Today, the official observance of Veterans Day, I want to recall Duke President Terry Sanford’s WW II military service.
By doing that, I mean to pay tribute to him and all the men and women connected to Duke who served our country.
In 1942, married and an FBI agent, Terry Sanford was exempt from the draft. But he enlisted in the Army as a private, latter successfully completed OCS and qualified as a paratrooper. He was assigned as a 2nd Lt. to the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
As part of the 517th, Sanford fought in some of the toughest fighting of the war in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany.
He took part in Operation Anvil, the successful Allied invasion of Southern France. During Anvil Sanford was the executive CO of a company ordered to jump behind enemy lines and seize a strong point. Through a navigational error the paratroopers in Sanford’s plane were given the order to jump while still 15 miles from their target.
Once on the ground, and unable to locate the company commander, Sanford began collecting the scattered paratroopers and leading them toward their target which they eventually reached and gained control of. For his bravery and meritorious service during the operation, Sanford was awarded the Bronze Star.
During Anvil he was in combat for 51 successive days.
Sanford served throughout the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded but remained with his unit. Howard E. Covington Jr & Marion A. Ellis in their biography, Terry Sanford (Duke University Press, 1999), recount :
On New Year’s Day, the 517th moved back into action as the Allies pushed west against steady opposition from the retreating Germans and the worst winter weather Europe had seen in years.In 1946 Sanford was discharged from the Army having attained the rank of first lieutenant.
At night the temperatures ranged from zero to ten below. Soldiers in foxholes could freeze to death if they fell asleep. Snow was eighteen inched deep and lay on frozen ground virtually impenetrable to the GI’s entrenching tool.
Visibility was reduced to a few meters, and as Sanford and his troopers moved forward during one night maneuver they had to hold the equipment of the man ahead so as not to get lost in the darkness and dense underbrush.
The immediate objective of the First Battalion was the town of Bergeval, which [the battalion commander Maj. William] Boyle occupied with two companies before moving on under the cover of darkness to a position on a bluff east of the town. He had been told to expect other Allied units there. When he reached the high ground his small force was alone and there was evidence of German activity on his flank.
In an effort to better coordinate his position Boyle, Sanford and two others headed back to Bergeval. The four were moving across level ground in the darkness when they were challenged in German and dove for cover from machine gun fire, which hit both Boyle and Sanford. At the same time, heavier fire erupted at a point farther away.
The group finally made it to Bergeval, but by the time the two wounded men got to an aid tent, the regimental doctor thought Boyle was dead.
Sanford’s wounds were less serious. Medics patched up his left hand where he had been hit by a piece of shrapnel and though his injuries were serious enough to warrant a trip to the rear , he remain with Boyle, holding cigarettes for him as he waited to be evacuated. (Boyle recovered after months of treatment and later fought in Korea.)
In Terry’s next V-mail home, dated less than a week after he was wounded, he wrote: “Just want you to know that everything is moving along well in these parts.” He made no mention of his wounds.
On January 21 the Allies captured the Belgian town of St. Vith, effectively bringing an end to the Battle of the Bulge.
The 517th had been in continuous action for thirty-seven days and losses had been heavy; the unit had suffered more than seven hundred causalities. (p.80)
Sanford went on to serve as Governor of North Carolina, United States Senator and President of Duke University.
A 1981 Harvard University survey named him as one of the nations 10 best Governors since the start of the 20th century. He’s regarded as one of Duke’s great presidents.
Sanford died in his Durham home on April 18, 1998.
Again from Covington & Ellis’ Terry Sanford:
The 82nd Airborne volunteered to provide military honors, and soldiers in crisp beribboned uniforms, shiny black jump boots, and crimson berets carried Sanford’s casket to the front of [Duke Chapel] and stood watch until services began on April 22. …There were no University sponsored Veterans Day observances at Duke yesterday or today.
[The traditional Methodist service Sanford had requested closed with a eulogy from his boyhood friend, Judge Dickson Phillips, who ] finished his prepared remarks and paused at the podium before returning to his seat.
Then the tall distinguished judge, who had spoken in such soft tones of reverence and love, looked at the row of paratroopers seated on the front pew, raised his fist in a high salute to the casket and said, “Airborne, all the way.”
As the service concluded, a bugler from the 82nd Airborne played taps while his comrades slowly folded the American flag that draped Sanford’s casket. The division deputy commander, Major General Thomas H. Needham, presented the flag to Margaret Rose before his soldiers carried her husband’s casket to the crypt below. (pgs. 508,510)
Besides the Covington & Ellis biography I drew material for this post from the Wikipedia “Terry Sanford” entry and news articles in the archives of the Raleigh N&O for the period April 19 to April 26, 1998.