By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries
PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University honors student Claire Thornton grew up hearing stories of her grandfather, Dell, a combat medic during World War II. This year, Thornton studied the impact GIs had on Washington State College as they left the war behind and entered the halls of higher education.
Drafted in the Army in April 1942 and stationed with the oft-decorated 3rd Infantry Division, Dell fought in 10 campaigns and participated in four amphibious D-Day landings with more than 500 days of frontline duty, according to a family history on DusekTree.com.
He was wounded three times, received the Bronze Star for valor in battle and the French Croix de Guerre, and was made an honorary member of the French Foreign Legion for walking onto a minefield to save two injured soldiers.
After the war, Thornton’s grandfather – like nearly 8 million other GIs – returned to the United States to pursue an education, courtesy of the GI Bill. For the poor farm kid out of Tonasket, Wash., the bill was a godsend, helping Dell to earn his premed degree from the University of Washington.
Thornton chose WSU and a degree in social studies instead, but her grandfather was certainly the motivation behind her final research paper (http://libarts.wsu.edu/history/images/TheGIsofWashingtonStateCollegebyClaireThornton.pdf) in History 300 (Writing about History).
“The GI Bill has always been important to my family,” said Thornton, also a Tonasket native.
Finding the right sources
Thornton had hoped to contact WSC alumni who attended school after the end of the war to get their first-hand recollections, but that proved difficult. Archivist Mark O’English in WSU Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC) offered her an alternative: the digitized WSU Oral History Project collection (http://content.libraries.wsu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/wsu_oral/).
The collection is comprised of 150 interviews with faculty, staff and alumni conducted 25 years ago for the university centennial, O’English said. MASC used part of a Class of ’54 gift to digitize and post about 250 hours of audio online, plus transcripts and related materials.
“Claire was able to listen to and read through these at home,” he said. “Elements found in those interviews formed the lovely people-centric stories that make her article so engaging.”
With the help of librarians in MASC, Thornton also found other helpful university-published documents from the post-war period in a separate MASC collection. One report, a “South House Survey” from 1948, described many aspects of the GIs’ lives on campus, from the deplorable “Mud Flats” in front of the housing unit to the kinds of recreational activities the former soldiers enjoyed.
“One of the joys of this job is helping students find the materials they want and watching them turn something from simple stored materials into exciting stories,” O’English said.
“Claire went the extra mile in doing the digging,” he said. “She had the inspiration and perspiration to take all these materials, link them and use them to tell a story about the lives of the students and the school of that era, connecting them to us as people and bringing history alive for us today.”
The interviews and other resources Thornton found revealed a dynamic time at the future Washington State University, one in which the young college underwent intense growing pains to accommodate the massive influx of veterans enrolling.
President Wilson Compton attempted to fill the housing shortage by purchasing temporary buildings from elsewhere—some that had been used for migrant workers—and bringing them to the Pullman campus. Ongoing landscaping efforts around the temporary units only compounded the problems.
“The area was in a ‘constant state of disruption due to the filling process, drainage system installation (and) ditching,’ making it impossible to keep the limited sidewalks free from mud,” Thornton wrote in her paper. “This was one of the most frustrating aspects of the temporary housing for students…”
Altogether different students
But the GIs of WSC didn’t judge or blame the college. They had been out in the world, fought in a world war, watched comrades die and returned alive but changed.
“As veterans and survivors of a horrific war, they were accustomed to far worse conditions,” Thornton wrote. “Furthermore, many realized they were lucky to not only have the opportunity of the GI Bill, but to have a place at a college. Demand for college by veterans throughout the nation was extremely high, and availability was limited. Simply to be attending was a huge privilege.”
For these reasons, the veterans were altogether different students: serious, focused on their studies, more mature and ready to question the status quo.
They weren’t afraid to push for a shift in thinking either. Their influence—combined with a college administration willing to make needed changes—led to a more democratic student government, an end to required men’s calisthenics and the requisite uniform, and elimination of the long-held custom of male freshmen wearing a beanie the first week of classes.
“The college and veterans had a lot of things going against them, but it turned out to be a huge success story,” said Thornton about the main insight she took away from writing about the GIs of WSC: “Whatever problems we have, their story puts things into perspective.”
Building on the story
The history of WSC veterans is so intriguing to Thornton that she wants to expand the paper for her honors thesis, she said. In January, WSU Alumni Association’s CougNews email newsletter carried a brief article about Thornton’s paper, inviting alums from 1946-50 to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The newsletter goes to 100,000 alumni.
In addition, she will present her paper at two conferences in April: the Western Regional Honors Conference at University of Nevada, Reno and the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research at Eastern Washington University.
The stories of her grandfather also keep her motivated to discover more about Pullman GIs and their journeys beyond campus. Dell led a full, rich life from his fresh start through the GI Bill.
Premed degree in hand, he headed to medical school in Australia, living there for nine years and starting a family with his wife, Lyla, before graduating. In 1960, the Thorntons moved back to Washington state, and Dell started a medical practice in Republic, 40 miles from his hometown.
He cared for Republic’s residents for 37 years, seeing patients up to a month before he died in 1998. Decades after providing frontline trauma care on the World War II battlefield, “it made him happy to think he had delivered babies to mothers he (also) had delivered,” according to the DusekTree.com family history.
Find a related story about WSC GIs, “After the War: Mud, Floods, and Modernization,” in the spring issue of Washington State Magazine at http://wsm.wsu.edu/s/index.php?id=1183.