Book compiles recollections of WWII from members of CMU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 11:27 a.m.

Elmer McCall recalled his first combat in World War II: providing air cover during D-Day. He shot up a radar station in Normandy. Elsewhere in Europe, the pilot shot train engines whose boilers erupted in plumes of steam.

In addition to the combat, McCall, 90, of Pleasant Hills remembered the camaraderie he experienced.

“I hate to call war fun, but I really enjoyed the airplane and the excitement of it all. All the guys were a lot of fun,” said McCall.

His is one of 47 recollections of the war related by members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The institute published their members' memories in the book “We Were There,” and expects to release a third printing soon.

Not all the memories are as exuberant as McCall's. They also tell of the deprivation of civilians back home, escape from invading forces, the horrors of concentration camps and the loss of loved ones.

“They all had experiences in World War II, some living in Pittsburgh, some living in Europe. They all felt their stories were worth telling,” said Janet Davis, president of the board for Osher CMU.

The Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco supports about 120 institutes nationwide for adult students who take noncredit classes on campuses around the country. Pittsburgh boasts two institutes at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh.

Hazel and Alan Cope of Mt. Lebanon edited the book and wrote their own stories for it. The pair grew up in England but didn't know each other until after the war.

Living in Barnsley, a town in northern England, Alan Cope remembers hearing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declaring on the radio that the nation was at war with Germany. He was about6 years old.

“I remember having gas masks, which we had to take to school every day,” said Cope, 79.

Sirens blared for air raids about 6:30 p.m. Cope and his family spent much of that time in Anderson shelters, a corrugated iron refuge. He remembers the eerie silence of the V-1 rocket — a pilotless, jet-propelled plane. Its engines hummed when it was traveling to its destination, but the engine cut, and the V-1 became deathly silent when the bomb descended.

Ration books limited how much food, clothing and other goods that folks could get. Panties and knickers were not allowed to have a lace trim.

Hazel Cope, 73, and her family moved from London to Kendal in England's Lake District during the war. She remembers the town's celebration when the war ended.

“They had a big bonfire with a chair on top of it,” she recalled. “At the time, it seemed to me huge, and people were dancing around it.”

Also featured in the book is C.R. Thomas, of Coal Center, who would not give his age but is listed as about 73. He grew up in Clarksburg, a coal mining town in West Virginia.

His oldest cousin was killed on D-Day, and Thomas sensed his mother's worries about the war.

So every day, he repeated the same ritual: Although too young to read, he fetched the newspaper from outside and pretended to read it to his mother.

He recited the same headline, “The war is over, and our boys will come home soon.”

Thomas remembers his mother's smile at hearing those words.

“It's amusing, and she knew where my heart was. It helped, I think, ease the day,” he said.

Thomas is a retired English professor at California University of Pennsylvania and a writer.

Despite the thrill of the war, McCall recalls some sorrow.

He was on a mission to shoot up an airport on the west coast of German-occupied Norway. The planes flew 10 feet over the sea to avoid radar. Anti-aircraft guns opened up, and the captain of the flight took a hit. McCall was flying back alongside him when, suddenly, the captain's plane flipped over and crashed into the ocean.

“He had an English girlfriend,” McCall said. “Some of the guys had to go down and talk to her.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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