World War II letters to Cumberland County

Written & Submitted by Dennis Flake.

Normally when we think of World War II letters being sent back home, we think of uniformed servicemen serving their country somewhere in the world and writing letters to their loved ones. However, there were other ways to serve your country during World War II. My late grandfather, Golden Alumbaugh Flake, of Rural Route 3 in Toledo, Illinois served his country away from home during World War II very differently.

In September of 1943, my grandfather accepted a teaching position in physics at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute or Louisiana Tech in Ruston, Louisiana. He previously taught high school science in southeastern Illinois. The new position offered him a chance to teach at a college level and to serve his country. He was a graduate of Toledo High School Class of 1929 and of Eastern Illinois State Teachers College in 1933. His wife was the late Rita Nay Flake. She had graduated from Eastern Illinois State Teachers College in 1932. While my grandfather was teaching physics at Louisiana Tech, she maintained a temporary household in Ruston and raised my father, Franklyn Edward Flake.

The teaching position at Louisiana Tech was part of the War Department’s V-12 program. The V-12 curriculum provided future Navy and Marine Corp officers with a foundational college education in physics, mathematics, engineering, English, Naval organization and history, and physical training. The Naval Academy and Officer Candidate Schools simply could not provide enough officers for the war effort. My grandfather taught physics in the classroom and the laboratory and had over 100 V-12 Navy and Marine candidates assigned to him.

Recently, I discovered twelve letters in old family papers which were sent from my grandparents in Ruston, Louisiana to my great-grandparents, Joe (Berry) Flake and Pearl Alumbaugh Flake, in Toledo, Illinois. The letters were dated from the fall of 1943 to the fall of 1945. Most of the letters were written on Louisiana Tech stationary. The majority of the letters were written by my grandmother, Rita. Based on the gaps in the dates of the letters, there were probably more letters sent back home that were lost over time. The letters portrayed a different type of sacrifice and service during the war years.

The first of the twelve letters was dated October 26, 1943. It was written mainly by my grandfather. He said that Tech was on a short semester break, and the second sixteen weeks semester was starting next week. The only students left on campus were the ones who failed to pass all subjects. He pointed out that the candidates who passed their required subjects would proceed to officer training, whereas the ones who failed headed to Navy or Marine Corp boot camp. There were 580 V-12 Navy and Marines on campus, and Tech was expecting a significant increase during the next semester. He wrote that the candidates were under “strict regulations” and were under constant review by their company officers. He was also anticipating an improvement in the quantity and quality of the equipment in his physics laboratory.

In the same letter, my grandfather told about missing Illinois and wanting to come home during the semester break. There was not enough time during the break to make the trip north. In addition, gasoline and tires for his car were rationed. He said that Louisiana was very different than Illinois and that it would take some time to get use to “here.” He did point out that the people had been nice and friendly and that they had met many people. My grandmother was busy with household duties and attending faculty wives functions on campus. My father, “Eddie,” was fascinated with the V-12 students marching on campus. His eyes would bug out every time he saw them marching in formation.

The second letter was dated November 21, 1943. My grandfather wrote the letter. He stated that they wanted to come to Cumberland County for Christmas, but he was unsure of the trip because he had limited time off. He really liked his job teaching physics to the V-12 candidates and said that his boss had given him good reviews. He described the potential to get a bigger and better apartment only one block from the Tech campus. There was a shortage of rental units in Ruston, and their current apartment was small and in a high rise. The new apartment was above a garage and had a garden plot in the backyard. Eddie, who was five years old at this time, had received a real sailor hat from a neighbor who was in the U.S. Navy.

The third letter was written by my grandmother only a day later on November 22, 1943. She said that she was sorry that my great-grandparents, Joe and Pearl, had been sick. She pointed out that several teachers at Tech had also been sick. She wrote that Eddie really missed the “pullets” eggs and fried chicken from his grandparent’s farm in Toledo. Eddie had also started to like steak. The problem with the better cuts of beef like steak was that it was rationed during the war years. My grandmother asked her in-laws if she could receive some ration points from them to help put beef on the table in Ruston. Since my great-grandparents lived on a farm, they raised their own beef and had less need for a ration book.

The fourth letter was dated December 12, 1943. Rita gladly informed her in-laws that they were coming to Cumberland County for Christmas. She and Eddie were leaving Ruston on December 15, and Golden was following them on December 21. Instead of driving, they were taking a train to Jackson, Mississippi and then to Mattoon, Illinois. The trip by railroad took twenty-four hours, which was considerably longer than by car. The rationing of gas and tires made automobile travel very difficult. All three of them were scheduled to leave Cumberland County and return to Ruston on December 27, 1943.

Two weeks after returning to Louisiana, Rita wrote a letter to Joe and Pearl Flake on January 12, 1944. She detailed Golden’s status with the Draft Board of Edwards County, Illinois. My grandfather had registered in 1940 with the Draft Board in Edwards County since he was teaching high school in Grayville and then in Carmi. According to the letter, Golden had received from the board a 1A classification on Christmas Eve, which meant he was available and fit for military service. An administrator from Louisiana Tech responded to the draft board with an appeal letter stating the crucial and critical nature of Golden’s occupation at Tech. The draft board granted my grandfather a six month deferment to a 2A classification, which was based on the type of occupation. My grandmother wrote that “He will probably be deferred again and again as long as the V-12 program continues.”

In an undated letter from February or March of 1944, my grandmother wrote to Cumberland County about the mundane details of her life in Louisiana. Golden and she had moved into the garage apartment in Ruston, and she was cleaning the entire house. She really liked the hardwood floors in the house. Golden had been cleaning the backyard of the apartment for a garden plot. Rita was preparing Eddie for Kindergarten and working with him on his writing skills. In the same letter, she told Joe and Pearl that Golden wanted them to sell the hogs that they had been keeping for him. He wanted them to put the earnings into war bonds. Rita was still asking them to send meat ration stamps.

On July 2, 1944, Golden wrote to his parents back home. He informed them that he had gotten back safely to Louisiana Tech from a visit to Cumberland County during a short semester break. Eddie and Rita were traveling back separately from him. He had started a new semester for the V-12 students on July 1. Since automobile travel was still rationed for gasoline and tires, he had taken a bus via Jackson, Mississippi. He had to compete for a seat on the bus. According to the letter, railroad travel was also restricted because of the high number of wounded servicemen being transported to hospitals.

Golden typed a letter on Tech stationary to his parents on August 5, 1944. Rita had been sick and unable to write. He described the oppressive heat and humidity in Louisiana in August. The vegetables in his garden were shriveling up, but an opportune heavy rain was bringing them back to life. Golden told his parents in Cumberland County that he was concerned about his future at Tech. At that time, the funding for the V-12 program was only until February 1945. He wanted to stay at Tech, but his outlook was unknown. The V-12 program had 378 candidates for the semester. He stated that if the work “folds” that he would have to deal with it at that time. He had too much teaching to do to worry about it. Confidently, he said to Joe and Pearl that if worse comes to worse that he knew how to be a farmer or that he could finish his graduate education.

The next letter of the twelve was not written until November 1944. There was not a specific date on the letter. Obviously, there are missing letters during this three to four month time frame. Rita said that they had had a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at the house of Dr. Ruff who was the Head of the Physics Department at Tech. They had a baked hen for dinner. Golden and Rita had wanted to come to Cumberland County for the holiday, but Golden had limited time off.

There was even a larger time gap for the next letter, which was dated April 19, 1945. The letter by Rita gave the impression that regular correspondence had occurred, so there are probably more missing letters. The February 1945 end date for the V-12 program had come and past. Golden was teaching physics to V-12 candidates for another 16 weeks semester which ended on June 30, 1945. Golden was optimistic that he would have a teaching position at Tech until March 1946. Dr. Ruff was helping Golden stay at Tech. The letter talked about a summer trip to Cumberland County. Golden thought that if he brought a couple of V-12 students with him on the trip north that the candidates could contribute gas and tire ration coupons for Golden’s car. On a sad note, Rita stated that “It was such a shock about President Roosevelt dying.” They had listened to the tributes, mourning, and music on the radio.

The next letter was undated from May 1945. Rita was planning a birthday party for the seven years old, Eddie. Recently, Eddie had taken an airplane ride from the Army Air Corp in Monroe, Louisiana. Based on his position at Louisiana Tech, Golden had known several pilots at the airfield. Rita wrote in the letter about a problem with her landlord. The landlord wanted to take the modern refrigerator from her apartment and replace it with an icebox. She was very mad and wanted a reduction in the rent. There was such a shortage of rental options in the area that she could not protest or move.

The final letter of the twelve from Ruston to Cumberland County was undated from the summer of 1945. Rita wrote that “…it was so hot we could hardly live.” In the evening, they stayed outside on lawn chairs for as long as they could. It was so hot inside the apartment. Rita was complaining about the shortages of cloth and gasoline. Since the end of World War II was approaching, the amount of V-12 candidates at Tech was dropping dramatically. According to the letter, Dr. Ruff wanted Golden to stay until the end of February of 1946, but the status of the V-12 program was out of Dr. Ruff’s control. Rita mentioned that Golden had received an indefinite 2A status with the Edwards County, Illinois Draft Board. Rita also detailed in the letter a farming job offer for Golden from her father in Robbins, California. Her father, Sylvester Nay, had left Illinois years earlier and owned a successful farm north of Davis, California.

The World War II V-12 teaching position at Tech ended for my grandfather at the completion of the semester on October 30, 1945. The war had been over for almost three months. The War Department probably did not want to end the V-12 program at Tech mid-semester. Officially, some universities had funding for the V-12 program until June 30, 1946.

Approximately 125,000 Navy and Marine Corp candidates had entered the V-12 program during the war. Many of the candidates became junior officers in the Navy and Marine Corps and contributed greatly to the war effort. After the war, the graduates of the V-12 programs used their foundational college education to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees under the GI-Bill. This highly educated workforce helped the post-World War II boom in the American economy. Although most of the professors and instructors in the V-12 programs never served in a uniformed service during the war, they contributed deeply to the American victory. Like the servicemen and servicewomen during WWII, the V-12 faculty and their families made sacrifices for their country.

My grandfather did accept the farming job offer from my great-grandfather Nay in California. By mid-November 1945, Golden, Rita, and Eddie had arrived in Robbins, California directly from Ruston. There was a general belief at the end of World War II that the American economy would revert back to the lean depression years with high unemployment. My grandfather realized that he had to support his family, and he knew how to farm. His dreams of being a college professor were put on hold.

Shortly, the post-war American economy was thriving. The enactment of the GI-Bill created a demand for college instructors. Following some additional graduate education and teaching high school science again, my grandfather was able to locate a teaching position in physics at the Purdue University campus at Indianapolis. He was now able to pursue his dreams but still be able to return home to Cumberland County, Illinois in only a few hours’ drive from Indianapolis.