Serving in the United States Third Army, Pacific student Calvin Van Pelt would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.By Sig Unander '87
It had been barely a year since Calvin Van Pelt finished his freshman year at Pacific University when he landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, the great invasion that was the beginning of the liberation of Europe from Nazi domination. Serving in the United States Third Army, Cal would see action in campaigns from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he would return to Pacific, attend graduate school and go on to a long and successful career in international business and public service.
But had it not been for the rare courage and compassion of an escaped prisoner of war who risked his life for a young American soldier he did not know, Cal’s story would have ended in a tiny Belgian village on a bitterly cold winter day in 1944.
Belgium is a long way from Waldport, Oregon, the small coastal community where Cal grew up. Straddling picturesque Alsea Bay on the central coast, Waldport was an isolated logging and fishing town where neighbors helped each other ride out the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
Cal’s father, a logger, had seen combat in Europe in the First World War and he suffered lingering aftereffects. Of Native American descent, the elder Van Pelt was a proud man with little formal schooling who impressed upon his children the importance of education. His wife was of Irish extraction, a lover of literature who harbored a romanticist streak.
Waldport’s tiny high school had just eighty students but its teachers were first rate. Told by his parents to sit in the front row of class, ask questions, get to know his instructors, Cal did just that, excelling throughout high school while working odd jobs in his spare time.
It was in 1942, the first full year of America’s involvement in World War II, that Cal came to Pacific. His family moved to Forest Grove, where by special arrangement, he finished his senior year in high school while completing first year credits at the university. Older students helped him adjust and he quickly involved himself in campus life, rooting for the football team, playing in the jazz orchestra and serving on the student council.
Cal continued to earn top grades and as the military called up more men for the war effort, he was tested and selected for the ASTP, an elite Army training program conducted in major universities to train specialists in areas including engineering, foreign languages and medicine. Notable alumni include Senator Robert Dole, Journalist Andy Rooney and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In June, 1943 Cal and his chosen Pacific classmates clambered onto a bus headed for Portland and Fort Lewis. He remembers their uncertainty as it began to sink in: “This is real… We might not come back…”
At Stanford, Cal spent four months in an intensive French language study program, then shipped out for a training base in Scotland. There he went through specialized and rigorous weapons, combat tactics and armor training and formed a tank crew.
As the date for the D-day invasion of Europe approached, the weather turned sour. The greatest amphibious armada in history wallowed in the stormy English Channel for a day. Then, early on the morning of June 6, 1944, Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the “go” order and 176,000 American, British and Canadian troops headed for their respective landing beaches.
Shortly after 6:30 a.m. the landing craft carrying Cal’s Sherman tank dropped its ramp on Utah Beach on the Normandy coast. The water was deep and rough. The tank took on water and sank, taking with it its entire crew except for Cal, who somehow survived and struggled to the beach.