Alumni War Stories
Leopold J. "Leap" Meier '42 and Matthew B. McCullough '44 returned to the Hill this winter to share their war-time experiences. Here are a few of the highlights:
"Tactical interrogation is not a conversation; it's an ordeal for the other guy," said Leap Meier '42, who described his role as a military intelligence officer and his encounters interrogating German POWs. A native German who came to America in 1934, Meier earned a Bronze Star for his military service.
Among his many memories of war, Meier told about the time he faced a particularly loyal Nazi lieutenant. "We were near a crossroad in a half-house. I had a bottle of cognac on my desk, and I kept asking him, 'When are you going to break.' He said he wasn't saying anything but name, rank and serial number. Finally the Germans did me a favor; they dropped three shells onto that crossroad just outside the house. He ducked under the table. I had had just enough of that cognac that I was brave." The POW soon told Meier when and where his men were going to break out. Meier called his commander, and the entire German battalion was captured without a shot fired.
Meier also engaged the students with stories of meeting a 10-year-old Sophia Loren when she came to their training area in Italy, surviving "friendly fire" from fighter planes and, on a more somber note, experiencing the horrors of war.
"A soldier, by definition, is a very selfish person," he said. "When your buddy next to you gets wounded or killed, your first thought isn't 'Oh my God, I'm sorry.' Your first thought is 'Jesus, I'm glad that wasn't me.' And it's an involuntary thought. Two minutes later you're sorry that your buddy got it. But your first thought is self preservation. That's what keeps you going in war."
Matt McCullough '44 worked in military intelligence during the war and gathered information concerning German efforts to develop atomic weapons as part of the famed Alsos Mission. He shared recollections not only of war, but of life on the Hill both before and after his tour of duty.
"The question of U.S. involvement came to a crashing halt on Dec. 7, 1941, and it was welcomed here on campus with a sigh of relief. The waiting was over," he recalled.
After several months of training, McCullough was dispatched as part of a military intelligence interpretation team. His most vivid account of battle described the slow, tedious advances through the thick hedgerows in the French countryside. McCullough's job was to move with the troops and interview any residents encountered along the way. During one operation, the Germans began firing on his unit, but due to the protection of the hedgerows, the bombs couldn't hit their targets.
"We could hear the bombs whistling overhead. If any of the trees had been hit and we had a tree burst, we would have had it," he said. "I pressed myself flat onto the earth up against the side of the hedgerow as flat as one could be. The closest call came when one of the shells clipped a tree and landed in the next field."
McCullough described the chilling experience of seeing German towns reduced to rubble after the war, as well as more uplifting memories -- the warm greetings from the French after liberation and the atmosphere that awaited him when he returned to Hamilton.
"We left the Hill inexperienced youth and came back as veterans. The faculty welcomed us with open arms," he said. "We were better teaching material after our life-changing experiences. There was a bond with professors that hadn't existed before."