The Colgate Scene
March 2003

Thirteen who served
A Colgate student's thoughts on members of the Class of 1943 killed in World War II

An aspiring naval flight instructor, Everett W. Leland '43, top, died in a plane crash in Texas later that year. Paul C. MacDonald '43 was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery during the battle for Tinian Island in 1944.

While walking in downtown Hamilton one day last July, I noticed a collection of frayed World War II-era photographs and newspaper articles in the glass display of John's Shoe Shop. Proprietor Mayfred Plesniarski and his wife, Judy, take time each year -- on Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veteran's Day -- to show their worn pieces of memorabilia in the window facing Lebanon Street. This small memorial included the picture and story of Everett W. Leland '43, one of scores of local men who lost their lives during the conflict.

Just days before, Noel Rubinton '43 had told me about a scholarship that he was establishing to honor his 13 classmates who died in the war. I was back on campus for the summer, doing several odd jobs, and was interested in his proposal. He needed someone to research the lives of these men, and upon noticing that Leland was one of Rubinton's former classmates, I was further intrigued. Several trips to the library uncovered scores of old photographs, newspaper articles and letters of Leland and his 12 classmates who did not survive the war. These 13 men from the class of 1943 left me with a more immediate reminder of young students, much like those at Colgate today, but who went on to give their lives for their country.

Leland was one of millions of Americans who enlisted in the armed forces after the United States entered the war in December 1941, including nearly 3,500 Colgate students and alumni. (Colgate only enrolled about 1,100 male students during the early '40s and there were about 7,500 living alumni at the time.) By the war's end, 140 men from Colgate had lost their lives.

One of the first students to enroll in the naval pilot training program established at Colgate, Leland enlisted in May 1942. He hoped to become a naval flight instructor and completed three months of advanced training in Corpus Christi, Texas. On September 2, Leland's father received a letter from his son describing preparations at the base against a predicted hurricane. Leland wrote that he was to be eventually transferred to Dallas, but would be coming home first, so there was no need to write back soon. Less than 30 minutes later, a telegram arrived informing the family of his death in a plane crash.

The university's pledge
Walter Scott Bardwell, another student who enrolled in the pilot training program, concentrated in German at Colgate. Graduating a semester early with many fellow classmates anxious to enlist, Bardwell was also killed in a plane crash, in Tennessee on November 12, 1944. Just a few weeks before his death, Colgate President Everett Case received a letter from Bardwell. Later, Case wrote to Bardwell's father about the "grand letter concerning his [Walter's] hopes for the future, which impressed me so much that I sat down immediately and wrote to one of my former associates at Harvard about him." Case wrote that he was willing to endorse Bardwell's "application to the business school should he decide definitely to apply." Waiting for the response of his Harvard colleague before writing Bardwell personally, Case wrote, "I shall always regret, of course, that I had not done so before his fatal accident."

The rest of the stories are equally tragic. Thomas Babbitt Bates, an only child and an Army Ranger, was killed in Italy on January 22, 1944, a week before his 23rd birthday. Flight Officer Herbert R. Briggs died in a plane crash over Kunming, China on September 9, 1945, shortly after Japan's formal surrender. William A. Reid, Colgate's athletic director during the war, periodically sent out a newsletter to alumni. In one, Reid related the successful exploits of Navy fighter pilot William Eugene Burckhalter. "A former Colgate freshman wrestler and football player, veteran of 10 previous air strikes and with three previous planes to his credit, he climbed comfortably into the ranks of American aces with his triple yesterday." On July 11, 1944 Burck-halter tried to ditch his crippled fighter plane in the South Pacific, but was unable to free himself and went down with the aircraft.

John Estwick wrote a letter to Bill Reid on March 6, 1944 thanking him for the newsletter. "February 26, I married Von Nette Carter of Savannah, Ga.," he wrote, "and I must say I have been missing something in life before." Estwick was killed a little less than one year later. Acknowledged as missing in action on November 11, 1943, Charles Johns-ton Husted Jr. was later declared dead after it was discovered that his plane was shot down over Rabaul. A gunner on a B-25 bomber, Robert Armstrong Linton's plane went down near Kunlien, China after a successful bombing run on the Japanese mainland. Initially reported to be missing in action, he was eventually declared to have perished in the crash on August 20, 1944.

After the American assault on the central Pacific island of Saipan, Paul Clinton MacDonald wrote a letter to his friend Bud Cushing '43 (who survived the war), describing how a grenade had hit him in the head, but failed to explode because the Japanese soldier did not pull the pin. MacDonald was killed a fortnight later while attempting to rescue a fellow Marine on the last day of the battle for Tinian Island. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

A survivor of the D-Day assault on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, William Franklin Williamson was killed on Okinawa in mid-1945. Elmer Gay Wright, a soft-spoken student who was hard of hearing and had a nervous heart, was sent as an investigator (because of his skill in French) to Iran by boat. When the Liberty Ship Daniel Chester French hit a mine in the Mediterranean, he and his shipmates jumped into lifeboats, only to be capsized by rough surf. Wright drowned on March 6, 1944, eight miles from Bizerte, Tunisia. (Unfortunately, there was little to no information available in Colgate Special Collections about Robert McKinney or Walter Machemer, the remaining two Class of 1943 members lost in the war.)

"I remember several of these classmates distinctly; Elmer "Pat" Wright, Herb Briggs, Bill Williamson, "Scottie" Bardwell and Ev Leland," recalls Rubinton. "Freshman year, Pat Wright and I roomed next door to each other on the first floor of Stillman West. We both stayed up on campus during the week or so between semesters. Pat was very good company, cheerful, soft spoken and studious."

After the war, the Alumni War Memorial Scholarship was instituted to honor the 166 Colgate men killed in both world wars. At Colgate today, few students remember those lost from the Class of 1943. The "war" in the Alumni War Memorial Scholarship has been dropped, making the great conflict feel even more distant. With war clouds gathering once again, we can only remember the university's pledge in letters to the families of all Colgate men lost in World War II:

"While we know when these boys leave that there must be some who will not return, it is nevertheless difficult to be reconciled to the loss of each one as it occurs. The shock is ever acute to all of us, and each time that we at Colgate learn that another of our fine young men has made this sacrifice, we realize more vividly than ever the responsibility we incur for making certain that war, and the dangers provoked by war, will never again come to pass."

"I often think of these brave classmates," said Rubinton, who served with the Army Air Force in Italy. "I think of their parents, their siblings, the families they were never able to form and all they missed. Having been blessed with long life I am struck by the enormity of their sacrifice.

"These men all believed deeply in our country and our way of life," Rubinton continued. "We had been suddenly attacked and were at war. For them it was beyond question that we should defend our country and all it stood for. They responded unhesitatingly, unstintingly, with deep conviction and the greatest courage. These qualities are enduring, and should be remembered and honored."

(A special exhibit honoring these war dead of the Class of 1943 is being assembled by Carl Peterson, assistant professor in the University Libraries and head of Special Collections, for display in the lobby of Case Library during the class's 60th reunion in June.)

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