Alumni | Response Magazine | Student/Alumni Stories

Battlefield to classroom: Tom Cooper’s Return

Photos by Eugene Lee

A lifetime has passed since TOM COOPER ’50 first stepped onto the quiet Seattle Pacific College campus in the fall of 1946. Yet he still remembers what it was like to leave behind remote Pacific island battlefields and return home.

Fortunately, he wasn’t alone. Dozens of fellow World War II veterans showed up with him at SPC that year. Many had experienced the nightmare of global conflict and were eager to exchange their memories of war for new lives in the classrooms and in the communities they left behind.

Brooklyn boy

Unlike his classmates from the Pacific Northwest, Cooper grew up in Brooklyn, New York, during the tumultuous 1920s and ’30s, where his family attended a small Free Methodist church. It was a small church, but Free Methodist missionaries coming and going from their fields of service got to know this church well.

War would soon test Cooper’s family, however, and quickly overshadowed those pleasant childhood memories. Cooper’s father, originally from Canada, served in the British navy during World War I. And Cooper’s brother, Bob, a member of the Army Air Force, was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We didn’t hear from Bob for a while,” said Cooper, “so our family was anxious and involved in the war from the outset.”

For Cooper, that meant joining his father at the nearby Bethlehem Steel Shipyard as soon as high school let out for the summer. The first ship he worked on came in with a gaping torpedo hole in its hull. And crewmembers of damaged ships often joined the family at the Cooper dinner table.

When school resumed in the fall, Cooper kept working at the shipyard. He knew he was going to join the military as soon as he turned 18. The day after Christmas in 1942, he signed up for the newly formed Naval Construction program.

He had no idea how dramatically his life would change.

In the Navy now

After making his way through boot camp at Camp Peary in Virginia, Cooper was assigned to a Naval Construction Battalion — better known as the Seabees — which was in turn attached to a Marine division. He soon shipped to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he learned his brother was killed in a plane crash on a mission near Australia. After a short furlough to be with his grieving parents, Cooper completed training at Camp Pendleton, California, as a member of the newly formed 4th Marine Division.

On Tinian, Cooper’s outfit built four runways, used by aircraft on their way to strategic bombing raids over Japan.

Before long, Cooper and his unit of beach engineers were island-hopping westward through the Central Pacific, from conflict to conflict. His division landed early in each invasion to help control supplies and logistics for soldiers who followed. They were on Roi and Namur islands in the Marshalls. Then it was a brief rest in Hawaii before they returned for the next encounter on Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas.

On Tinian, Cooper’s outfit used local materials to finish four 8,400-foot runways, used by Seattle-built B-29 aircraft on their way to strategic bombing raids over Japan.

As the war approached its end, Cooper and his unit learned they would soon be heading back to Okinawa, which would serve as a staging area for the final push — a massive invasion of the rest of Japan.

“We didn’t have the total details, just rumors,” he said. “Then it came out that Operation Downfall was going to be March 1946. It would have been the biggest force ever put together.”

Cooper, who already lived through three island invasions, knew firsthand the tremendous casualties that could result from such a massive operation, but the invasion never happened. Instead, the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

Decades later, Cooper still wonders what might have been or how a different path could have changed the course of his life.

“My outfit was slated to do an amphibious landing at Tokyo,” he said. “We were to keep the beach open. And I think of the ‘what ifs.’ It could have changed a lot of things. I know my life could have had a lot of different endings. I’ll bet SPC would have been affected as well.”

Coming home

Fortunately for SPC, many of the young veterans landed on its campus instead. Bill Woodward, SPU historian and professor emeritus of history, said students of this veteran generation were older and more mature. “The world abroad was not as foreign to them as it would have been to a previous generation, because they had seen the world,” Woodward said. “They had seen the South Pacific. They had seen France. They had seen Japan. Even those who were not veterans shared a culture of urgency, focus, maturity, and a global vision.”

Enrollment jumped from 397 students in September 1945 to 660 the following year.

Cooper wasted no time pursuing his dreams — but first he had to play several months of academic catch-up. The week after he was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1945, he promptly enrolled in his old high school back in New York. He still had a diploma to
earn. Even in his earlier days with the Marines, Cooper sensed his life path would eventually turn back through the classroom.

“I was at Camp Pendleton in California, and they listed all the names of these fellows to report down to the mess hall to take an officer’s candidate school exam. My name wasn’t on the list because I didn’t graduate from high school,” Cooper said. “I think that was the first time it really hit me that I’d made a mistake.”

It was thankfully something he could fix. High school diploma finally in hand, Cooper was ready by the fall of ’46 to join the other veterans lined up for the first day of classes in Seattle. Enrollment jumped from 397 students in September 1945 to 660 the following year. Where women outnumbered men at SPC in 1945 — 230 females to 167 males — the gender ratios changed to 371 males to 289 females in 1946.

Many of those men served in action theaters of their war: Dick Shinto arrived at SPC from the famed 442nd Regiment of the Army — a regiment composed almost entirely of Japanese American soldiers. DICK BIVINS ’50 was in the 82nd Airborne Division. WAYNE JOHNSON ’51 saw combat in Europe. There were a number of fliers: BOB COX ’47 flew B-25s; CLAYTON ENGEBRETSON ’49 flew for the Navy; GIL KOLLER ’48 flew “over the hump” (the eastern Himalayas). The school welcomed at least one former submariner. JOHN BURBANK ’53 was on Okinawa waiting for the invasion; and DALE PARKER ’51 served in the Naval Armed Guard.

All of them were ready for their new lives, although none of them could predict how different things would be.

The campus changes

Even as a student, Cooper recognized that Seattle Pacific faculty and staff had to rapidly grapple with many changes — never mind the dramatic turnaround in the school’s gender ratio. The sheer number of post-war students, arriving with unique needs and experiences, clearly opened a new chapter of growth for the college.

“Before the war, SPC was a small school with a variety of majors, but only a few signature programs: education and theology/missionary training,” explained University Archivist ADRIENNE THUN MEIER ’04. “It was a small campus concentrated around what is now Tiffany Loop. Athletics were confined to intramural competition. SPC had no varsity teams in any sport until the mid-1940s. There were a variety of student clubs, but they tended to be small, and SPC’s fine arts groups [consisted of] a band, two quartets, an a cappella choir, and the Oratorio Society. The Cascade yearbook was a thin volume, and The Falcon [student] newspaper mostly focused on doings around campus.”

SPC became a four-year liberal arts college with multiple programs in the arts and sciences, including new programs in biology (1946); business (1953); new language classes for learning Japanese (1947) and Chinese (1948); new classes in industrial arts; a new International School of Missions (1947); and expansions in education and nursing.

Campus facilities had to grow as well. “Grants from the government and the acquisition of surplus government buildings allowed SPC to build a new women’s dormitory (Watson Hall),” Meier noted. SPC acquired new buildings for the art department and the sciences and began work on Royal Brougham Pavilion, which opened in 1953, and Moyer Hall opened a year later.

Not fully housebroken

As the look of the campus and its programs changed, so did its students. Most of the returning veterans were in their early 20s, for instance, compared to younger incoming freshmen just out of high school. The veterans’ combat experiences branded them and immediately set them apart.

“When you’re trained in the Marine Corps, everything they tell you is that your aims and the other guy’s aims are not the same,” Cooper explained. “You’re out there for different reasons. When you take on that attitude for three years, you don’t dismiss it easily.”

What’s more, he said, many of the veterans were not “fully housebroken” at the time. Strict rules, like no smoking, were tested. Cooper recalled that in the service, cigarettes came  free in rations and were only five cents a pack to buy.

“Luckily, my temperance Sunday school teachers were stronger than the cigarettes, and I didn’t touch them,” said Cooper. “But a lot
of guys coming back, they were hooked. Every day, after meals at Tiffany Hall, we’d hop in a car to go off campus. I went along because
they were my buddies. There was a group that smoked almost the entire time at SPC.”

On the positive side, their experiences gave them added perspective in the classroom. For a required English class, returning soldiers had a rich supply of war stories for their essay assignments. Cooper said younger classmates complained, “All you veterans have to do is write about your war.”

“They didn’t think it was fair,” he said.

Fair or not, Cooper’s memories of Seattle Pacific remain positive. He was especially impressed by the grace and understanding college faculty and staff showed veterans. “We didn’t live up to the rules as strictly as some of the kids did,” Cooper said. “It was a little touch and go, but I can tell you they handled it beautifully.”

Meanwhile, many students earned extra money by working in the neighborhood, in a local factory, or at service stations. Cooper worked summers, driving a truck that transported thoroughbred horses between East Coast racetracks. The work helped pay bills, but veterans also enjoyed a significant tuition and living allowance program via the GI Bill so that earning their way through college wasn’t a big thing, Cooper said.

“Many of the vets eventually stretched their educational benefits well into graduate-level work,” Cooper recalls. “SPC benefited from
this program, as it had students who could pay full tuition costs without the usual need for student aid. The GI Bill was the right plan for returning veterans.”

Seattle Pacific expanded in more than one way during this time. As historian Woodward put it, “Christian higher education prospered not just in an economic sense, but in the sense of its self-understood role as part of the global church.”

Turning points

Cooper never regretted his decision to attend Seattle Pacific. He met his future wife, Beth, in the college’s chapel in 1947. After marrying in 1949, they raised two daughters and spent 63 years together until she passed away in 2013.

“Our wedding party had five SPC students involved,” he recalled. “Four were veterans; three were from our 1946 vet class. My best man was in my Marine 4th Division platoon.”

But 1949 was also a milestone year in Cooper’s life for other reasons.

“Many of us were very goal-directed, absolutely,” he explained. “[Students] came in wanting to be an engineer, or whatever. I came in not knowing what I was going to do. Every person was different.”

The turning point came in his third year at SPC when a professor asked about future plans, and a vocational aptitude test revealed options he had never considered.

“We discussed the results, and he said, ‘Wow, it looks to me like you’d be a good teacher.’ And I did just that. It was good advice, and it was a good decision.”

Along with several others from the Class of 1950 and ’51, Cooper was hired by the Shoreline School District, where he worked for 17 years. He earned a doctorate in educational administration and completed his administrative career in the neighboring Northshore School District.

Cooper has been associated with schools throughout his lifetime. After he retired, he consulted with school districts across the state, helping with their building plans and budgets.

Keeping in touch

Over the years, the Coopers kept in contact with others from their SPC days. They retraced the footsteps of John Wesley in the U.K. with a group of SPC alumni and traveled in an RV through Mexico with another group of mostly college friends. They got together often for University hymn sings, celebrations, and homecoming events. For decades, his crew assisted with the popular Labor Day weekend salmon bake at Camp Casey. Even today, many of Cooper’s closest remaining friends are from the cohort that stepped onto Seattle Pacific’s grounds together in the fall of 1946.

“I’ve kept up friendships, like with Dale Parker, who taught at SPC and played and coached baseball. Johnny Burbank — his father was prominent in the Free Methodist Church in the Northwest. Walt McCormack. Duane McGee. We’re the ‘Old Crows.’”

Cooper stayed active playing competitive handball until a neck injury sidelined him a few years ago.

“I don’t feel 96, although I’m sure I look it. But one of the great decisions I made in my life was to go to SPC. I still have such great memories of college days. I remember that most faculty members knew our names. Seattle Pacific College provided for the needs of the veterans in so many ways. We were welcomed.”

Share
Topics
Become a Student
See how SPU can help you achieve your academic and career goals!
Discover SPU