The Men of 1950
The 1950 Collegian reported that in June the College “will bid good bye to the largest assortment of characters that ever graced a campus.” You might accept that as spirited hyperbole, but when you hear some of these Gaels’ stories, you begin to see the truth in it.
The ink-blue waters of the South Pacific hide the wreckage of many brutal WWII naval and air battles, including the American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber in which Robert Bernard ’50 served as the radioman and gunner. He and his pilot, Jim Dougherty, hunted down Japanese supply ships and supported the Marine infantry trying to seize control of Guadalcanal.
On July 23, 1943, Dougherty and Bernard, swinging low over Munda, a settlement in the Solomon Islands, hit their target but took flak from Japanese anti-aircraft guns, forcing them to nurse their damaged bomber 10 miles to Rendova, an island ringed with black sand, that just two days before had been seized by U.S. troops.
Their plane went into the Rendova Lagoon and sank fast. Bernard pulled his pilot from the wreckage, and they drifted in a life raft until help finally came. The PT boat that found them was skippered by a young lieutenant who would one day be the President of the United States—John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Bernard and Dougherty’s bomber was found some 50 years later under 40 feet of water, a discovery that was chronicled in a 1990s documentary, War Wrecks of the Coral Seas, which also told the story of the pair’s rescue by the future president and his crew. The pilot, by then in his 70s, got the chance to dive down to the wreckage and sit in the cockpit one last time.
Bernard, who had joined the Marines in 1942, returned home, with the Air Medal and several Presidential Citations, to enroll at Saint Mary’s in 1946. Later, he joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office as an investigator, working on such high-profile cases as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the UC riots and the Black Panther shootout with Oakland police. After 30 years, he retired and became a private eye in Berkeley.
Bernard and the other men in the class of 1950 had returned from war to a changed America—severe shortages of goods, housing and jobs. But they were determined to live their lives. Thanks to the GI Bill, they were able to start businesses, buy homes and go to college. Of the class that entered Saint Mary’s in 1946, the largest up to that point, 80 percent were veterans.
“This is a special breed of men, truly the ‘Greatest Generation,’” said Ron Turner ’79, special gifts officer at Saint Mary’s and an honorary member of the class of 1950. “They were polite, and they never complained. Many of them went into teaching. They wanted to give back.”
“Nevertheless, returning from war and adjusting to life as a college freshman had its rocky moments,” Turner recounted. “In those days ‘initiation’ was a popular tradition. But upperclassmen realized in a hurry that you’re not going to haze a 24-year-old freshman who had just fought in a war.”
“I remember when they tried to get this one guy to wear a freshman beanie,” said Robert Kozlowski ’50, “he looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”
Kozlowski, one of the Gael freshmen just out of high school, has fond memories of the evening bull sessions with the former soldiers. “Fantastic. You had people who had served in Germany, Japan, Okinawa,” he said. “They all had stories, true or not, I don’t know. But they sure were good stories. It was a great experience.”
What did the younger guys learn from them? “Life,” Kozlowski said. “And how tenuous it is.”
The veterans were a great influence on the younger freshmen, said Kozlowski, who went on to earn his Ph.D. at Northwestern and worked as a chemist at Chevron. He later helped found and served as the winemaker for Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma.
“When these guys went into the service, they didn’t know if they would ever come back,” Kozlowski said. “They were relieved to have survived, after seeing all of that. Some guys had nightmares, post-traumatic stress before we called it that.”
Early on there was a controversy over school spirit and participation in activities, with club presidents and others complaining about the lack of it, which some of the older guys considered unfair. Many of them had families and jobs and were carrying 20 units.
“The maturity difference was noticeable,” Kozlowski said. “Guys right out of high school were still not even shaving in some cases and others were mature men.”
American commentators had wondered if hardened soldiers would find it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Of the 16 million men and women who served, those who returned were just eager to get on with it.
“There was more of an urgency then to get a job, get married and have children,” said Neil Sweeney ’50, who trained as a radio-gunner for Navy torpedo bombers and narrowly missed action as the war ended. He and his wife, Beverly, whom he met at a Saint Mary’s/Dominican mixer, had eight children, six of whom are Gaels, including Saint Mary’s Professor Frances Sweeney ’86 M.A., Liberal Studies ’08. Six grandchildren also attended Saint Mary’s.
Returning World War II vets applied for marriage licenses in record numbers, and more than 50 percent of them took advantage of the GI Bill.
Sweeney, who had put in a semester at Saint Mary’s before joining the Navy, came home determined to become a football coach. Even with the GI Bill, he always worked another job while in school. He was able to achieve his goal of becoming a football coach, first at Saint Elizabeth High School in Oakland and then as head coach at Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, where he later became principal. Sweeney retired as deputy superintendent of the Amador Valley/Pleasanton school district and then served as the assistant commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation.
“I was pretty goal-oriented when I came back,” he said. “For most of the GIs, it was pretty much all business. They didn’t get involved in too many hijinks.” Despite his only being two years older than the younger freshmen, Sweeney remembers feeling a lot older.
“The serious students were especially grateful to have the opportunity to go to school, and they made the most of it,” said Kozlowski. “But there were a lot of characters in our class,” he said.
“We were a motley crew that descended upon this campus in 1946,” said the late Father Caesar J. Caviglia ’50 in his homily, delivered at the class’s 50th anniversary reunion in 2000. “There were very few among us prepared for the world of academia. Fashioned by the Depression, confident of the righteousness of our nation, patriotic to a fault and so many of us benefiting from the GI Bill. No nation had ever been so abruptly enriched with an educated citizenry.”
Caviglia also came to Saint Mary’s right out of high school. He’d grown up in a Nevada mining town and intended to take an internship as a machinist at Kennecott Copper. But he tutored his older brother, Tommy Caviglia ’50, a returning vet, to prepare him for college. And for moral support, Caesar (aka “Slats”) even took the entrance exam with him. When Saint Mary’s accepted them both, Tommy decided his younger brother, still bent on the machinist internship, would go to college, too. So he and his buddies kidnapped Slats, tied him up, threw him in the rumble seat of the old Model A and took him along. Both brothers ended up staying, making their room “poker central” on campus. Slats, acknowledged by classmates as genial and an average student, went on to become a priest and an educator who was honored as a Distinguished Nevadan for his many good works for the people in his home state.
One purveyor of school spirit who chose a quite different path was veteran Anthony Poshepny ’50, who had two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star from combat in the fierce and bloody five-week assault on Iwo Jima. He was part of an elite group of Marine raiders in the Second Parachute Battalion who jumped into the fray.
Tony Po, as he became known later as a covert operative in Southeast Asia, galloped around the field at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco on a white horse, trying to fire up football fans cheering for the legendary Saint Mary’s team. A nonsmoker himself, Tony was hired by Philip Morris to hand out free samples at a time when people still thought smoking was good for you.
Born Anthony Poshepny on Sept. 18, 1924, in Long Beach, Tony Po grew up in Kenwood in the still wild and wooly, pre-vineyard days of Sonoma County. He drew attention early as a skilled golfer and went on to box, play football, baseball and golf at Santa Rosa High School, where he fell in love with history and English. Throughout his life he recited favorite passages from memory.
When the handsome war vet enrolled at Saint Mary’s in 1946, he was a standout golfer, became captain of the team and was a popular leader on campus. “How ya doin’, Chick?” was his standard greeting. He had been class president for three years and hoped to be student body president his senior year. But school officials denied him the opportunity because of his low grades. Poshepny responded by transferring out, reportedly taking the entire golf team with him.
After graduating from San Jose State with a degree in history, Poshepny applied to the FBI, which, after seeing his war record, sent him to the CIA. That’s when his classmates lost track of him because, after training, Poshepny went to Asia, where he would work on a number of clandestine operations for years. Rumor had it that the Colonel Kurtz character played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now was based in part on Tony Po, which he dismissed, as did the movie’s director, Francis Ford Coppola.
But Tony Po’s activities in Southeast Asia were the stuff of movies, a mixed bag of heroic leadership and violence. With the escalation of the Korean conflict, which engaged some of the younger men in the class of 1950, Po trained North Korean refugees as operatives and sent them back across the 38th parallel. He worked undercover in Thailand; was involved in a failed plot to overthrow Indonesia’s Sukarno government; and is thought to have trained dissidents from Tibet, reportedly helping to get the Dalai Lama safely out of the country.
By 1961, Po was in Laos, training the secret army of Vang Pao as they fought the Marxist Pathet Lao and the Vietnamese Communists. He became a leader for the Hmong tribesmen he’d trained and saved many from retaliation when the U.S. government withdrew its support. Po married a Laotian princess, broke with the CIA and lived in Thailand for a few years before returning to San Francisco. Over the years, he had been wounded several times and survived an attempt to defuse a bomb that blew off his two middle fingers and killed another man.
Years later, Po’s classmates finally tracked him down and were surprised to find him living nearby. The nattily dressed older man, damaged by war wounds and with a case full of medals at home, relied on a cane to walk into reunion. “It’s been a long time, Chick,” he said.
After all those years of helping to win a war and building a prosperous post-war America, the class of 1950, at their 1995 reunion, decided there was another way to give back.
They established the Saint Mary’s Class of 1950 Millennium Scholarship Fund, with the first undergraduate scholarship presented at their 50th reunion. The fund has now grown to a cool half-million dollars, having again united this generation of Gaels around a common goal. The names of contributors are displayed on a plaque in Filippi Hall. And since 1995, class member Joe Casalnuovo, a member of the Scholarship Ad Hoc Committee that included Kozlowski and Sweeney, has written regular newsletters for his classmates, keeping them informed of everyone’s doings.