Monday, May 25 is Memorial Day and as such it is fitting for us to remember our Gamma Zeta “Gold Star” brothers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We felt that just a one day per year remembrance was not enough. So we have decided to announce today that we’ll be creating a memorial display in the library in the Alpha Tau Omega Chapter house to the Gamma Zetas who served our country in the military, including twenty-one Gold Star Brothers who died during active duty.
The idea for this memorial display was generated by the pledge class of 1965 who will be holding their 50th reunion on the weekend of October 2nd and 3rd, 2015. They wanted to remember and honor one of their pledge brothers, Marine Lt. Bruce Capel who was killed in action on May 12, 1966 almost 50 years ago this month. At their reunion on October 3rd, we’ll dedicate the memorial display in the library and hang plaques and pictures to honor Bruce and our other brothers who have served us so valiantly. We’d like to invite all brothers and their families to join us for the dedication ceremony on October 3rd. Please mark your calendars. More details to follow. We would also invite you to help with this memorial by “sponsoring” one of our Gold Star brothers with a donation which will go towards the plaques and restoration of the library. Here is a link for donations.
One member of the pledge class of 1965 who will be in Champaign for the reunion is Rear Admiral William D. Masters, Jr. (Ret). I thought that it would be interesting to catch up with Bill and get his perspectives on what it was like when he was an undergraduate during the Vietnam years, what he remembers of Bruce Capel and some of his thoughts about Memorial Day as a career Navy officer.
I ended up at the UofI primarily because my father graduated from the “Big U” in 1939. I had been accepted to many other schools, but Illinois’ reputation and my Dad were the primary reasons. Dave Boughan (GZ64) was also graduated from Canton High and I liked his ATO stories. I had no thoughts of going into the military directly from High School and to be frank, Viet Nam was barely on my radar.
What was it like on campus at that time? I’ve heard stories of protests on the quad etc. Was that something that your class experienced?
The campus during my time was pretty much a typical campus – the war hadn’t really caused much angst and I don’t recall any major protests while I was there.
How did you end up at ATO?
I was introduced to ATO by Dave Boughan and met many of the brothers prior to rush and others during rush. I was impressed by the diversity of interests and personalities. I had been a jock most of my life, but didn’t have a desire (or the talent) to play at Big 10 Varsity level, but I liked the fact that ATO had scholar athletes who I could relate to. We were also very well thought of by most of the sororities. When time came to pledge there was no close second.
I’ve heard that fraternity membership dipped somewhat during those years… that fraternities were viewed as part of “the establishment” when there was a very non-establishment trend on college campuses. Is that something that you guys thought about?
My experience was that fraternities, for the most part, were still a good place to be.
What was your ATO experience like?…some of your favorite memories… some of the guys who were the most memorable characters at the time?
I could write a book on my experiences and the characters involved. Rich Callaghan and I seemed to be the two pledges who caused most of the trouble for the class – Callaghan because he tried to and I because I seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time most of the time. We had a punishment called “Rack – Out” which involved getting us up in the middle of then night and PT-ing until we dropped. I do remember Rich and Bruce (Capel) butting heads in the living room until they bled – you’d have to ask Rich why. Oh, and Tom Hardy flitting through the house with his Saudi robes on like Lawrence of Arabia. I cannot think of any Pledge brother that I had a bad relationship with. Kenny Brown, Bart Cole, Rocky Cook, Big Ed Didrickson, Ron Rump, Ken Schreiner, Brian Grant, and Jerry Maxwell all were memorable for sure. I remember Senior Jonah Jones who put a chevy V8 in a VW bug and ran it up a tree (he later ran Ford’s development team as I recall)
Were you an officer in the house?… what were some of your favorite activities with the fraternity and on campus?
I was not an officer in the house. I did play IM football and basketball – tried water polo a couple times and about drowned. I spent a lot of time at Kam’s and Biddie’s and drank a lot of Schlitz.
Bruce was one hell of a guy – I already mentioned his head-butting with Callaghan and he was hard to get around on the gridiron. I remember him as being smart and studious, but the most memorable thing was his smile. I remember him thinking that a Marine Officer’s place was in the fight, not playing football for the Corps at Quantico (back then the services had what amounted to semi-pro teams that were very talented). The last time I saw him was on TV. He was at the Rose Bowl which I was watching at the Enlisted Club in Pensacola – and he had the biggest damn smile I had seen. It is a memory etched into my psyche and one that I treasure.
As the U.S. engagement in Vietnam escalated during your time in college, how did that impact everyone’s experience? Were guys exempt from the draft while they were in school or were guys getting called away in the middle of school?
There were student deferments during my time in college. I remember the President of my local draft board calling me and telling me he had heard that I had dropped out of school and he was going to help me with my career. “If you’re not in the Navy Monday, you’ll be in the Army Tuesday” – I was in the Navy Monday.
There must have been stories filtering back from older brothers, friends and classmates who had been to Vietnam. What was the general attitude of the guys in the house about this? Did they support the war… were they opposed to it… or, were they still like most college guys… still more interested in sports, girls and beer (and maybe a little school in between)?
I think most of the stories happened after I left. If there were any, I didn’t focus on them. In my particular case, I really didn’t have much real knowledge of what was happening. My recollection is more of beer, pizza, girls and parties.
You left Illinois to join the Navy prior to graduation. How did that happen for you?
I graduated at the top of my high school class, but found that I had the discipline to only eke out “Gentlemen’s C’s” I was on probation and off probation and finally decided to leave before they kicked me out and kept me out. As I mentioned above, once the draft board found out I was taking a breather, my choices were limited, and I enlisted.
What can you tell us about your experience in those first few years for you with the Navy?
My enlisted tour from 1964-68 was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was forced to get my act together and develop and refine the leadership skills that had been pretty much dormant while I was partying. I was the Recruit Petty Officer in Charge in boot camp and led the company to first place among all companies at Great Lakes at the time. I formed a bond with our Company Commander and re-connected with him last year in California. I was class leader in technical school and had several supervisory jobs when I went to SE Asia. My greatest adventures were several special operations missions aboard diesel submarines doing things we shouldn’t have been doing in places where we shouldn’t have been. Most notable is my conversation with my division officer when I was thinking of re-enlisting and was told that I couldn’t marry my fiancé because I had a top secret clearance. I left the Navy, married my honey and have been together for 47 years
Do you remember hearing about Bruce being killed? This was obviously before the internet, email, mobile phones and social media. Were you guys even able to get together to support his family?
I’m a little foggy on how I found out about Bruce, but it may have been Bart Cole telling me. I know he and I got together when I was home on leave and he was in training at Corpus Christie. I was not able to support the family as I was still overseas, but my guess is the brothers did. (might want to ask Brian, Ken, or Bart about this) I remember finding his name on “the wall” not long after it was erected.
You finished your college at Western Illinois. How did you end up there?
I ended up at Western because is was close to home and I was pretty much broke even though I had the GI Bill. Scholastically the reason was I had decided to study Economics and would have to change from Liberal Arts to Business at the U of I and lose most of my credits. Western had an Econ degree in A&S and could keep all my credits – really upset me when they told me I couldn’t transfer my GPA, so I graduated Cum Laude which was a pretty good deal.
Tell us a little about your long career in the Navy. How did you choose to stay with it so long? What were some of your most memorable experiences?
I remained at Western to get my MBA and then by happenstance was asked to get a commission in the Reserves. The ordeal leading to the commission is a novel unto itself, but I did get a direct commission in 1973. I spent over 20 years in the active reserves and then went back on active duty as a Captain in 1998. When 9/11 went down I decided to stay on Active Duty and spent most of my time get the right people to the right places. I ended up retiring in 2006 and was the oldest Admiral on Active Duty when I did. Most of the experiences are still highly classified, but there are a couple that stand out. I returned to Great Lakes and was the Reviewing Officer in the same building where I had led my company some 40 years earlier and was able to relate my experiences to those young sailors who were just starting their career. (I’ll keep thinking on this, but most of the fun stuff is still top secret)
What are you doing now? hobbies… family… travel??
I stay pretty busy playing tennis and pickle ball, taking care of my boat, reading, and enjoying my grandsons. I am also on a couple city advisory boards, a university board of visitors and am Past Commodore of the Halifax River Yacht Club in Daytona Beach.
As you have spent nearly your entire career in the military, tell us what goes through your mind as the nation recognizes Memorial Day. What perspective would you like to share with our undergrads as we remember our Gamma Zeta brothers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country?
I always speak of Memorial Day as a National Holiday for personal remembrance. I urge people to remember those who may be family or good friends to keep those who have paid the ultimate price in their hearts. I speak of my father who was a Pearl Harbor survivor and fought the South Pacific campaign becoming the youngest Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps. I speak of my experience and my high school classmate, Larry Bell, and my brother by choice and not by the accident of birth, Bruce Capel. I speak of my good friend and son’s Godfather who perished in the Pentagon on 9/11 . I remind us all that it’s too late to prevent Pearl Harbor; it’s too late to stay out of Vietnam; it’s too late to prevent 9/11, but by remembering those incidents and those who gave their lives, we can help to keep ourselves vigilant and hopefully prevent similar events in the lives of my grandsons, Billy IV and Jack.
Here are the Alpha Tau Omega Gamma Zeta Gold Star brothers who we are aware of who died in military service. Please remember them today as we honor their service on Memorial Day. (note that the links included are the the University of Illinois Veterans’ Memorial Project web pages which honor all Gold Star Illini)
——————- WWI ——————–
Benjamin H. Bloebaum 1913
——————– WWII ——————–
Captain Robert Ellsworth Thomas 1915
——————– Viet Nam ——————–
Navy Lt. Richard Lawrence Koffarnus 1956