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The Fighting Aztecs of WWII

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Students at what was then called San Diego State College in early 1941 were living the high life. The majority of them were involved in Greek life, organizations, and clubs like acapella, fencing club, and the Ice-Tecs (ice-skating) — to name a few. With a population of just over 200,000 people at the time, the sights of SD were more accessible and the beaches were far less crowded. Peaceful paradise.

Painting of San Diego State College’s Administration Building, 1941 – now called Hepner Hall

Up on the beautiful new Montezuma Mesa campus, Walter R. Hepner was the university president and the Aztecs had just won the NAIA Basketball National Championship. Being runners up the previous two years, the Aztecs finally got over the hump in the 32-team single-elimination tournament in Kansas City by beating Murray State 36-34 in the championship game. The third time was the charm. Students and the community celebrated their victory with a parade and greeted the returning champs at the Sante Fe Depot Station in downtown San Diego. It was an exciting time for all who attended. 

The Aztec, March 18, 1941. “Cagers” was a popular term for basketball players because games were played in a cage at the time. Eerily foreshadowing WW2, an SBD Dauntless Divebomber is pictured on the front page

Their celebration didn’t last long. Just 9 months later, the country was at war with the Axis Powers. The championship trophy hadn’t even accumulated dust yet. Like most men around the country, many who had graduated from, attended, or would eventually attend San Diego State sprung to answer the call of military service. It is estimated that there were more than 3,500 Fighting Aztecs involved in the conflict. At least 152 of them were confirmed to have perished by the war’s end.

The Aztec Newsletter was the brilliant idea of Dr. Lauren C. Post, a San Diego State College geography professor and football coach. The newsletter was created so that students, alumni, families, and soldiers could stay up to date with information on the men scattered around the globe that attended San Diego State. 

SDSU student, Lt. W. Pat Wyatt’s political cartoon depicting Adolph Hitler’s death and the allied victory in Europe — sent to the Aztec Newsletter & Dr. Post and it is now part of SDSU’s “World War II Servicemen’s Correspondence Collection“. Wyatt was a bombardier and pilot in Marine Scout Bomb Squad 241, aka the “Sons of Satan,” and served in the Pacific Theatre.

SDSU was a whole lot smaller than it is today—try around 2,000 students total. Most people knew each other. These were classmates, friends, and neighbors that waved at each other with friendly smiles.

The newsletter started off as a collection of letters but as the war progressed, included a list of fatalities, casualties, MIA, promotions, awards, and other updates. It launched on May 6th, 1942, and spanned 48 issues until March 1946. Each issue was mailed to around 3000 monthly readers at home and abroad. Dr. Post did an excellent job keeping the SDSU community connected, wherever they were in the world. Each edition was extremely detailed with as much information as he could collect. It was the only newsletter of its kind in the nation that compiled students’ wartime experiences from a single university. Not only did the newsletter preserve history, but it also served as a testament to San Diego State’s pride during wartime.

The Fighting Aztecs

The first Aztec lost his life at the hands of battle in May 1940, a full year and a half before America’s involvement in WW2. Richard D. Aubert was originally from Canada but graduated from San Diego High and attended SDSU shortly after. He sensed a war brewing in Europe and figured that North America would be involved sooner or later. In 1938, he returned to Canada without telling his mother and became a pilot in the Royal Air Force. 

Once war broke out in Europe, Aubert was stationed in England and would readily fly across the English Channel to combat the German Luftwaffe. Piloting an RAF Supermarine Spitfire fighter, Aubert was credited with one kill of a Nazi Ju-88 Bomber before being shot down near Dunkirk, France. His body was never recovered as the British Expeditionary Forces were already retreating out of the country because of the overwhelming German blitzkrieg during The Battle of France.

Back home, fears of the European war were brewing but life carried on as normal until Pearl Harbor was suddenly attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan in December 1941. Eventually, each player of the San Diego State College 1941 national championship team, a team manager, and head coach Morris Gross left San Diego to serve during the Second World War. Three of them did not return home. 

Milton Milky Phelps’ graduation photo, 1941

The first-ever death reported in the Aztec Newsletter was of Aztec basketball great, Atwell Milton “Milky” Phelps. Milky was a co-captain of that 1941 national championship team, a 3x team MVP, a 1000+ point scorer, and was the first major-school First Team All-American in school history. In November of 1942, he died in an overland US Navy aerial training exercise in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was going to become a pilot and would have likely served in the Pacific. His death was reported across the nation in the New York Times because of his accomplishments on the basketball court. Milky was eventually inducted into the SDSU HOF Class of 1988 and has had his #22 jersey “retired” by the university.

The student newspaper, The Aztec, now named The Daily Aztec, announced his death with the following statement: “‘Milky’ Phelps is dead, and with his death passes an age in San Diego State College athletic history. An age in which by the ability and magnetism of one person, another who gave others rise to talents long hidden in them and pulled themselves to unscaled heights.”

The news of Phelps’ death made the war a reality on campus. One student wrote, “Perhaps all of us will awaken — awaken and realize that it is going to take a lot more cool thinking and a hell of a lot more hot fighting before we come out on top”. A few Fighting Aztecs expressed that they now had a personal reason to fight after hearing the news. For many students, he was the first person that they knew whose death was tied to the conflict. Unfortunately, many more would follow on various fronts. 

To keep up spirits following more early student deaths, President Hepner wrote in Aztec Newsletter no. 10, “The Aztec spirit and service extend throughout the world!… From all sections of the globe we receive splendid reports of Aztec action and contribution and always, dare I say, with a feeling of “fatherly pride!” The sons of Montezuma carry on!”

Paul A. Fern

Paul Arthur Fern, known as “Stump”, was the manager and mascot of the national championship team. Beyond that, he was heavily involved on campus. Fern served as the President of Associated Men’s Students, was a member of the Blue Key Honor Society, the Delta Eta Omega Fraternity, most recently known at SDSU as Kappa Sigma, Glee Club, and played on the freshman basketball team in 1937. 

The Navy Ensign had a sense of humor. He wrote Professor Post in January of 1943, “Please tell Doc. [Lewis] Lesley I’d like to be sitting in on one of his Modern Germany lectures, at this present time. I’ll bet the Furher’s ears are burning”. 

In August 1943, Fern was killed during a beach landing operation for the land Battle of Vella Lavella in the South Pacific. He left behind a wife, Dorothea, and a few-week-old baby girl, Linda, whom he had never met. Linda Fern eventually attended SDSU in the early 1960s and, to Dr. Post’s surprise, he emotionally discovered that she was a student in one of his geography courses.

Mason Willard “Tex” Harris went from being a co-captain of the 1941 national championship team to an Army Captain serving with the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion in Europe. 

Mason W. Harris during the 1941 SDSU basketball season

Harris fought with his unit and the 101st airborne at the strategically important crossroad town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Buldge. Bastogne is storied as a battle with some of the harshest fighting conditions in Europe. Being severely under-equipped with minimal supplies and summer clothing during that brutal Belgian winter of December 1944, he, along with his fellow soldiers, held out the surrounded city of Bastogne and defended its northeastern flank until General George Patton’s Third Army relieved and rescued them. Throughout the siege, with incredible efficiency, Harris’ battalion destroyed around 40 German tanks and lost only six M18 Hellcat Tanks.

In a letter to Dr. Post, dated January 30th, 1945, Harris recalled the Battle of Bastogne as “Quite an event and a job well done.” He wrote, “We were getting low on supplies and we got our first supply by air. I have never seen anything so beautiful as those C47s & fighter protection as they came in low circled and got their signal from pathfinders who were dropped the day before and then came back & started their drop of supplies. Those colored chutes as they floated down were beautiful & words can’t describe the feeling… Doc it’s not possible to put on paper what one feels in those instances.” Harris also mentioned that there were many stories from that battle that he simply could not bring himself to describe.

Harris was killed in action pushing toward the Rhine River in Germany on March 3rd, 1945, just two months before the Allies achieved victory in Europe. He was survived by a wife and daughter. He never met his 3-month-old baby girl who was born while he was fighting in Bastogne.

D-Day

There were a great many San Diego State students who stormed the beaches and parachuted onto the lands of Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. Each whose sole mission was to liberate the oppressed people of Europe and take down the German war machine. 

Following D-Day, in Aztec Newsletter no. 29, Dr. Post’s opening address stated, “As of this date (July 13), I have checked various sources, and really, it seems that State College did not lose a single man in Normandy or the English Channel… only Lt. James White was injured… It is almost unbelievable that we could have made the invasion without a single Aztec being lost.” Indeed, it was too good to be true.

Later, it was discovered that SDSU graduate, Herman Addleson, was killed parachuting into Normandy during the early hours of D-Day when he landed in a flooded field and drowned. Nazis were ordered to flood fields as a part of the Atlantic Wall defense. He is the only known Aztec to be killed in action during the Day of Days.

Addleson participated in the choir, ran track for SDSU, and graduated from the university in 1941. Some knew him as “the guy who sold Coke’s at San Diego State’s basketball games”.

Herman Addleson’s graduation picture, 1941

Addleson didn’t have to enlist in the military. His cleft lip made him 4F, or unfit for military service. The Army informed him that if he had that fixed, he would be eligible to enlist. He didn’t have enough funds to pay for the operation. However, baseball Hall of Famer and local San Diegan, Ted Williams, heard of Addleson’s story and the Red Sox legend fully paid for the procedure.

On the 1st of May 1944, while stationed in England just a month before the invasion and his death, Addleson wrote Dr. Post, “Seems like a lot of Aztecs are over here, yet I haven’t been able to get around to locate any, except Tom Rice and Guy Sessions, buddy paratroopers. We are going to give those Nazi[s] hell on “D” Day, so you can see old Aztec is well represented in the Airborne outfit.”

Herman Addleson and Tom Rice were both members of the newly formed 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles. The unit was popularized in HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’ WW2 Miniseries, which debuted in the early 2000s and now has a cult-like following. The Airborne recruited athletes and college students. Addleson and Rice checked off both boxes because they both ran track together for the Aztecs.

Tom Rice was a risk-taker, which he noted as his motivation for joining the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne. There he was the number one jumper of an 18-man paratrooper squad on D-Day and served as a platoon leader for half a year.

Shortly before Rice made his jump into Normandy, he was violently thrown out of his C-47 aircraft and dangled there by his wedged arm. He was able to release himself, but during the experience lost his prized watch, which he jokes that he “hopes some good Frenchman found it.” Upon parachuting into France, he destroyed communication outposts around the Cotentin Peninsula and fought to control small towns in that region including Sainte-Mère-Église and the town of Carentan, where he is now an honorary citizen.

Tom Rice – Then & Now

In addition to Rice serving in Normandy, highlights of his service include helping liberate Holland by taking part in Operation Market Garden, fighting in the Battle of the Buldge, where he was pinned down in Bastogne for hours and shot in the leg and arm by a German sniper, and assisting in capturing The Eagle’s Nest, the nickname for Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps town of Berchtesgaden in southern Germany.

While Rice was in Berchtesgaden, the war came to a close with the death of Hitler and the full surrender of Germany. The 101st had some downtime and some formed a track team. With Rice being on that track team at San Diego State, he ran in the 5,000-meter race there and lost to another soldier from UCLA by 20 yards. Of course, Rice was still recovering from the bullet wounds he received in Belgium. Years later, while Rice was coaching cross-country for Chula Vista High School, he had met the man again as an opposing coach at a meet. The soldier from UCLA didn’t recognize him, nor did Rice mention Berchtesgaden, but Rice made sure that his team came out victorious that day.

Tom Rice was honorably discharged from the Army in December 1945 and returned to SDSU to earn his degree. He received 6 elective units for his service — Those who served as officers were granted 9 units. He went on to teach history and government at San Diego schools for more than 40 years, married his wife Brenda, and had five children.

He again parachuted into Normandy from a C-47 aircraft for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at age 97, made another jump into Holland at age 98, and lastly freefell into Coronado, California for his 100th birthday in 2021. Tom Rice is still alive and well, being one of the last living WW2 veterans. He currently lives in his childhood home in Coronado.


Dedicated to the 152 Fighting Aztecs who made the ultimate sacrifice. For more on all of their stories, read Supreme Sacrifice, Extraordinary Service: Profiles of SDSU Military Alumni by Robert Fikes Jr., Emeritus Librarian of San Diego State University.

To everyone in and around the SDSU community who has or is currently serving, thank you for your service and sacrifice. We hope to never again lose another son or daughter of Montezuma to the hands of battle.

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by Tom Ables. Photography by Ernie Anderson and others.

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