The Quiet Men

Sol Gittleman, the university’s former provost, remembers Tufts’ postwar veteran-professors, the unsung heroes of academia
composite photo of three veteran-professors
Veterans Bob Miller, Jim Elliot and Frank Holzman
November 11, 2013

Share

These returning warriors did their fighting far from embedded journalists, drones and high-tech cameras. They fought on bloody battlefields without much media attention. Their nightmares were not about Iraq or Afghanistan, and when they came home, they were expected to seamlessly reenter civilian life.

When I arrived in 1964 on the Hill in Medford, no one had heard about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Neither my lucky generation of faculty—too young to have fought—nor any of the Tufts students thought much about a war that had ended nearly 20 years earlier. We were in the middle of another war, a cold one with the Soviet Union. No one really cared that a cohort of almost middle-aged faculty still had unwanted recurring visions of the jungles of Guadalcanal, the beaches of Iwo Jima, the frozen forests of the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge or of almost certain death in their B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberator four-engine bombers.

One of them, Professor Bob Miller, who had taught religion at Tufts for more than 30 years, would shake uncontrollably when fireworks went off around him. He went into the Army as a noncombat medic, but after seeing his first dead comrade, asked to be assigned to a rifle company, received a battlefield commission in Normandy, led his men in firefights and hand-to-hand combat through Germany and left behind a small drawer filled with medals when he died in 2002.

Jim Elliott, beloved professor of political science, used to waddle across the campus to get to his office, a Mr. Chips with a funny walk. No one knew about his Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, one of them received after a German mortar shell exploded and raked the back of his legs, leaving him with his Donald Duck shuffle. He was three months in a military hospital.

Jerry CollinsNo faculty member was more loved than the drama department’s Jerry “Doc” Collins, who nurtured untold numbers of stage hopefuls across the boards of the old Arena Theater. You never heard Jerry talk about his Distinguished Flying Cross, combat citations and Purple Hearts earned as a B-17 lead bombardier flying 26 missions over Germany.

Dan Marshall was a tall, awkward-looking education professor whom some of the younger faculty would chuckle about, referring to him as one of the “old guys.” None of us knew that Dan had volunteered for the Marine Corps, begged out of his clerk-typist assignment, been posted to officer candidate school and served in the legendary Third Battalion of the 21st Marine Brigade, starting as a platoon leader in the Solomon Islands campaign, getting promoted to frontline intelligence at the invasion of Guam and then serving as commander of a rifle brigade during the Battle for Iwo Jima. Having volunteered before Pearl Harbor, Dan was one of the earliest combat officers released from service, and earned two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, about which none of us ever heard a word.

The stories are not all grim. In 1997, one of our most distinguished faculty, the economist Frank Holzman, received directly from Russian president Boris Yeltsin a medal commemorating the 50th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, which is what the Russians called World War II. Frank didn’t get the medal for his important work on the Soviet economy. He had been one of the few American military personnel who served in the U.S.S.R. during the war. A sergeant trained in radar repair, he was assigned to a secret American air base in Poltava, which was closer to Berlin than the Eighth Air Force bases in England. In his spare time, he studied Russian. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lloyd Trefethen, a stalwart of Tufts’ mechanical engineering department, first enlisted in the Merchant Marine, because he knew he couldn’t pass the Navy eye exam. He practiced memorizing after he saw the examination room at the enlistment headquarters and realized that, if the line were long enough, he’d get 10 minutes to look over the eye chart. It worked, and soon after he was a naval officer on convoy duty in the Atlantic, ferrying war materiel to Great Britain.

Lloyd was always interested in convoy organization, how the precious cargoes carried by the oil tankers were almost in the middle of the convoy. In the very center, Lloyd noticed that there was always one ship ringed by destroyers. He found out that it carried the convoy’s most precious cargo of all: the nurses and women officers. He would have reason to be grateful for this extra care. We’re not certain when Lloyd met a young female naval officer, Florence Newman, who worked in naval intelligence decoding Japanese messages; she was in the unit that received a presidential citation from FDR for breaking the Japanese naval code that led to the shooting down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s airplane in 1943. It all worked out well for Tufts, because Flossie Trefethen taught for many years in the English department.

Some events of the Second World War had an impact on generations of Tufts faculty and students without our knowing it. The man who hired many of us, Dean Charles Stearns, was a young naval officer assigned to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and had seen his share of combat. He and a fellow officer had leave coming as they were boarding their carrier for another combat mission. Lieutenant Stearns’ name came over the loudspeaker to report to headquarters on shore: his leave papers had come through. His buddy was told to pick up his papers a little later, at the next port of call. When Stearns finally caught up with his ship, it was being repaired after a kamikaze attack that had killed his friend in the wardroom where they both would have been drinking coffee and having a smoke. Charlie Stearns lived to become professor of geology, dean of arts and sciences and the man who brought me to Tufts.

Gordon Evans on his wedding dayThere were also some survivors who could not put the war behind them. Gordon Evans, professor of chemistry, was assigned to an obscure operation run out of a former Nash automobile dealership in New York City. It took its name from that location—the Manhattan Project. Sergeant Evans was an anomaly: a brilliant Princeton-educated soldier who was not an officer. Evans had no time for officer training school; he wanted to plunge into the war effort. Once the senior civilian scientists at Columbia University realized what he was capable of, they gave him the top noncommissioned rank and put him to work in the metals division. He was back and forth to Oak Ridge, Tenn., working on refining fissionable materials and toxic chemicals. When he was diagnosed in 1979 with a rare form of liver cancer, no one at Tufts would have guessed that the beginnings of the Atomic Age might have reached into Pearson Hall to claim a victim. He died in 1980, having taught at Tufts for 31 years.

These were the Tufts faculty I encountered, my new colleagues, a generation who survived the slaughter of World War II. If there were physical injuries or mental health issues, we never knew it.

Now, most of them are gone, and as my 80th birthday looms next year, I find myself driven to establish some institutional memory about their silent sacrifices that made my life at Tufts possible and those colleagues whose friendship I should have cherished more.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine. Several Tufts alumni wrote in with their responses.

Sol Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, has been a professor of German, Judaic studies and biblical literature and is a former provost of the university.