Christian Brothers College During the War Years

By: Josh Colfer

Since the Civil War of the 1860s, not a single battle between a military force and the United States has taken place on American soil. Factious groups have attacked, yes, but full-on combat that we saw in Europe, Vietnam, Korea, and the Middle East has not taken place in this country. Yet despite the absence of combat, the spirit of war has been intimately felt at every corner of our society throughout the twentieth century.

Goods like tires, milk, meat, and other daily staples of life were regimented, rationed, and conserved for the purpose of providing resources for the young men who fought overseas. Each man over the age of 21 was made to enlist in the military in World War I, World War II Korea, and again in Vietnam. Families planted “freedom gardens” and sold war bonds. Parents hung pennants from their porches to remember their sons who spent their days and nights in jungles, cities, and scorched fields in distant lands. Back in the U.S., you couldn’t open a newspaper without reading the stories that drifted across the oceans where this nation relentlessly fought its opposing powers.

As a 26-year old living in the early decades of the twenty-first century, I cannot know what it's like to experience the daily realities of wars that past generations have. My friends, family members, and acquaintances didn’t enlist in the military, and I’ve never had to delay my grocery shopping or gas station visits because of rationing. Yet over the years, the wars have left its mark on both the people, and institution, of Christian Brothers College.     

Christian Brothers College (now named Christian Brothers University) was founded in Memphis in 1871 —  an infamous era we now call Reconstruction. The Confederacy had lost its crusading war, and this southern city found itself in the midst of a wrenching transformation that intercepted every facet of daily life. 

In the chronicled book The Christian Brothers in Memphis: 1871-1971, Brother Maurelian (founder of Christian Brothers University) paints a picture of the tumultuous climate of Reconstruction, and the disdain that many Memphians had for Northern officials who came to cities like Memphis during that era.

“In Memphis, these carpet-baggers issued bonds for one a quarter million dollars, pocketed the money, and left the city in a bankrupt condition” 

While friction blanketed the city during the years following the Civil War, CBC was born out of such a conflict, and over the next 145 years, wars would continue to cast long shadows on the group of educators at CBC.

45 years after the founding of Christian Brothers College, this country arrived at another large-scale conflict: “The Great War,” as it would come to be known. Millions of young men from around the World enlisted to fight the Axis forces in Europe during World War I, and the students of CBC were no exception. So many young men enlisted in the military that, in September of 1915, the collegiate department closed its doors due to a lack of attendance (CBC used to be comprised of a Junior College and a collegiate school). While the Junior College remained open, virtually every young man of college age left to fight in Europe, rendering the collegiate department a skeleton that lost hundreds to the fighting. The following May, CBC actually cancelled the commencement ceremony due to a lack of participation, which hadn’t taken place since 1871.

A few years before the second world war pulled the United States into its ubiquitous orbit, Christian Brothers College relocated from its downtown site on Adams Avenue, to its current address at 650 East Parkway. Once again, collegiate students over the age of 21 were required to sign up for the Draft, and the department closed its doors until the conclusion of the war in 1945. However, plenty was written about the men who served and their relation to CBC. Some of these stories are detailed in the clippings below:

Administration at CBC seeks the opinions of the community for deciding on a schedule during the war years

Each member of the McWillie family was involved in some capacity during world war II

Due to the need for specialized, war-related skills in areas like aeronautics and surveying, CBC began to offer these courses in the fall of 1942, and a course in radio coding the following year. That same year, administrators also adjusted the Junior College’s schedule and curriculum so that students could complete their degrees in one and a half years, as opposed to the normal two. 

On May 30, 1945, the war was nearly at its conclusion, which prompted local officers to allow 67 CBC students to attend their commencement ceremony. This was also one of the only commencement ceremonies to have taken place in which graduates wore military uniforms instead of the traditional cap and gown.

Seven years later, the United States found itself in another conflict on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. While the number of casualties in the Korean War was significantly less than that of World War II, tragedy was felt in Memphis, and at CBC. On August 18, 1950, CBC grad and Marine Jack Culligan was killed in a skirmish, making him the first soldier from Memphis to be killed in the war. Jack was a machine gunner, and earned the rank of Private First Class at the time of his death. He was killed two weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday. 

The Vietnam War arrived the following decade, and once again, men from CBC and Memphis responded to the call for soldiers. Instructor Robert Wood taught night classes in English and History at Christian Brothers College in the 1960s. During his tour in Vietnam, he carefully navigated a jeep full of injured Marines through a minefield while taking heavy fire from Vietcong Forces. Miraculously, he made it through the melee, and was awarded two bronze stars for his courage, according to a July 18 article in the Commercial Appeal.

The following year, Memphis and CBC witnessed a small glimmer of happiness in the middle of the horrors that the World witnessed during the Vietnam War. 1962 graduate Victor R. Trouy returned safely from Vietnam in 1968, and was captured in this photo with his wife and ten children. 

Memorial Day is often marked by much coveted days-off, parades, and grilled foods. For many, it is the quintessential introduction to the summer season, and a chance to spend much needed time with family, friends and the individuals who we consider significant in our lives. And while some of these are veterans or active duty service women and men, our connection to death via the mass scale conflicts of World War I, II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War look strikingly different. 

Of the roughly 1.2 million soldiers who have died while fighting in both domestic and foreign wars since the United States became a nation, only 8,417 have been killed over the last 40 years, according to Department of Veteran Affairs data. By no means does this make those 8,417 deaths any less significant, but it does force us to pause and reflect on the absence of mass-scale conflict (at least one in which the U.S. has not become involved in as of this article), and what that means for our society.

As the nature of war, intervention, diplomacy, and conflict continues to change (both in the United States and around the World), I find it critical to ensure that the stories of institutions, and the young people who comprise them, continue to be told and reified in our collective conscience. It is only through the telling of stories and collective remembering that we embody the spirit of a day that has arguably become something else entirely, and do proper honor to those who belong to our community.

There are many more war-related stories that were not told in this article. If you have one that relates to CBC, CBHS, or CBU, please share it! Use the hashtag #MemorialDayCBC to see it below.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 10:52 AM

The Galleon is curated and managed by Christian Brothers University, a Memphis-based university founded in the Lasallian tradition (a sect within the Catholic faith). Part of our founding mission is to uphold respect for all persons-regardless of political, religious, or social beliefs. As an institution, we take no stand on political matters; to do so would undermine our commitment to intellectual inquiry and thoughtful response to events taking place in our World by members of the CBU community.

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