Dear Coach: Letters Home from World War II
Dear Coach: Letters Home from World War II is a collective coming of age story of a group of college men and women who left a small mostly pacifist college to take part in a world war.
Getting ready for a house sale and auction in 2002, my mother handed me a box of 200 letters written to my father during WW II. I knew there was a book in that box. Our first task was to find either the letter writers or their heirs to gain permission to use the letters. Mother helped me find them. Because she knew the writers, she was an important input to the story of this book until she died in 2007.
Coach was my father – Ira R. Herr, who began to teach and coach at Elizabethtown College (Etown) in 1928 and stayed there until he retired in 1962. During the war years he was the only coach on campus, and he fielded teams for men and women. My father married Kathryn Nisley on December 25th, 1937. Mother was a teacher, librarian, and drama coach at Elizabethtown High School, later she would be teaching French at the college. They lived on campus.
The story of the letters begins in the late 1930s. Boys named Rudy, Beanie, Bud, Johnny, and Stan came to college and played soccer, basketball, baseball, and tennis. Girls named Mary, Lena, Jane, and Cas came to campus and played on the women’s basketball team. They filled their days with the normal college classes, dates, class plays, clubs, and – importantly – debates about war and peace.
Dear Coach: Letters Home from World War II is the story of their lives in their closely knit college community and how war affected them. Much of the story is told through their letters to Coach from their assignments around the world, but they first got to know each other on campus. In the late 30’s, the college was said to be “a place with a wholesome religious atmosphere with a well-trained faculty and moderate expenses.” Coach Herr’s teams did well in competition with other colleges, traveling by car to meet schools in Virginia, Maryland, DC, and New York, and the teammates formed strong bonds with each other and with Coach.
Elizabethtown College, founded by members of the Church of the Brethren, had a pacifist leaning, and there were quite serious discussions about what role the school should play, how it should treat military recruiters, and how the interruption in student’s education by the draft would be treated. Some of the draftees opted to be conscientious objectors. The Civilian Public Service was established in cooperation with the government and was run by the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and Society of Friends (Quaker) Committees.
War was on the horizon, however, and his athletes started to trade in their team uniforms for Army uniforms. Wib left in 1940 to fulfill a dream and get his pilots wings in the Army Air Corps. Then there was a draft, and many more left campus after graduation in June 1941. Stan joined the Naval Reserves, also hoping to fly. Perhaps the proximity of the Olmsted Air Force Base in Middletown, just a few miles from Elizabethtown, influenced them both. Graduates Carl Herr and Luke left their new jobs and took off for the Air Corps as well.
Wib wrote frequently about learning to fly – “You must be doing pretty good in soccer this year. I suppose it’s because you got rid of that happy-go-lucky deteriorating bunch of guys. I’m having a pretty swell time here at Primary. soloed on Thursday and darn near cracked up on Friday.” And more adventurous and colorful letters followed later as he mastered a variety of planes and ultimately took a B17 to North Africa.
But back at home in Elizabethtown, Coach and Mrs. Herr had a December baby (me). On campus in 1942, Coach worked hard to keep the athletic teams going; many schools simply shut down intercollegiate competition because there were too few men on campus. Another factor was the gas needed for driving to and from other schools. Coach came up with a plan and sold it to the administration.
By 1943, even more left campus – a party was held to wish them well, and off went George, Merle, Ben, and LeRoy among others. By this time, Luke was co-piloting B-24s in the Pacific, based on Guadalcanal. Johnny was about to be deployed with the Army for North Africa, and Wib moves from fighter planes to be the pilot of Roughneck, his very own B-17.
Based in Panama, Stan is flying in the Atlantic, probably watching for U-boats, but he takes time to draw cartoons on his letters for “the kid,” me.
On campus everyone recognizes that these are “Stormy Times,” and the school paper is filled with opinions alongside social and sports news.
More leave – Ernie, Ed, and Ralph. Coach has only 12 men on campus – ministerial students and those who were physically unable to join the service. Soccer is dropped, but he fields teams in basketball and baseball, and of course women’s basketball. The letters are full of questions and reports about how those teams perform.
Wib sends long letters back from North Africa – and then finally comes home after 50 B-17 missions to a hero’s welcome in town. When the action moves to Italy, Johnny dies under a Panzer tank attack. It is the first death to hit the campus community, and Coach gives the eulogy at a memorial service. Stan completes his first tour of duty and comes back to Norfolk for training. Helen, herself a WAVE in the service, and Stan marry in October. In November, tragedy strikes the community again when Stan dies in a plane accident.
Times are tough at home too – you need a permit for a vacation trip. Wage rates are stabilized for some industries. For hunting season, hundreds wait in line to get war-scarce shotgun shells. Winter delivery of coal is limited to 1/2 ton.
But the letters keep coming – Paul getting his pilot’s wings, Roy comes back from a civilian job at Pearl Harbor, joins the Seabees, and heads out to the Philippines.
It’s 1944, and the letters reflect a war-weariness. . . Another pilot is lost, as Luke dies, and the youngest of those sent off to war, Ralph, dies in the muddy fields of Holland in November’s Battle of the Dikes.
It isn’t over, however, and Ed is part of the fight across Europe, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Three times he is wounded, and three times he returns to the front with the 84th Infantry – the Railsplitters.
Letters come from Ernest and Rudy in India, from Ernie in France, from others in the Pacific. And then, it’s over.
Many of those who didn’t finish college come back to campus and we see them again as class officers and teammates. They have changed, and the college changed. I can only guess at how all of this affected my father and mother; I do know that these men and women are like brothers and sisters to me, for they looked to their coach as a father and he must surely have felt that the war took a tremendous toll on his sons and daughters.
Embedded in this story is the quest for peace and justice in a time of war. The relationships show the impact of athletics. As Gene Garber noted for me on the cover, this story shows the value of lessons learned through playing sports: hard work, discipline, love and respect for our teammates, “we” over “I,” and coping with failure as well as success. And most of all it is the story of young people putting into words their hopes, fears, and the strangeness of war.
Author’s note: The book is nonfiction, and real names and places are used. In the back of the book are pictures and biographies of the letter writers mentioned in the book as published. In some cases their graduation years indicated are for work completed after the war. All of the 200 letters remain in the archives of the Elizabethtown College Library along with permissions authorizing their use.
Raised on the campus of Elizabethtown College, Lois Kathryn Herr’s life has been strongly influenced by the men and women of that college community. Her father, Ira R. Herr, was the legendary coach and athletic director at Elizabethtown College for over 34 years. Her mother, Kathryn Nisley Herr, left a positive impact on countless young people during her teaching career on campus.
Lois earned her bachelor’s degree from Elizabethtown College and went on to receive a master’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Fordham University. She has extensive experience in business, government, education, and politics.
Lois’ business career included 26 years in telecommunications management with Bell Telephone Laboratories, AT&T, New York Telephone, and NYNEX. Based on her experience and research, she wrote Women, Power, and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003; republished by URLink, 2020) documenting the 1970-1973 EEOC case against AT&T. That case established affirmative action in corporate America, and her book describes the individuals and the adventures that went into making that happen.
She returned to Lancaster County PA in 1990, bought a farm, and later served in a variety of positions at Elizabethtown College – as teacher, senior administrator, and scholar-in-residence. She served her community as chair of the Lancaster County Planning Commission and President of the Elizabethtown Rotary Club, as well as working on numerous state, local, and nonprofit boards and commissions.
Lois wrote Dear Woman of My Dreams (Xlibris, 2016), a coming-of-age story based on her mother’s 1923 diary, with illustrations and stories linking four generations of strong women. In 2021 she wrote a booklet, Farmers in the Woods: Mount Gretna’s Little Known Agricultural Background, 1890-1916 for the Mt. Gretna Area Historical Society.
Lois currently serves on the Mt. Gretna Borough Council as Vice-President, is President of the Dauphin/Lebanon County Boroughs Association, and is a member of the Nurture Commission of the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren.