Saunders' War Letters Open New Exhibit

War’s historic impact on UNC is the subject of a new exhibit in Wilson Library’s Manuscripts Department. The exhibit was launched Tuesday with a presentation by Janis Holder, University archivist, titled, Words Can Do Little: Spike Saunders’s WWII Correspondence.”

J. Maryon “Spike” Saunders ’25 was executive secretary of the General Alumni Association from 1927 until 1970. During the war years, Saunders maintained a prolific correspondence with alumni overseas. Holder’s research work for this program included reviewing alumni folders maintained by the GAA’s Records Department. The Carolina Alumni Review included excerpts from that correspondence in its September/October 1995 issue that included in-depth feature coverage of Carolina during World War II.

The exhibit, titled “A Nursery of Patriotism: The University at War, 1861-1945,” includes more than 150 letters, documents, photographs and publications that explore the University’s contributions to and involvement in the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

The exhibit will be on view through Feb. 29. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. It is offered free of charge.

In part, the exhibit tells the story of the University by following individuals such as Ruffin Thomson (class of 1863) of Hinds County, Miss. Thomson attended UNC from 1859 to 1861, then joined the 18th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. On exhibit will be a letter in which Thomson describes the campus at the beginning of the war; a detail of his regiment’s muster roll bearing his name; his 1864 military promotion letter to the Confederate Marine Corps; and an excerpt from the “University of North Carolina Record” conferring degrees on Thomson and other military alumni in 1911.

Other items to be shown include a 1917 pamphlet by UNC faculty titled “Why We are at War with Germany”; a 1943 Christmas card mailed to Saunders from Guadalcanal; and numerous photos and documents illustrating wartime life on campus. The exhibit also will present items showing dissenting opinions, such as opposition to the draft and to the large military presence on campus during World War II.

The following appeared in the Review‘s September/October 1995 issue as examples of the correspondence between Saunders and alumni serving overseas in World War II:

Correspondence with Alumni During the War

The following exchanges occurred between Spike Saunders ’25 and Ed Rankin ’40; most of Rankin’s messages were in the way of notes he added to the invoices for his $3-a-year GAA membership dues.

July 1942

A swarm of Carolina men are coming through the Raleigh Navy Recruiting Station daily. Keep an eye on the Navy recruiting story in the Raleigh News & Observer every day if you want some good dope for the Review.


19 May 1943
North African Waters

Dear Spike:
I haven’t seen a good old Alumni Review in about four months or more, chiefly because I have had you sending your mag to my home address and it hasn’t come through from there. But I want to remedy that situation right now, if you please, and have you change my mailing address. … It will take a long time to get the magazine, but I’ll eventually get the Review and old news is as welcome as the latest over here.

Not so long ago I bumped into Ensign Dave Morrison ’41 and had him aboard for a steak dinner. It was delightful to meet someone from the Hill in this part of the world, and I’m still trying to find my old buddy, Ensign Martin Harmon ’40, who is somewhere over here.

We of the class of ’40 thought we had seen more change in the physical appearance of the University than any other class, but if reports I hear are true about the war expansion of Carolina then we haven’t seen anything. I am certainly looking forward to the day when I can get back for a visit. Best of luck with your work and I hope to be hearing from you soon through the pages of the Review.

Sincerely yours,
Ed Rankin

June 10, 1943
Alumni House

My dear Ed:
Thank you for your letter of May 19. Glad of course to hear from you and know that you have seen Dave Morrison. It’s funny but it seems that we can trail Dave literally for the past several months. I have heard from various persons in various places who tell me that they have seen Dave and in addition I have had a couple of notes from him.

Hope you find Martin Harmon.

We are changing your address to that which you give above, and separately, we are putting into the mails here for you copies of back numbers of the magazine. Hope they get through to you.

21 July 1943
Mediterranean Area

Dear Spike:
Just a note to let you know that I received the three back issues. … Getting an Alumni Review is like a triple-decker letter from home. By the way, if I’m back on my alumni dues, send the bill to Mother … and you’ll get prompt payment from my account there. I’ve no way of sending dough from here, and if I did I’m afraid francs wouldn’t do you much good.

Well, I was in the invasion of Sicily and am finding it quite a show. And I just made Lieutenant (jg), USNR, so things are picking up with this ex-reporter.

July 31, 1943
Alumni House

My dear Ed:
I am so glad that you have received the three back copies. … Your letter of July 21 reached Chapel Hill July 30, which is pretty fast time. …

The University is mighty proud of you and all other alumni in service. When you get through with your experiences you certainly will have a lot to write about. Why don’t you do a book? I’d like a copy!

Things here in Chapel Hill continue to be active. At the present time we have approximately 5,000 students, cadets, soldiers, etc. on the campus — the latest group arriving being 250 Area and Language Study enlistees of the Army. I guess these men will be needed pretty soon if you fellows over there keep up your present pace.

August 1943
Spencer, N.C.

Mr. Saunders:
In the October issue of Skyways magazine there will be a copy of Edward’s letter describing his view of the landing on Sicily.

— (Mrs.) E.L. Rankin

[The letter actually was written to Martha LeFeure Smith ’41, who was then staff writer at Skyways magazine in Washington, D.C. Martha used excerpts of the letter in the magazine. — E.R.]

July 1944
ETO [European Theater Operations]

Participated in the Normandy landings and happy to report that I still possess an unperforated hide. Also just promoted to full Lieutenant. Lots of UNC guys about, but no time at moment to give you resume.

Very best regards,

July 24, 1944
Alumni House

I was so glad, Ed, to have your note. … A good number of alumni must have participated in the Normandy landings. I have heard from several of you.

Congratulations on your promotion! I hope you will have time to write again and better still that you will be coming home soon.

1 April 1945
European Waters

Dear Spike:
Just a note to let you know that I have a new address. … I assumed command of this ship [LST 355] on 13 March and have a fine group of officers and men.

Hope to drop in and see you sometime this year. It has been 24 months since I last saw the States, and that’s a long time in any man’s league.

April 10, 1945
Alumni House

My dear Ed:
Thanks you for your air mail of April 1, which reached Chapel Hill April 9. Congratulations on your new command — it’s grand news and your Chapel Hill friends are mighty proud of you. I hope you can be getting back soon…..

16 August 1945
Pacific Theater

Dear Spike:
Sorry to be so slow with my dough, but I have been moving around so much that I forgot all about this. I am now in the Pacific — got here just in time to hear of the Japanese surrendering. Hope I don’t have to stay long.

I know that everyone on the Hill feels fine about final victory.

The GAA Records Department holds countless carbon copies of letters Saunders wrote to alumni in the service during the war years. He always expressed the University’s pride in their efforts and assured them the Alumni Review would be sent to them to keep them informed of news back home. In an editor’s note in the January 1942 issue, he wrote that “the Alumni Office has endeavored to write more letters, send leaflets, extra copies of The Alumni Review and maintain as close relationships with the boys in service as possible. Many of course do not now have funds with which to pay for Alumni Association membership. But that doesn’t matter. As long as Association funds hold out, correspondence will hold up. And The Review will be sent without charge to all enlisted men who were members at the time of entering service.”

The following is from his correspondence with Bill Woestendiek ’47, who after the war and his return to the University was editor of The Daily Tar Heel.

Aug. 18, 1943
Alumni House

… Here in Chapel Hill the University is doing a grand job in the war effort. There are on the campus now some 5,000 students, counting Pre-Flight cadets, V-12s and other Army and Navy men stationed here for study. Included, also, are approximately 1,200 civilian students — men and women.

One of the principal differences you would observe on the campus now is the large number of uniforms. All students, with the exception of Pre-Flight cadets, are being taught by regular members of the University faculty. Student activities are being carried on insofar as possible. The Tar Heel is now a weekly and continues to be written by a student staff. Graham Memorial still functions as to student government, the student legislature, fraternities, etc. A full program of sports is anticipated for 1943-44. Football games, for instance, have been scheduled with Georgia Tech, Penn State, Duke (two games), N.C. State and Virginia. …

There are approximately 5,000 Carolina men and women in uniform. I suspect that already you have run into some of them where you are stationed. I hope you will find time to write me and tell me as much as you can about your location and other alumni whom you have seen.

Nov. 9, 1943
North Africa

Dear Mr. Saunders,
Although I have been rather lax in answering your letter, I want to thank you for writing. Your letter was most interesting and I enjoyed hearing about what was happening back on the “Hill” a great deal.

… I knew I would miss Chapel Hill and life at UNC a great deal, but I underestimated it at that. I think of the time spent there with satisfaction and often wish I might be back there now. … I follow the football team as closely as I can from here and am glad to see that we are having a fairly successful season. I was sorry to see that Duke beat us, but I understand we play the Blue Devils once again this year, and maybe the Tar Heels can even things up. At any rate, I’d certainly like to be sitting in the old Kenan Stadium pressbox again on a colorful Carolina Saturday afternoon. …

Dec. 2, 1943
Alumni House

My dear Woestendiek:
Your letter of Nov. 9 reached Chapel Hill Nov. 23, which is pretty good V-mail service. …

By the time you read this you should have a good picture of the results of our football season. We played nine games, lost twice to Duke and to Georgia Tech but won the others. … The personnel of the squad changed considerably on Nov. 1 when a new semester for the V-12 program began. There were enough holdovers, however, to enable us to go on with the season.

Feb. 2, 1944
North Africa

Dear Mr. Saunders,
… I want to thank you for the Alumni Reviews, which have been arriving in fine style. They are really a treat for sore eyes. … I was overjoyed to see that the Tar Heels had a successful season with the Duke exceptions. …

At present I am wondering how the basketball team is making out. I trust that the White Phantoms are carrying on in the best Carolina traditions on the floor of Woollen Gym. …

Feb. 29, 1944
Alumni House

My dear Woestendiek:
Thank you for your V-mail letter of Feb. 2, which reached Chapel Hill Feb. 18. … You asked about the basketball season. I wish that I might have received this letter prior to last Saturday. Carolina and Duke played then as finalists in the Southern Conference Tournament at Raleigh. Even if Carolina had defeated Duke twice in three prior engagements, we lost 44-27 in the conference, and Duke was crowned the champion.

We had a regular commencement here Feb. 25, at which time some 300 men were granted degrees, certificates or commissions. All of them were in the Navy V-12 program. …

Dec. 1, 1945
Saugerties, N.Y.

Dear Mr. Saunders,
Having just returned from the African-Middle East theater after two and a half years, I am writing to notify you of my change of address and to thank you for the efficient manner in which the Alumni Reviews kept coming to me. They managed to keep me in much closer contact with the doings back at UNC than I had imagined possible. …

My present plans are to return to Carolina as soon as possible after my discharge. … I was in my junior year when the war interrupted my studies (and) I would like to know my exact status at the University. … I would appreciate it very much if you could furnish me with such information. …

Saunders forwarded Woestendiek’s request to University Admissions and sent Woestendiek a note to that effect. When he didn’t hear anything after six weeks, Woestendiek again wrote Saunders, who sent this reply:

Jan. 23, 1946
Alumni House

My dear Woestendiek:
Yesterday I went to South Building and inquired about your status as a returning serviceman. The Admissions officials and those in the Registrar’s office are simply swamped with inquiries and interviews. In general, it can be said that if you were eligible to return to the University at the time you left, you can reenter now. …

Living conditions in Chapel Hill are becoming increasingly crowded. The University’s first priority in admissions and for dormitory reservations is given to returning servicemen. I would suggest that you send a deposit of $6 for a room reservation now….

At present there are 1,655 veterans at the University among the 4,011 students registered. This is the largest number of students in residence in the University’s history.

When you register here … you should have with you a certified or photostatic copy of your discharge papers. That is all you will need to get started under the GI Bill.

Sept. 6, 1946
Saugerties, N.Y.

Dear Spike,
Enclosed please find my slightly late check for membership in the General Alumni Association. … I’ll be back in Chapel Hill early as I have to work on the first issue of the DTH, so will see you then.

I have been wondering about your weekly football supplements for the coming year and whether or not you have someone to assist you — as Westy Fenhagen did last fall. In case you haven’t done so, I would be interested in covering the games for you, as I have covered football games before and am a rabid fan. …

See you in the fall — which isn’t far off, judging by the weather up here.

Saunders led the GAA for 43 years and without fanfare built its membership from 700 to more than 15,000. He died March 3, 1995, at age 91. When Saunders retired as alumni secretary in 1970, more than 500 people honored him at a dinner featuring remarks by former governors Luther Hodges ’19 and Dan Moore ’28, Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson ’31, then-UNC System President William C. Friday ’48 and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paul Green ’21. Saunders was among the first recipients of the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1978 and a 1979 winner of the University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 1989 the Board of Trustees also gave Saunders its highest honor — the William R. Davie Award for distinguished service.

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