As a soldier during World War II, Anthony A. Alaimo ’48L was a prisoner of war for nearly two years and part of a daring escape from a German camp, which later was the basis for the 1963 film The Great Escape. While his cohorts dug a tunnel out of the camp, Alaimo used bellows to pump air into the tunnel so they could breathe. He eventually made his way back to American-controlled territory via Italy and Switzerland.

Later, after finishing Emory law school, Alaimo went on to serve as the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia for fourteen years and, at eighty-three, the Emory Medalist is still active as a distinguished senior judge in Brunswick, Georgia.

Alaimo is part of a distinct, close-knit group of World War II veterans who attended the Emory School of Law in the years 1947-1951, most of whom were on the GI Bill. For many years these classes have maintained their special bond, gathering regularly at dinners and social events. These men and their stories are now the focus of the Emory Oral History Project: WWII Era, an effort to preserve their experiences and memories for future generations of Emory students.

“I think I have stayed in touch with many of these people for all these fifty-five years because we were close, we still are close,” says Bill Paul ’48L, who has served as a leader for the project. “We had this shared experience of World War II, and most of us were very young at the time. It was sort of a glue that bonded us together.”

Paul, who wrote a novel called The Road He Chose about his own life and military experience, has long cultivated an interest in an oral history resource at Emory, similar to an archive at Rutgers University that offers some three hundred taped interviews with alumni. He and law school administrators, including Martha Fagan, director of alumni relations, and Rosanne Patton, assistant dean for development, sent out surveys earlier this year to as many of the World War II alumni as they could find, and have received more than fifty completed forms.

Paul himself has conducted seventeen videotaped interviews, each lasting about an hour and a half. The interviews cover the years leading up to the war, the subject’s military experience, and his legal career. These interviews will eventually be transcribed and edited into shorter, more polished form, and all material will be archived in the law school library.

Like Alaimo’s story, a number of the acccounts are surprising, harrowing, and inspiring. Jim Starnes ’42C-49L, for instance, was the navigator on the famous battleship the USS Missouri and told of a young Japanese Kamikaze pilot who crashed into the side of the ship, doing only minor damage. His body flew up on deck, and the American crew gave him a full military funeral. At twenty-four, Starnes also was officer of the deck when the Japanese came aboard to sign official surrender documents in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945. Grainy, black-and-white photos reveal Starnes, a tiny figure standing on a deck above General Douglas MacArthur and Japanese officers, as Paul says, “overseeing the great event.”

“Sometimes during the interviews [the alums] have gotten emotional, because several of them told me they had not thought about these events in years,” Paul says. “But these are tough people. They hold together pretty well.”

Jeptha C. Tanksley’49L, who lost both legs and one eye in the war and received a Silver Star and Purple Heart, returned to attend Emory law school and in 1956 became the youngest superior court judge ever elected in Fulton County. Though Tanksley died in 1996, Paul conducted extensive research and interviewed his wife for the oral history project.

Paul hopes current Emory law students will draw inspiration from these stories, particularly since a number of the World-War-II-era graduates came from humble beginnings and used the GI Bill and Emory to launch remarkable and distinguished legal careers. Many attended the evening law program that Emory offered at the time so they could simultaneously work and meet family obligations, continuing law school right through summers, so that classes blurred together and brought all these students closer together. “We felt like we had lost a lot of time,” Paul says.

“I hope students will gain a great deal from this, if for no other reason than it’s an example of how some people really made something of their lives from a good education,” Paul says. “Some of these people came from families where from an economic standpoint they were at ground zero. Jeff Tanksley was born in a two-room cabin in Banks County, the first of ten children.”

From an institutional perspective, these veterans also are pivotal to the law school’s history, says Rosanne Patton. “The law school at the time of the war had very, very few students, and there was a huge possibility that it would just close its doors,” she says. “When the GI Bill was put in place it brought this tremendous influx of students. That’s the group that really made the law school what it is today.”

The oral history project has inspired leaders at the law school to plan a trip to Normandy for alumni, “D-Day Remembered.” The trip, scheduled for May 2004, will coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

More than anything, though, Paul is seeking to safeguard the life stories and the accomplishments of his classmates.

“My own hope is that the oral history project is going to preserve what these people did, so it won’t ever be totally forgotten in this country,” he says. “For historians, I think this can be a great place to go because they are getting information and experiences described by the people who actually lived them. I do believe these are things that deserve not to be forgotten.

“And this project has been a true labor of love for me. I’ve loved every minute of it.”–P.P.P.



© 2003 Emory University