Western Carolina President Hiram T. Hunter recalled that the “shock of World War II invaded the campus and affected every phase of college life.” About 500 men and women from what was then Western Carolina Teachers College – students, faculty, staff and alumni – served in the armed forces during the Second World War. Those who remained at home faced disrupted lives and an uncertain future. Whether they served or stayed in school, the war defined the lives of all who lived through it.
Almost immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the war came home to Cullowhee, just two years after WCTC had marked its 50th anniversary. In January 1942, the Western Carolinian newspaper reported that at least 20 students had left Western for military service or for jobs in defense plants. Later that year, yearbook business manager Johnny Wilson ’42 appeared on the opening page of The Catamount annual in his Army uniform, and the senior class honored the students “who are now performing their patriotic duty in the armed forces of our great nation.”
The yearbook took a more somber tone the next year, including a “WCTC Roll of Honor” to remember former students killed or missing in action. Their stories reflected America’s tumultuous first months of combat. Hayesville’s Samuel Johnston Bristol, a ship fitter aboard the cruiser USS Quincy, perished with 369 of his shipmates in the Battle of Savo Island near Guadalcanal on Aug. 9, 1942. Charles Woodfin McLaughlin and Robert Gray Hampton, both Army Air Corps pilots, died in plane crashes, as did Navy flier Lyndon Lea White. Two former students were reported as missing in action, Willard Lovingood in North Africa and John O. Lovedahl in the Pacific. In later editions, the “Roll of Honor” grew longer and would include Wilford C. Love, who lost his life on a submarine patrol off Ceylon while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force two years to the day after Pearl Harbor.
The college was not immune to changes wrought by the war. Geology professor W. Newton Turner, mathematics professor A.K. Hinds, and several other faculty and staff members donned the nation’s uniform. Maintenance worker Jesse Cline died while serving in the European theater. Enrollment dropped from 522 in 1939 to 298 in 1945, and the only men in the student body were those deemed ineligible for military service. Budgets shrank and students took over landscaping and other tasks to help keep the campus open.
The end of the war in 1945 brought its own challenges. In 1946, President Hunter reported that Western “has simply tried to do its bit amid the welter of special demands brought on by the war” and had begun “preparing to adapt its curricula to the conditions of peace.” Such preparations included programs to serve the 277 veterans in the first postwar student body and finding ways to remember those who would never return to Cullowhee. Three years later, Western’s new Memorial Stadium – located between where Hunter Library and the Natural Science Building stand today – included a plaque with the names of 26 Catamounts who, in the Second World War, gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”
Today, Western Carolina University prides itself on being a campus that is both veteran-friendly and military-friendly, regularly winning recognition from national publications for its academic offerings for current and former servicemen and servicewomen. As the university commemorates the 125th anniversary of its founding, the institution also pauses to honor those Catamounts who served in the conflict that defined the 20th century.
Richard Starnes ’92 MA ’94 is dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Associate professor of history and former head of the Department of History, he served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve for 25 years, including a combat tour in Iraq in 2006-07.