Tales from the Greatest Generation
We all know of people who lived during World War II—parents, grandparents, and College of Science and Engineering alumni. Yet, we may have never heard their stories. These remarkable people—who grew up during the Depression, came of age during this time of unrest and participated in the post-war boom—created a lasting legacy that continues to shape us all. In this story, we meet four College of Science and Engineering alumni who were profoundly shaped by World War II and exemplify what broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw has hailed as the “Greatest Generation.”
One infantryman-turned-engineer came back from the war and pioneered sensor technology for jet aircraft. Another overcame the indignity of being interned in a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans and rose to become one of the government’s most trusted Cold War scientists.
Another civil engineer helped rebuild battle-ravaged Okinawa and went on to found a leading civil engineering firm. Yet another served as a Navy aircraft mechanic in the Pacific and came home determined to finish his education, allowing him to launch a successful company that helped lay public infrastructure in the post-war boom.
All their educations were interrupted, or accelerated, by the war. They grew up fast, came home with a sense of purpose, finished their education, and leveraged their degrees into successful post-war careers in engineering and technology. Here are just a few of their stories.
Dick DeLeo: From Infantry to Aerospace
Dick DeLeo (Aero ’46, M.S. ’48) used his ingenuity to help the aeronautics industry reach supersonic speeds.
Growing up in St. Paul, Minn., DeLeo became fascinated in the then-burgeoning field of aviation. As a boy, he built model planes and flew them in his backyard. By the time he entered the University in 1940, he knew he wanted to study aeronautical engineering.
He landed in the right place. Founded in 1929, the department was one of the first accredited aeronautical engineering programs in the United States. By 1940, Minnesota enrolled about one out of every seven aeronautical engineering students in the country.
“His method of teaching was called the sink or swim method. He gave you a job and if you made a success, that was good and if you didn’t, you flunked. He didn’t really help you either way. ”
Then the war intervened. DeLeo enlisted in the Army reserve and was called to active duty in 1943. Later, with the 84th Infantry Division, his unit served in Belgium and Germany and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I was attached to regimental headquarters, which was a fairly good job,” he said. “We did mainly sentry duty, guarding the command post and collecting German POWs. It was a cushy job.”
The war stamped DeLeo with a sense of discipline and purpose. Within 10 days of returning home, he re-enrolled in the University and graduated in August 1946. “It matured you,” he said. “You came back and settled down pretty fast.”
DeLeo went to work at Rosemount Aeronautics Lab, a major research hub in the post-war years as the industry transitioned to jets and supersonic flight. The lab, located at the old Gopher Ordinance Works, had a number of wind tunnels where researchers could run experiments at high speeds.
“In those days, they were switching from propeller airplanes to jet airplanes,” DeLeo said. “The measurement of altitude and airspeed became a lot more complex. The old techniques that worked with propellers weren’t satisfactory. There were some good opportunities to come up with novel ideas.”
Meanwhile, DeLeo continued his studies, earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1948. One of his greatest influences was Professor John D. Akerman, director of the Rosemount Lab and founder of the aeronautical engineering department.
Akerman was a memorable figure. Born in Latvia, Akerman served as a pilot with the Russian Imperial Air Service in World War I; after the Bolshevik revolution, he joined the French Air Force. He became one of the founding fathers of the early aeronautics industry in the Twin Cities. He designed a tailless airplane known as the “flying wing” (now at the Smithsonian Institution), served on the team that designed the wing of the B-29 bomber, did groundbreaking research into high altitude flight and developed early gas pressure suit and oxygen systems. DeLeo recalls him as a major influence—and stern taskmaster.
“His method of teaching was called the sink or swim method,” DeLeo recalled with a chuckle. “He gave you a job and if you made a success, that was good and if you didn’t, you flunked. He didn’t really help you either way. Now, a lot of people didn’t like that, but he created a lot of independence. He was mainly a creator of possibilities.”
DeLeo took advantage of those possibilities. He spent 10 years at the Rosemount lab. In 1956, a group of engineers from the lab spun off a company called Rosemount Engineering. DeLeo joined them the following year and spent the remainder of his career at the company designing instruments for measuring altitude and speed.
DeLeo rose to vice president of aeronautical research, a position he held 10 years until he retired in 1988. He developed technologies for 19 patents, about five of which became valuable products for Rosemount Engineering (now part of United Technologies). His inventions included a pressure pick-up tube mounted on the outside of the aircraft that measured speed, airflow, and altitude while compensating for air motion disturbances.
Eventually Rosemount sensors were flying on virtually every aircraft manufactured outside the Soviet block. They even went into space on the Space Shuttle. All that was made possible by his education at the University. “It created my whole capability really,” said DeLeo, now a 90-year-old retiree who splits his time between St. Louis Park and Florida. “I’m forever grateful for my education.”
Bob Naka: From Internee to Top Secret Scientist
First Bob Naka was labeled a security threat. Then he became one of the U.S. government’s most trusted scientists of the Cold War.
Naka (EE M.S. ’47) was an engineering student at UCLA when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Two months later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the government to remove people of Japanese descent from the western United States. About 110,000 people were uprooted from their homes, jobs, and schools and sent to internment camps.
In the spring of 1942, the Naka family was ordered to report to the Manzanar internment camp in Owens Valley, Calif. Naka was forced to leave UCLA three quarters of the way through his sophomore year.
Naka recalls Manzanar as a dismal place. The barracks were built from uncured wood that shrank in the summer heat, opening gaps in the floors and walls and allowing sand and dust to blow inside. They shared a small room with another family and strung up sheets to separate living from sleeping areas.
“My parents were very stoic about the whole thing,” he said. “Although it was unspoken, they were quite worried about me. I was a citizen of the United States, and because of that, I was not welcome in Japan. In some respects, I was a person without a country.”
Naka spent nine months in the camp. Education proved to be his salvation. The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (a coalition that included college administrators, government officials and religious groups, particularly the Quakers), helped 4,000 Japanese Americans attend colleges in the interior United States.
In the summer of 1942, Naka was told to start packing his bags: he was headed to Ohio State. Soon afterwards, however, students there protested and organizers decided it was unwise to send students there.
“My parents were very stoic about the whole thing. Although it was unspoken, they were quite worried about me. I was a citizen of the United States, and because of that, I was not welcome in Japan. In some respects, I was a person without a country.”
Naka remained in the camp until the following February when he was offered a place at the University of Missouri. On the eve of his departure his parents quarreled. “My father said ‘I don’t want him to go. He’s our only child and it’s dangerous out there,’” recalled Naka. “My mother got very irritated, and said, ‘I say he goes. If he stays here, he’s as good as dead. If someone gets angry and kills him, at least he tried.’”
The exchange left Naka frightened—and his apprehensions only increased when he boarded a train full of soldiers the following day. Fortunately, he arrived in Missouri without incident and was warmly welcomed on campus. One electrical engineering professor urged Naka to continue his education by pursuing a master’s degree at Minnesota and helped arrange a teaching position.
In 1945, Naka arrived in Minneapolis. Again, his department and fellow students welcomed him. “There was absolutely no harassment,” he said. “The veterans were very friendly, and I got to know quite a number of them.”
Naka excelled at Minnesota and did his master’s thesis on high voltage engineering. His professors encouraged him to stay for his Ph.D. and pursue a career in teaching. Ultimately, he decided to go to Harvard for his Ph.D.
But Minnesota did provide Naka with one lasting gift. There he met his future wife, Patricia Ann Neilon, then a graduate student in child development. They married and had four children.
After earning his Ph.D. in electron optics from Harvard, Naka went to work at the nearby MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which was building the nation’s first air defense system known as the Distant Early Warning, or DEW line. Given his wartime internment, he wondered if he would be cleared to work on classified projects. “With some trepidation, I filled out all the forms,” he recalled. “Much to my surprise, I was given secret clearance.”
That was just the beginning. Over the next several decades, the government increasingly would trust him with some of its most sensitive defense projects.
In 1956, the Director of Lincoln Laboratory asked Naka to step outside to talk privately. Sitting in a car outside, he was informed about his next assignment: a high-flying spy plane that could penetrate Soviet airspace. Until then, Naka had worked on radar technology; now he would switch hats and devise technology to evade radar—the beginning of what became known as Stealth Technology.
Naka was among a small group of people who knew details of what would become the U-2 spy plane. In 1960, the plane was revealed to the rest of the world when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, Naka’s career kept flying. From 1969 to 1972, he served as Deputy Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a spy satellite organization. He spent three years as Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force and about 10 years as Vice President of engineering and planning of GTE Government Systems Corporation. He also served on the NASA Space Program Advisory Council, Trustee of the Aerospace Corp., as a member of the Board of Directors of Simmonds Precision Products, Inc. and Hercules Aerospace Corp., the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and as a private consultant.
Toward the end of the Cold War, Naka’s boss asked him whether he had been interned. His boss, John L. McLucas, had an impressive resume: secretary of the Air Force and head of the NRO and administrator of the FAA. Yet even McLucas marveled at Naka’s biography—the man who once had been interned for security reasons was now sending classified memoranda to the White House and running the U.S. government’s super secret satellite agency.
“He remarked on the irony of it all,” recalls Naka, now 88 and living in Concord, Mass. “He said ‘only in America could such a sequence of events have occurred.’”
Bob Rosene: Out of the Rubble, a Career of Building
The Battle of Okinawa was the largest amphibious invasion of all time. Known as the “typhoon of steel,” it raged for three months until the last pockets of Japanese resistance were wiped out in July of 1945.
Three months later, Bob Rosene (CivE ’45, M.S. ’48) a civil engineer from the University of Minnesota and newly commissioned ensign with the Navy Seabees, stepped ashore and witnessed an island ravaged by war, which was occupied by many U.S. military units in the process of being deactivated.
“In the south end of Okinawa, there wasn’t a single building left standing after the war,” recalled Rosene, now retired in northeast Minneapolis. “Either it had been blown to pieces in the war or it had been bulldozed out of the way to make room for bases.”
His path to Okinawa began two years before when he arrived at the University of Minnesota as an officer trainee in the U.S. Naval Reserve. The V-12 Navy College Training Program was established at colleges and universities around the United States to quickly train officers for the Navy and Marine Corps. Pioneer Hall was converted to a Navy barracks.
“In the south end of Okinawa, there wasn’t a single building left standing after the war. Either it had been blown to pieces in the war or it had been bulldozed out of the way to make room for bases.”
The program would leave most modern students in awe. The program packed three years of college into two with a military regimen that included uniforms, restriction to barracks, and daily physical fitness training. Trainees were expected to work 55 hours per week and took not only engineering classes but also military ones.
By the time Rosene graduated in 1945, half his fellow civil engineering students had dropped out. “We went around the clock, three semesters a year,” he said. “It was tough, but there was a war on. You did what you were told.”
Rosene graduated from the University with a civil engineering degree in June of 1945 and was sent to midshipmen’s school. He was in combat training when the Japanese surrendered. The training ceased and he was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps to serve with the 36th Naval Construction Battalion or Seabees in Okinawa. One year earlier, the construction battalions had been celebrated by the John Wayne movie “The Fighting Seabees,” which Rosene calls “a little more dramatic” than reality.
Rosene arrived in Okinawa in October 1945, about three months after the fighting ended. The island had seen the worst carnage of the Pacific and the death toll included about 150,000 Okinawans (one third of the population), from 75,000 to 100,000 Japanese Military and 14,000 Americans.
Almost no trees or buildings were left standing. Rosene’s photo album bears testimony to the scene: Forests leveled by artillery barrage, blackened caves where Japanese soldiers had been burned out with flame throwers, crashed airplanes, and a landscape covered by construction sites, airfields, and military camps.
Rosene served as an officer with the Seabees until the battalion was deactivated. He was then transferred to the Navy Military Government. His duties in the battalion included security, overseeing the brig (mostly used as a drunk tank) and other administrative duties. The Military Government duties included helping to construct temporary housing for Okinawans whose villages had been leveled. They also helped them replant rice and sweet potato fields, rebuild village office buildings, and set up freezers for the local fishing industry. It was all to help the Okinawan citizens return to their normal lives.
Rosene left the island in the summer of 1946 when the U.S. Army took over all of the military government activities. He returned to the University of Minnesota for a master’s degree in civil engineering and worked for private industry. In 1959, he teamed up with another University alumnus, Otto Bonestroo (CivE ’49, M.S. ’50) who was starting a new engineering firm. Later, Joseph Anderlik joined them. Bonestroo, Rosene, Anderlik and Associates, Inc. became one of the region’s largest civil engineering consulting firms. By the time Rosene stepped down from the board of directors in 2002, it had grown to 400 employees with five offices.
In retirement, Rosene has remained active in several professional societies and has supported his alma mater. Bonestroo, Rosene, and Anderlik established a scholarship fund for civil engineering undergraduates and an award that recognized excellence in teaching. They established another fund for graduate study in civil engineering. Rosene also served on the advisory committee of the civil engineering department where he advocated greater emphasis on undergraduate teaching.
In 2004, he returned to Okinawa for the first time since the war and found it transformed from the place that he remembers. “It’s the Miami of Japan now with big hotels and beautiful beaches,” he said. “You couldn’t recognize it at all from what it was before.”
Keith Caswell: GI Bill Helps Launch a Successful Career
The aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marines played a storied role in winning the war in the “Pacific Theater.” Keith Caswell helped keep them in the air.
When the war broke out, Caswell (CivE ’50) was a student at the University and working part time on campus for the Minnesota Department of Highways. On January 10, 1942, he and two friends walked into a recruiting office and volunteered for the Navy Seabees.
“Two of the guys ended up with the Seabees,” he said, “and I wound up in aviation. I don’t know why—I never asked!”
Caswell was stationed at the Naval Air Station at Wold-Chamberlain Field (now the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) as an aircraft mechanic on the Boeing Stearman model 75, an open cockpit, single-engine plane used to train Navy pilots and nicknamed “The Yellow Peril.”
The planes flew through the winter—a fact that Caswell remembers well because he occasionally had to fly in the open cockpit without the warm gear issued to pilots. “They wouldn’t have to fly if it was 25 below zero,” he said. “We had to fly with them too a certain amount of time. It was cold!”
In May 1943, Caswell was sent to Chicago to train in high performance engines. Shortly after, he was sent to Hawaii where he served as a mechanic for F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats, the top gun fighters of the “Pacific Theater.” He also was trained as a rear-seat gunner for torpedo planes and dive-bombers and was slated to embark on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for the invasion of Japan. Then the atomic bomb was dropped, Japan surrendered and Caswell was sent home.
“The G.I. bill was a real break to finishing. I had a couple of children. It allowed me to go to the University full time and supplemented the wages enough so that I could support my family too.”
He reclaimed his job in the highway department lab and picked away at his degree at night school. The war left Caswell convinced that he needed to complete his education. He quickly realized that most of the officers had one thing in common—they were college graduates.
“The G.I. bill was a real break to finishing,” he said. “I had a couple of children. It allowed me to go to the University full time and supplemented the wages enough so that I could support my family too.”
After a stint as an engineer for a housing contractor, he founded his own civil engineering and land surveying company. He found ample work in the booming suburbs of post-war America on projects such as water and sewer lines, sewage treatment plants, highways, bridges, gas pipelines, airports, and subdivisions.
Caswell Engineering Company (later renamed Consulting Engineers Diversified when he took on partners) grew to more than 100 employees.
During the war, Caswell vowed he would never fly on an airplane again; eventually his business grew so busy that he got a pilot’s license and bought a plane so he could fly to project sites and clients.
Caswell, now a 92-year-old great grandfather, still lives in Maple Grove with his wife Dona, who he married 10 days before he enlisted. As he drives through the suburbs today, he constantly passes sites where he helped lay out the infrastructure decades ago. And that, he adds, was made possible by his education at the University.
“We got an excellent background in the basic training for engineering,” Caswell said. “We had some wonderful professors. It was always a good addition to your portfolio that you had studied at the University of Minnesota.”