Remember the War Years: A Collection of Alumni Stories from WWII

By Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19)

A little over seventy years ago, Cooper students much like ourselves were practicing air raid drills in the basement of the Foundation Building and putting studies on hold to become soldiers and factory workers. And like the rest of the nation, The Cooper Union and its faculty also took part in the war effort. These storytellers come from various backgrounds and all sides of the war. It is not my intent to glorify warfare, but instead bring to light the lives of the brave and dutiful men and women of Cooper Union during that time of strife. The following alumni stories are excerpted from Remember the War Years by the Cooper Union Alumni.

Not all Cooper students featured in the book lived in the United States during the war. This artist recounts the bombing of her town in Germany.

“In Würtzburg, Germany, March 16, 1945, as the
sirens started wailing in the middle of the night, we carried our baby down three flights of stairs to the subterranean vaulted basement. The detonation of the bombs shook the apartment building until one bomb finally hit the ground in front of the building and forced us to crawl out of the cellar before the building collapsed. In the cellar it was pitch dark and plaster was peeling off the walls. As we climbed up, we faced an inferno of racing fire and searing heat. We pulled an old baby carriage up with us and shielded the baby’s face. In this firestorm there was total chaos: collapsing structures, thick black smoke, people screaming out of cellars and into obstructed streets. We ran across burning asphalt towards the hillside from which a medieval fortress overlooked the city.”

“The site of Würtzburg now, fifty years later, totally
restored and viewed from the same hillside, cannot erase the horrific memory of hell on earth.”—Rosemarie Willmann Nesbitt (Art ‘53)

The positive attitude my father had about life, to make the best of a given situation, would be the one trait I admired and always tried to emulate.”—Yuriko Otani (Art ‘76)

OtaniPortrait0001
Yuriko Nakamara Otani (Art ‘76), 12 years old portrait and identification card from her internment in 1944, Arizona.

Seymour Schwartz served in the Joint Intelligence Command and was involved in the preparation of invasion plans in the Pacific theater. Schwartz experienced first-hand the devastation of Nagasaki. 

“‘What’s an atomic bomb?’ we asked each other. We weren’t too sure, but it sounded especially formidable. Speculation and hope for a quick end to the war dominated that day. We hoped fervently to avoid the final invasion of the mainland that we were in the process of planning. We anticipated casualties of up to one-third of our invasion forces. We were yet to learn more about the blast and its cataclysmic consequences. They never told us about the actual numbers of deaths, or about the radiation exposure that would cause unspeakable agony, suffering and death in the months and years to come. […] [W]e landed at Nagasaki, the victim of history’s second atomic bomb.”

“They never told us about the
actual numbers of deaths,
or about the radiation exposure
that would cause unspeakable agony”

“The unearthly evidence of the bomb’s vast slaughter and demolition, the sheer scale of the conflagration, could have few parallels in the world’s history. It was an eerie spectacle—an abandoned city, but for a small occupying US Marine force. The vaporizing effect of the heat, that of a thousand suns, etched the shadows of the disintegrated dead here and there where they had worked, lived and played. Twisted piles of rubble, match sticks (so they seemed) of wood and crumbled bricks in unending heaps. Not a building could be seen in any direction, only some occasional twisted steel and the weird sight of surviving smokestacks rising like lonely needles into the sky. These had been strengthened and saved from destruction by the fusion created by the extreme radiating heat. The sweet stench of burned flesh and death was pervasive.”—Seymour Schwartz (Arch ‘47)

 

Richard Loew used art to express his emotions about his experiences as a POW.

“I was a nineteen year-old prisoner of war at Stalag 2A, a large POW camp inNeubrandenburg. The only art supplies available were pencil and toothpaste. I drew pictures to express the terrible feelings of being nineteen and trying to exist under those conditions.”

“Later I was among nineteen Jews segregated to a small work camp. This is when I began to sketch. My works depict how prisoners carried their worldly possessions when being evacuated, how we felt working in the woods, in the snow, from sunup to sundown, and how the German officials looked who were the overseers of the forests.”—Richard Loew (Art ‘48)

Richard Loew (Art ‘48), prisoner of war, Stalag 2A, Neubrandenburg. Self-portrait, pencil and toothpaste.

 

Stan Kaplan served in the Army in France and Germany from 1944-1945. He was deployed at the age of eighteen.

“Before I left Germany, I had the chance to visit Buchenwald, along with a group of platoon mates. Our “guides” were former prisoners, who described the gruesome conditions of the camp before liberation, and the horrendous crimes committed there. Besides mass murder, typhus and starvation took many lives, including that of Anne Frank, in one of the closing days of the war.”

“[…] Buchenwald has also never left me. The depths of human cruelty, and a degree of human suffering beyond imagination, made me aware of my duty never to forget the horrors to which I bore witness.”—Stan Kaplan (Art ‘49)

Woodcuts by Stan Kaplan (Art ‘49) after being guided through Buchenwald by former prisoners in 1945.
Woodcuts by Stan Kaplan (Art ‘49) after being guided through Buchenwald by former prisoners in 1945.

 

Numerous engineers used the skills they learned at Cooper to further the war effort.

“After Pearl Harbor, I was assigned to help General Electric develop a process for making synthetic phenol. […] As a chemical engineer, I had expert knowledge of distillation. This ensured my being involved in producing from petroleum, the key ingredient for synthetic rubber. […] It’s hard to believe that the only computation aids we had in those days for designing such critical plants and processes were the slide rule and hand-cranked adding machines. A computer today would speed up such a task but would not be invented with the urgency and dedication of those engineers at war.”—Marcel Bogart (ChE ‘37)

“As I approached graduation, I learned that the Signal Corps was seeking electrical engineers to work in England with the British Army and RAF radar and communication equipment. […] My work included installation, operation and maintenance of radio communication and radio navigation equipment.”

“In World War II I felt I was doing something really important and that our country was united for a great purpose. It is sad that those feelings have not been sustained because no common cause grips us; the world has moved on. But counting the pluses and minuses what is the summation? Fortunately, perhaps, the mathematics are beyond us.”—Sam Mehlman (EE ‘42)

The following is from a Japanese-American alumna, who was incarcerated in an internment camp with her family, like many other Japanese descendants.

“My father had the most to sacrifice, losing the new business and our house. My mother was fearful we would be separated as other families had been. We were sent to a camp in Tulare, California, where each family was assigned a room. We were fenced in by barbed wire and soldiers guarded from high towers.”

“Reflecting back on internment, I am amazed that people had aspirations for activities […] The camp was a society functioning with dignity and without crime.”

“My parents taught us that
under no circumstances
should you allow others
to demoralize you.”

Some stories reflect the timeless memories shared at Cooper.

“When we landed in England, kind folks there treated us like royalty. I received word that my first daughter had been born, so my mates and I downed a few warm ales to celebrate my new title. I was nostalgic, though, for peanut shells and aromas of cheese and snacks at McSorley’s.”—Mel Piperno (Art ‘46)

“Richard Bruan, ME ’44; Julian Spector, EE ’49 and I were assigned to pick apples for Valley View Farms. We had two young women working with us and our job was to maneuver ladders in the tree limbs, collect all the apples carefully in baskets slung on our backs and take the apples down for collection in large boxes. We were told to leave no fruit on the trees.”

“It was difficult handling the long ladders. Naturally the three gallant Cooper students helped the young ladies move their ladders, carry their buckets, etc.”

“Several months later I graduated and was drafted and served in the US and Europe. But the young lady whom I met on a farm
fifty-one years ago has been my bride forty-six years.” — Philip Messina (ChE ‘44)

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