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Alum recalls impact of Pearl Harbor attack on Union University

The crew of the Straight Flush. Union alumnus Gil Nicely, kneeling on the far right, was the tailgunner for the weather plane accompanying the Enola Gay.
The crew of the Straight Flush. Union alumnus Gil Nicely, kneeling on the far right, was the tailgunner for the weather plane accompanying the Enola Gay.

JACKSON, Tenn.Dec. 6, 2011 – On Dec. 7, 70 years have passed since a surprise Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor killed about 2,400 American military personnel and civilians, prompting the United States to enter World War II.

As the anniversary neared, Union University alumnus John C. Huffman, who was a junior ministerial student that Sunday in 1941, recalled how the attack affected the university.

“I can remember where I was standing after church in the alley between J. C. Dixon’s house and Crook Hall ... when I heard the news,” said Huffman, who now lives in Louisville, Ky. “The dramatic and tragic happening of Pearl Harbor had a sobering effect on Union.”

Though many buildings from the university’s old campus are no longer standing, Crook Hall still sits facing East College Street near downtown Jackson, Tenn. An image of students sharing the news with each other against the backdrop of the building’s dark brick exterior is easy to picture 70 years later.

Rush McDonald, a Union alumnus who Huffman remembered as a popular student, lived in Hawaii at the time and responded after the attack, helping those wounded. He was lost at sea, one of three Union students to die in the first year of the war, according to records compiled by James Baggett, dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences, in his book about the university’s history, “So Great a Cloud of Witnesses.”

Three and a half years later, another alumnus played a crucial role in ending the war against Japan.

Gillon Nicely, now deceased, graduated from Union in 1943. On Aug. 6, 1945, he flew as the tail gunner in the Straight Flush, the plane whose crew verified favorable weather conditions before the Enola Gay crew flew over Hiroshima, Japan, dropping the first atomic bomb to be used against another country.

As the plane flew away, Nicely looked back at the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima, he told Daniel E. McClure Jr. in an interview for his 1979 book, “Two Centuries in Elizabethtown and Hardin County, Kentucky 1776 - 1976.” It was then, Nicely told McClure, he understood the degree of training and secrecy with which the mission was undertaken. McClure also recorded in his book that Nicely said he saw the purpose of using atomic bombs to hasten the end of World War II, but he hoped that they would never be used again.

While Nicely was training during the war, Huffman and the other Union students, faculty and staff fought it from the home front. Whether they enlisted or not, every member of the Union community became involved in the war effort, Huffman said.

Enrollment was already smaller than usual in the fall of 1941 — 350 to 400 students, according to Baggett — in part, because some prospective students had already volunteered for the armed services, Huffman said. After the attack, the student body shrank further.

“Many of the students were drafted right in the midst of their time at Union,” Huffman said. “(They) left to do what they could, and that meant few could choose college.”

Because the university needed money, it allowed the Army Air Corps to take over the male residence hall during Huffman’s senior year, he said. He and the other residents of Adams Hall had to find living space where they could.

He said he remembers experiencing a feeling of foreboding as the Air Corps trained on the grounds of the old campus, learning to march.

“Then, war was not recreational,” he said. “It was declared from necessity and with a will to win. ... The days of war cast a long shadow of grimness and gravity over our days at Union and beyond.”

Though overshadowed by war, Huffman said his college experience at Union was rich. He went on to attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and later served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Mayfield, Ky., for 24 years.

“Unforgettable are the smiles and greetings of fellow students no matter how many times you passed each other on the walks of the campus,” he said about his time at Union. “I will ever be grateful to Union University for helping me to find who I am, and helping me to walk into an unknown with a new confidence and hope.”

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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