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Henderson: The War Years

By Gene Mueller and Robert Greene

Henderson State University has been through a number of dramatic changes during its first 100 years. Founded in 1890 as Arkadelphia Methodist College, it continued under that name until 1904 when it was renamed Henderson College after its Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Captain C.C. Henderson. From 1911 to 1929, the school hyphenated and used the name Henderson-Brown College. In 1929, title was transferred to the State of Arkansas because the Methodist Church in Arkansas cut back on its educational expenditures. At this point, renamed Henderson State Teachers' College, it became a teacher training institution. As the 1930s drew to a close, rumors of war came to southwest Arkansas.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, Henderson's student body grew slowly though very steadily from a little over 300 in the late 1920s to a high of 584 in February, 1941. It was quite parochial, with a little over 500 coming from the twenty-two counties surrounding Arkadelphia, and only twenty-one students having matriculated from out of state.
Even so, the college's young men, well aware of the nation's impending military needs, were doing their part in providing for them. Since 1936 an R.O.T.C. unit had been at Henderson. Male students who were not excused for disability were required to take two years of Military Science for graduation. In order to be commissioned, a student had to complete another two years of course work plus a six-week summer camp. Between ten and twenty percent of those who participated in R.O.T.C. during the war years obtained commissions.
In the spring of 1941, 133 cadets took part in the program. The number, not unexpectedly, fell steadily during World War II, reaching a low of twenty-three in the spring of 1945. As the number of male students rebounded at war's end, however, so did the number of cadets, more than tripling by the end of 1946.
Even before Pearl Harbor, prospective American involvement in hostilities took its toll on Henderson as enrollment slumped to 441 in September of 1941. Most of the loss was male upperclassmen. This level of enrollment held steady until the autumn of 1943, when the draft emptied the sophomore, junior and senior classes. Out of a regular enrollment of 219 that September, sixty-seven were males and fifty of them were freshmen.
The void was quickly filled as the College began a cooperative training program with the Army Air Corps in late autumn, 1941. For the duration of the war, Henderson hosted an Air Crew Training School, the 66th College Training Detachment. At its height the Air Crew Training School would have 500 cadets. The Training School graduated groups of fifty, moving them through a twenty-two month program. Coeds were delighted with the increased male enrollment, as was the College Business Manager.
The advent of war changed the College in many ways other than enrollment. Early on, Japanese aggression had significant meaning for Henderson, when the College received news that Charles Parker (a member of HSTC football team in 1938 and 1939) had been wounded at Pearl Harbor.
Academic life also changed. Within a month of Pearl Harbor, officials from all of the state-supported colleges in Arkansas met in Little Rock to consider ways in which calendars and credits might be adjusted so that a Bachelor's degree could be completed in three years, thus releasing more officer material for the war effort. As a result of this meeting, Henderson's Curriculum Committee approved a three-year Bachelors degree by allowing heavier course loads during the regular semesters and in summer school.
That same year, Henderson's administration started a special honor roll, named the gold star list, to commemorate the young Henderson men who lost their lives in the service of their country. A Purple Heart roll was also begun, listing those former Henderson students who received combat wounds. For example, Private Leroy M. Gattin, 1942-43, went to rescue one of his buddies under heavy fire in New Guinea. While on the mission he killed eleven Japanese and received a wound himself. He was awarded the Combat Infantryman's Medal.
The college also recognized those former students who distinguished themselves in serving their country in combat. For instance, Ralph James, a former Henderson athlete, was honored by the Henderson Schoolmasters Club for receiving the Silver Star. Furthermore, the college newspaper, the Henderson Oracle and the local Arkadelphia paper, Southern Standard, attempted to keep everyone informed regarding the exploits of Henderson alumni serving in the armed forces. First Lt. James G. Allen, for example, received press on October 1, 1943, for being awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross for action against the Japanese.
Two of the more colorful stories about the exploits of former Henderson students were of Sergeant Joseph E. Hartman and Major Nick Lund.
Sergeant Hartman, who received his training with the 66th College Training Detachment at Henderson, was shot down behind enemy lines over the Solomon Islands in December 1942. He traveled for sixty-seven days, mostly at night to avoid capture, and, much of the time, in a native canoe which he paddled for some 225 miles! Sergeant Hartman was finally rescued by a Navy PT Boat. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.
Major Nick Lund, who graduated in 1939 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, experienced two close calls in the Pacific Theater. Early in 1943, while serving as a co-pilot on a bomber (Liberator) over Funafuti, a tiny island in the Ellice Islands group (approximately twenty degrees east of the Solomons), Major Lund's plane suffered a mid-air explosion. He survived the disaster and served as a co-pilot on another bomber as part of an air group raid on the Japanese held island of Tarawa. The trip back from Tarawa, however, proved nerve-wracking. There were several tears in the plane's right wing, and, worse yet, the right tire was flat. That evening the pilot and co-pilot brought the plane down while the crew braced themselves in the rear section of the plane fearing a nose-over crash.

The Liberator touched the runway; brakes smoked; the tire on the left side screamed and the right wheel thudded irregularly along the coral. The plane lurched but remained upright, turned only partly around as it came abreast its own revetment, home safely.

Major Lund, thankfully, climbed out of the plane and set his feet down safely on the ground.
Another heroic story, with an unfortunate ending, was the exploits of Captain William Earl Tatom. William Tatum entered Henderson in the fall of 1934 and received the Bachelor of Arts Degree in May 1940. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant in February, 1942. Lieutenant Tatum was with the first contingent of Marines in the invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. Wounded in the right thigh, he continued fighting for forty hours until a burst of shrapnel in the wounded leg took him out of the battle. Tatum was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and the Silver Star for his action on Guadalcanal. Promoted to Captain later that year, Captain Tatum and his company were to be part of the invasion force that would eventually take the Gilbert Islands. During the battle to take Tarawa, he was killed by machine gun fire while getting out of a landing boat on November 20, 1943.
Henderson faculty were determined to expose students to the rationality of the war. Two new courses, proposed by a faculty "Committee on Morale", were approved. The first was a course on democracy; it outlined the development of democratic traditions and philosophy and provided for discussion of its conflict with totalitarianism. The other course was on the geography of war. This was heady stuff; and in those early days of the struggle, it made everybody feel part of the team. There were also many more serious contributions which could be made through a college curriculum.
In February 1942, the war department authorized Henderson to add an advanced course in aviation to its curriculum. The course could be taken by regular upperclassmen as well as the Training Corps cadets. By January 1943 the courses had become so popular that a pre-flight aviation course had to be created which was open to men in the freshman and sophomore classes. Not all cadets were able to move through the curriculum in traditional fashion; some were called to service before the end of their senior year. The College Curriculum Committee, however, allowed the seniors to receive full credit for their courses if they passed a "special" test. All the seniors called up early passed the test and graduated two months early.
While male enrollment declined during the war years, campus social life continued as before. Early in 1942, the annual King and Queen of Hearts dance (sponsored by the yearbook staff) was announced in the February 5 edition of the Oracle. At the same time the war affected the humorous Kollege Klippings column with the following two-liner:

First Girl: Is there much graft in the Army?
Second Girl: Oh, sure; even the bayonets are fixed.

Everyone enjoyed the King and Queen of Hearts Dance, and most also attended the annual Military Ball on February 28, 1942. The advanced R.O.T.C. Officers performed the Saber March, while members of the advanced corps and "outstanding" military visitors and other members of the unit "joined in the Grand March."
During that same semester, the Choral Club gave a concert, and the Masquers presented a three act comedy by A.A. Milne. Perhaps the most unique event of 1942 was the French Apache banquet sponsored by the French Club, "with girls wearing short tight skirts, jangling bracelets, spike-heeled pumps, French berets, and boys garbed in dirty trousers, turtle necked sweaters, scarves and billed caps the guests came as underworld characters."
A major change took place on the Henderson campus the following year. On February 25, U.S. Army Air Force trainees began arriving to enter the flight training school established at Henderson by the federal government. Dormitory space was provided by consolidating the two girl's dormitories into one, and by the boys moving out of their dormitory. In addition, the college went to a six day class schedule.
Campus coeds decided to demonstrate their commitment to defending their country and accordingly they organized a Women's Volunteer Training Corps. The girls drilled, had uniforms made, and set up a rifle range. Lila Sullenberger Thompson recalled that they were taught to shoot the Springfield rifle. The rifle "took half of the side of your shoulder off when you fired it." Lila believed the young ladies were "well prepared" to defend their country. They also wanted to show the newly arrived trainees that young women were capable of defending their country.
The Henderson community welcomed the trainees, and campus organizations sponsored several social events. Furthermore, the Henderson State Teachers College Collegian Band, undermanned prior to the trainees arrival, was able to continue to play after seven air cadets joined the band. News of former Henderson students in uniform, however, kept everyone well aware of the raging global conflict.
During the year 1943-44, many reminders appeared in the campus paper, as well as local papers, of Henderson men in service of their country. The Southern Standard reported in October, 1943, for example, that graduate Lt. James G. Allen was awarded the Oak Leaf Cluster to the distinguished flying cross; and in November, 1943, the Oracle told its readers that Private Joe Herbert was reported missing in action.
Still, Henderson continued its academic schedule, and students and trainees participated in the social events offered on campus. Several Gilbert and Sullivan Operettas were performed in 1943 and the major social event was the King and Queen of Hearts Ball. However, instead of the usual one royal court, there were two in 1944, one elected by the students and one elected by the trainees.
Social gaiety was tempered, however, by news of the war and the growing list of American casualties. The Henderson community received the sad news that Ensign Alvin Lycester Vernado, B.A. 1940, was killed when his navy fighter plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Guadalcanal in late April, 1943. Henderson President Dr. Matt Locke Ellis wrote the following sympathetic letter to Ensign Varnado's parents:

December 1, 1943
Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Varnado
Norphlet, Arkansas

Dear Friends:
All of us at Henderson were made sad to learn that it is now definitely known that your son, Lycester, reported missing in action last spring, has made the full sacrifice in his country's cause. While I was not here when "Varney" was a student at Henderson, I have heard many of his friends praise him highly. He was a young man whom I would have enjoyed knowing.
Mrs. Ellis and I extend to you and to all who grieve with you in this time of sorrow our deepest sympathy.

Sincerely,
Matt L. Ellis
President

President Ellis would write forty letters to families who lost their sons in the war.
Through the 1944-45 school year, the nation's manpower demands continued to diminish the male segment of the school's regular student body. By January of 1945, it had shrunk to fifty-seven, thirty-nine of whom were freshmen. This dearth of males had affected the school in several areas, especially in athletics. In 1942, the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, following the lead of the state's secondary schools, placed a ban on intercollegiate competition for the duration of the war in order to conserve gasoline and other resources necessary to the war effort. Consequently, until the fall of 1945, the only athletic competitions students engaged in were intramural sports.
The final year of the war, 1944-45, saw the closing of the air trainee program and the beginning of a return to normalcy. Henderson paid one final tribute to those young men who had served their country by planting six holly trees in memory of those Henderson graduates who had lost their lives in the war. The trees were dedicated by the college to six gold star Henderson boys. A special memorial service for the six boys was held on April 5, 1945. Dr. Matt Ellis invited the families of all six boys to attend the service.
In time, forty trees would be planted to honor those Henderson boys who lost their lives while in uniform during World War Two.
Henderson State Teacher's College welcomed the many veterans who enrolled during the 1945-1946 academic year. World War Two had both directly affected young men who attended Henderson, as well as the routine of campus life.
College personnel could certainly point with pride to the service record of former Henderson students, some of whom gave their lives for their country. Mrs. Aileen Arnett, secretary to President Matt Ellis, kept up active correspondence with each young man in uniform, and President Ellis sent a personal letter to the family of every young man who died while in active duty.
In addition to the service rendered to their country by Henderson's men in uniform, the Henderson campus adjusted to the conditions imposed on it by the war. While class schedules were altered, intercollegiate sports postponed, and some social events canceled, both faculty and students maintained a patriotic spirit and enthusiastically participated in activities at Henderson State Teacher's College during the years of World War Two.

Mueller is a professor of history at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. He has written extensively on military history and World War II, including the book Hitler's Commanders with Samuel Mitcham. He holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Oregon and a doctorate from the University of Idaho. Dr. Mueller previously taught at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, and Henderson State University.
Greene served as a European history professor at Henderson State University and also as Henderson's first archivist, from 1975 until his death in 2001. In 2006, the university established the J. Robert Greene University Archives Room at the university's Huie Library in his honor.