In Their Nation's Service

Men of the College class of 1951 share lessons learned while doing their duty.

On the morning of July 20, 1953, a week before the armistice that ended the Korean War, Henry T. Dunker ’51 was kneeling in a shallow trench in South Korea, surveying a battlefield. “The bodies of a number of [fellow] Marines were strewn on the slopes of the hill below the trench line, where the Chinese had thrown them,” he recalls. “The hill was bathed in light....The green of the Marines’ combat uniforms contrasted sharply with the light brown earth on which [they lay]. There was very little, if any, sound. Nor was any living person to be seen on the hill or near it.”

This surreal, historic scene is one of many eyewitness accounts in the class of 1951’s new book of memoirs, In the Nation’s Service. Published through the Harvard Alumni Association’s Class Reports Office, this rich text elucidates both those formative years just out of college, and a complex period in American history. “Many [classmates] mention their service as having furthered their education—through travel, knowledge of other cultures, or simply in a forced maturing in dealing with the world and people outside of Harvard Yard,” writes the book’s editor, classmate Richard Nenneman. “As a whole, the essays show the profound lack of cynicism about government that prevailed a half-century ago.” To class members, the concept of service was still quite fresh, if not alluring: World War II had ended just 25 months before they entered Harvard. “Whatever our experience before we came together,” notes Charles Flood in the prologue, “all of us understood that tyranny had been defeated only by a willingness to serve in the massive and dedicated effort to destroy it.”

In his entry, John Walcott describes the battleground of Pork Chop Hill. During one brutal assault, Chinese soldiers “were tossing grenades through the firing slits and jumping into the trenches, creating panic and confusion while the main body of the assault ran down their hill and up ours,” he writes. “They just kept coming and enough got through to overwhelm the defenders…I never saw a live Chinese soldier and that was good, because by the time you did see one, it was dark, he was 10 feet away, and he was trying to kill you.” A friend died in a subsequent counterattack. For his part, John Palladino writes that he learned “simple lessons of life” while in the army—that “skin is waterproof and that sleeping in a floating barge with rats that ate the bindings of my books…can be an adventure….I was toughened and ready for the world, a much more mature young man.”

The book recognizes seven classmates killed in action: six in Korea, including Marine lieutenant Sherrod E. Skinner Jr., who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to protect his men; and one in a terrorist attack. CIA officer Richard Welch was assassinated outside his home in Athens in 1975 in an attack planned by “a small band of Greeks angry about U.S. support of the junta that ruled Greece harshly for several years leading up to 1973,” writes Christopher May, Welch’s roommate. The killers were finally caught 30 years later.

A number of the 200 class members or their survivors who contributed short essays never saw front-line combat in Korea. Some served military tours on domestic soil, in Europe, Asia, or in the Middle East, while others served as diplomats or federal policymakers, or with nongovernmental organizations. Army veteran Frederick S. Wyle held various posts in the government, including service as deputy assistant secretary of defense (1965-1969); during that period, he helped shape nuclear weapons policy with NATO allies. Back then, he writes, “it was the Europeans, not the U.S., who wanted to rely on the threat of nuclear weapons to deter the Soviets from any adventurous behavior in Europe.” He credits Robert McNamara (“leaving aside his role in the ‘Vietnam debacle’”) with convincing the Europeans and NATO allies that this reliance “was a bad idea, since the consequences of their use were so terrible and unpredictable.”

Also active in the Kennedy administration was William R. Polk, who served on the Policy Planning Council and worked in Iran and Afghanistan. He writes: “The shah once told me that I was the only American official who spoke to him as an adult, man to man, but he did not like the message I brought—that if the military grew rapidly and was not balanced by the less glamorous, less favored countervailing institutions such as the parliament, the judiciary, and the free press, Iran would sooner or later…be convulsed with revolution.”

Richard W. Murphy spent his 34-year State Department career focused on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli peace process. In 1988, after Jordan’s King Hussein renounced claims to the West Bank, Murphy recalls that indirect phone negotiations with Yasser Arafat, aimed at opening a dialogue, left the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman saying unhappily that he felt as though forced to do a ‘strip tease.’”

Other classmates’ government service took more lighthearted forms. The army assigned William P. Perry, a composer and conductor fresh out of Harvard, to a Berlin garrison where he organized games, events, talent shows, and even co-wrote (with William Wheeling ’50) a Broadway-style musical called Xanadu, about Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. It became a hit that toured Europe for five years. Most significant, he writes, was his role as a VIP tour guide for Berlin, a city he came to love, and where he now lives part of each year, still composing and performing music.

image of performers

Courtesy of William Perry

Wlliam Perry (left) and William Wheeling ’50 pose with acresses from their musical, Xanadu.

Reading through the entries, it is clear that nearly everyone was deeply affected by national service. Palladino, who found maturity in wartime, is now a grandfather with newfound respect for the pain his parents felt when he enlisted: “[N]ow, in the Iraq blunder, I physically grieve for the young men and women who are giving so much for a worthless and unnecessary war, especially with the maturity I gained in Korea that taught me to ask the hard questions based on history, religion, and, above all, knowledge of the issues.” For Nenneman, who died last year soon after the book was published, the experience spawned a “lifelong fascination with Europe” and a desire to see (preferably non-military) national service required of every American.

And for Walcott, who witnessed terrible carnage on Pork Chop Hill, the Korean War is possibly “the noblest” post-World War II conflict, despite his observation that “A million served and thousands were killed or wounded between June 1951 and July 1953, and nobody noticed.” Last year, his great-niece and her middle-school classmates celebrated Veterans Day by writing thank-you letters to those who had served. He received three calling him a “hero” who had sacrificed to “keep our country safe.” “Sometimes,” concludes Walcott, “I even believe it.”

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown
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