ‘greatest generation,'” he said. “We all felt we were just doing our duty.”
Cox recalls the “overriding sense of loss” he felt when learning of the deaths of friends. It was, he said, “a mixture of feelings that one hopes another never has to experience.”
Nonetheless, Cox said that he would still send his son to Afghanistan. “If anything this is a more clear-cut case of a danger to the U.S.A. and our way of life than Vietnam was,” he said.
“The question is,” said Cox, “will the U.S. public have the stomach or resolve to stay the course if the anti-terror battle continues very long?”
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