WWII letters penned from battlefield show soldiers' ties to Penn State Altoona

Correspondence from 'Greatest Generation' on display at campus library
WWII flight crew stands in front of their plane in England

Penn State Altoona student William Moyer and the rest of the Patches crew in England in 1946. During World War II, Moyer was shot down from his plane and was a prisoner of war. After the war, he returned to central Pennsylvania.

Credit: Courtesy of Jared Frederick

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week from Nov. 8 to 16 will honor America's "Greatest Generation" with a week-long series of campus events, including a football game, Veteran’s Day ceremony, speaker series and more. Visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu to learn more.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On June 16, 1944, Private Drew Leitzell Emerick (1922-2014) penned a letter while stationed overseas during World War II to a professor back home at Penn State Altoona. In it, the 22-year-old soldier joked about his French language skills, which he found to be lacking during his service in the Army.

“SOS SOS French teacher needed,” he wrote. “Hey if you have an extra French teacher floating around rush him to the ETO [European Theater of Operations] quick. Here I am in France and all the French I know is ‘We We.’ [sic] Why didn’t you talk me into taking French when I was in school?”

Emerick, who was known for his dry sense of humor, was one of about 100 students and faculty members from Penn State Altoona who kept in contact with Robert Eiche, the campus’ first director, after they left school to serve in the war effort overseas.

Nearly 75 years after the end of the war, their correspondence, which was discovered in Eiche’s residence, has found a permanent home at the Robert E. Eiche Library at Penn State Altoona. The collection of 500 letters has been preserved by the library to offer students and researchers firsthand accounts of the everyday lived experiences of local soldiers during the war.

WWII letter from Penn State Altoona student

One of the roughly 500 letters written to Robert Eiche, the first campus director of Penn State Altoona, by a Penn State Altoona student-turned-service member during World War II. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Showalter

An interactive exhibit — featuring originals and reproductions, envelopes and other ephemera — is currently on display to the public in the Robert E. Eiche Library.

“The World War II letters are revealing and personal — offering insight into education, the Altoona community, school spirit, hope for the future and the experiences of young men and women in wartime,” said Jared Frederick, Word War II historian and history instructor at Penn State Altoona. “They're an intimate snapshot of how college students perceived their roles during World War II and how their college education helped prepare them to be leaders during the war.”

A glimpse of the past

Founded in 1939, the Altoona Undergraduate Center’s enrollment dipped as students went to war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

To help keep the new campus afloat, the school focused on recruiting more women, and opened the first women’s dormitory in 1944. As campus director, Eiche also decided to stay in touch with students-turned-service members in the hopes they would return to school after the conflict ended. Eiche was fond of Altoona’s students and loved staying in contact — throughout the years he also kept scrapbooks filled with newspapers clippings of their achievements, marriages and job promotions.

Robert Eiche pictured in 1969

Robert E. Eiche, pictured in 1969, served as the inaugural campus director from 1939 to 1968, leading the institution from its days as the Altoona Undergraduate Center through its transformation into Penn State Altoona. 

Credit: Courtesy of Jared Frederick

“We know that Eiche wrote back and forth with many of these students for years and he even sent postcards to their families,” said Jessica Showalter, student engagement and outreach librarian at Penn State Altoona. “It’s evident there was a personal connection between Eiche and the students. They often asked about his wife and family, but more than anything wanted to know what was happening on campus and in their community.”

While Eiche mailed copies of the Daily Collegian student newspaper and detailed events like Homecoming and the latest films playing at the Strand Theater in downtown Altoona, the students shared tidbits from their travels as far away as France, Australia, Papua New Guinea and ships stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

Some students, like GM. Martin V. Orner (1922-1992), penned letters from the front. The sailor wrote, in a letter composed to Eiche on June 1, 1944, “Regulations forbid me to tell you where I am, but our ship has been up near the front several times. More than once I have wished I could only be back in college where the going is easier compared with over here … It only took me a minute to see there is a war going on over here and in that minute’s time my eyes saw houses ripped to pieces by bombs and many other sights which I won’t mention.”

“More than once I have wished I could only be back in college … it only took me a minute to see there is a war going on over here and in that minute’s time my eyes saw ... many other sights which I won’t mention.”

Living history

Over the years, Penn Staters and community members have turned to the correspondence for firsthand history lessons. 

Frederick — who has done extensive research on many of the authors — has incorporated the collection into the history classes he teaches at Penn State Altoona. In 2017, his students got the chance to collaborate with Bonnie Imler, library director for Eiche Library, as part of a class project to learn archival skills and write biographies of the authors.

“I always try to use primary sources in my classes, but I think these letters hit home and resonate more profoundly with my students because they are literally walking in the footsteps of their peers from 75 years ago,” Frederick said. “They get a chance to really explore in a fundamental way what it means to be a Penn State student and learn about who came before them.”

For Dustin Smith, a junior studying history, reading the letters feels like uncovering a mystery.

Smith recently transcribed some of the letters for a Buzzfeed-style quiz developed by the library to help readers learn about and see connections between themselves and the original authors. The quiz recommends one of six authors to read based on answers to questions about dream jobs, favorite foods, movies and more.   

Showalter is happy that students like Smith are engaging with the collection in new ways.

“As librarians, one of our fundamental goals is to preserve and provide access to engaging resources to support student learning by building connections to new time periods and cultures,” Showalter said. “They’re getting the chance to comb through old letters and decipher handwritten notes and really feel like they’re seeing history unfold.”

Homeward bound

According to Frederick, thematically, the letters showcase the desire of men and women to return to school and complete their education, which was bolstered thanks to the GI Bill, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2019.

After the war ended, the ensuing years brought huge growth to the fledgling campus. As Eiche foreshadowed, many of these veterans — including Cpl. Stewart M. Lang (1921-2008) — came back to Penn State Altoona to finish their education. Lang went on to become editor-in-chief of the Daily Collegian at University Park, earn a degree in ceramic engineering and work for the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.

Along with students, teachers like Charles Diehl, professor of psychology, also returned to Penn State Altoona to teach after his service ended.

In a letter he wrote to Eiche on June 14, 1944, he described D-Day as “quite an event."

“I’ve learned a great deal about the problems of mankind. I’ve chatted and lived with all kinds of men and appreciate what a great part education does play in the development of a character … Sometimes I feel that I won’t be able to wait the months ahead before I can return to doing all those many things I feel need to be done. I’ve seen too much of the ignorance of man and I shall be happy to do something about it. The word Freedom has real meaning to me now.”

“I’ve seen too much of the ignorance of man and I shall be happy to do something about it. The word Freedom has real meaning to me now.”

More than anything, the letters invite readers to reflect on what it means to serve, according to Frederick.

“These Penn State students from the 1940s are a shining example of how to give back. They had the same desires and goals in life as students do today, but they had to be put on hold to fulfill a higher purpose,” he said. “Beyond military service, there are many ways to contribute to one’s community and the levels of service demonstrated by these young people should be an inspiration to all of us.”

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day this summer, the World War II letters will be on display at the Robert E. Eiche Library at Penn State Altoona Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Aug. 30. The letters also can be viewed by appointment year-round.