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Something to Celebrate: 75 years ago, William Allison and fellow members of the greatest generation secured victory and embarked on post-World War II life

by on September 02, 2020 4:48 PM

It mattered not whether it was Centre County or the center of any city nationwide, the end of World War II in 1945 brought out the best in people, because they knew the soldiers who had served had witnessed – and many times experienced – the worst.

Boalsburg resident William Allison, a native of Champaign, Illinois, who grew up during the Great Depression, was one of the fortunate soldiers who returned to the States after 24 months of service, including 10 in combat.

To this day, Allison, now 94 some 75 years after serving, reflects much more on his good experiences than the bad that were so plainly in view. And he still enjoys answering questions about the worldwide conflict that estimates say claimed the lives of nearly 3 percent of the world’s population of 2.3 billion in the 1940s, including about 400,000 Americans.

The war that started on September 1, 1939, ended officially on September 2, 1945, when formal surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri, thus signifying V-J Day, or Victory over Japan. Victory in Europe Day marking Germany’s surrender, or V-E Day, is celebrated across European nations on May 8.

Allison’s squad, the 1269th Engineer Combat Battalion, was in Ismaning, a suburb of Dachau in upper Bavaria in southern Germany, when German chancellor and Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945.

“Only after our rush to targets in Munich did we hear of Hitler’s death,” Allison says. “My first assignment was to take a half-squad of men to seize and hold the powerful radio transmitter station in Ismaning, a northeast suburb near Dachau. We were still there when the war (in Europe) ended on May 8.

“We went through the radio building, turning on all lights and opening all blackout curtains, a symbol for us by way of celebration, perhaps also dispelling nameless terrors. We speculated about the victory celebration that must be taking place at home. A few men got drunk. Mostly we felt only weary relief; the imminence of battles still to be fought in the Pacific quelled thoughts of merrymaking.”

 

A little solitude

Allison says he climbed to the top of the radio tower the next day and sat there for a long time, quietly happy to be alive with a future to think about, but heedless of the easy target he was making for any diehard Nazis still prowling the ruins of Munich.

Fast-forward three months and Allison found himself and his squad on “40 and 8” box cars, designed in World War I to hold 40 people or eight horses. The spartan conditions made it difficult to garner more than fitful dozing, and the railway had been bombed and destroyed in many locations, making stops for repairs mandatory and forcing progress to Holland to a crawl at best.

But once they pulled into Heerlen in southeast Holland, they were greeted by flags flying from homes and people leaving their worksites and coming to the tracks to wave and cheer as they passed. While the troops harbored hopes that Japan had surrendered, that prospective optimism became gleeful reality when they reached the border of Belgium.

Some battalions were redirected for occupation duty, but Allison’s soldiered on to Antwerp, where they boarded the NYU Victory for a 10-day, rough sail across the Atlantic that docked August 29 in New York Harbor.

“As we sailed into New York Harbor, a flotilla of harbor boats labored to make our return festive, with water cannons arcing water into the air, flags waving, band music shrilling, and people waving – a busy scene made especially soul-stirring by passing the Statue of Liberty and by our first sighting of the New York City skyline,” Allison says.

From there, a ferry boat carried them up the Hudson River to Camp Shanks at Fort Nyack, where they were honored with a “lavishly bountiful feast” of roast turkeys, baked hams, puddings, salads, casseroles, and pies, a feast to revive memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases from the best of times, Allison explains.

 

Celebrations then and now

Celebrations were commonplace. In State College, businesses were to close and classes at Penn State were to be immediately dismissed upon official news of the end of hostilities, according to the Centre Daily Times from August, 11, 1945. The celebration included the ringing of church bells and the bell at Old Main.

In Centre County, which suffered the loss of 136 soldiers killed in WWII, this was a time of rejuvenation, with soldiers returning home and the post-war economy of the late 1940s and early ’50s, according to Tyler Gum, site administrator at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg. The museum is planning a number of virtual memorials for V-J Day and other conflicts.

Those who served in the Second World War became known as the greatest generation, but collectively they may not have looked at themselves in that overall regard, because what they did simply was part of life in that era, Gum points out.

“World War II in that generation was the great equalizer, because you could have the doctor’s kid, the lawyer’s kid, the machinist … it was a great equalizer. There was no divide of demographics or race or background. Everybody was drafted or enlisted,” Gum says. “They don’t really think of themselves of the greatest generation because their entire generation did it.

“When they came home, they didn’t really talk about it. Everybody on that assembly line served together. Everyone on the block party did it, so it wasn’t a big deal. It’s not like today, where it’s half of 1 percent of Americans who have served. That is a difference of time-frame now. Back then, there was a larger swath of the communities that served. It’s visible right now in graveyards. You can tell the age of some of the graves because of how many flags are on them, because of how many people served in that generation.”

About 300,000 United States World War II veterans are still alive. Only five years ago, that number was just under 1 million, according to Gum, who says the military museum staff was planning lectures and ceremonies and temporary exhibits about upcoming war-related anniversaries, including the 75th anniversary of V-J Day, which can no longer happen because of COVID-19 concerns.

“We have done a number of virtual lectures and programs, and what’s really been nice about the technology is we’re getting a greater amount of outreach than we’ve ever seen,” Gum says. “We’ve been able to provide the log-in information to any interested nursing home; we give it to them for free. They can have residents ask questions and be part of it, which is really awesome. That’s the saving grace of technology.”

For a list of events planned and other information about the Pennsylvania Military Museum, visit pamilmuseum.org, or call (814) 466-6263.

Always thinking about his future

There was no such technology in the 1940s for Allison, who volunteered for the Army at age 17 and attended the University of Illinois until his 18th birthday, when he began his service at Fort Sheridan in Illinois. In his two years, the 6-foot, 150-pound teenager earned the overseas service bar, American campaign medal, European African Middle Eastern campaign medal, World War II bronze battle stars, a good conduct medal, the World War II victory medal, and a French Legion of Honor medal.

He was honorably discharged early because of combat duty. Prior to his discharge, he served as a military policeman. Rather bored with that line of work, he volunteered to be sent back to Germany to serve in the occupation forces. But he earned another promotion and was put in charge of a prisoner of war train going to New York City.

He took advantage of his location to see many theater productions in the city and ultimately headed to the University of Michigan for a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and to Yale for a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1952. He met his future wife, Ursula, while working at a theater school in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; they have been married for 65 years.

Allison built a prestigious academic career at Penn State that started in 1961 and included design work inside the existing Pavilion Theater, planning for the Playhouse Theater, as well as theaters on Penn State commonwealth campuses in Reading and New Kensington. He retired in 1989 as assistant to the dean of the College of Arts and Architecture, also having been a lead consultant for construction of Eisenhower Auditorium.

If that wasn’t enough, he played an integral role in founding the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts beginning in 1967.

He and Ursula raised three daughters and they traveled the world over during the years after his retirement, he says. “We went everywhere, so that helped the time pass quickly,” Allison says about the 75 years since wartime.

He also found time to stay in touch with a band of about eight brothers with whom he served; they had yearly reunions at each other’s homes. Allison is now the lone survivor.

“The good things I remember so well are the companionship and the shared responsibilities and for a youngster of 18 years old, the responsibilities I was thrilled to be able to take on and perform reasonably well. That was very good,” Allison says.

“But I saw some things around the concentration camp at Dachau, for example, and some things of the brutalities and terrible events that happened in war. … I’m just happy not to dwell on them.

“Memories of that companionship and shared responsibilities are very good. I think the unit I was in was a very lucky unit. We were in some tough spots and mostly we came out quite well. We didn’t lose many of our men and we accomplished most of what we needed to do; that worked out well,” he says.

And no matter how many years have passed, that’s something to celebrate.

 

Jim Carlson is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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