Joseph Friedman ’49 recalls warm memories of Rollins during his WWII service in France with the U.S. Army’s 95th Infantry Division.
(Illustration by Dan Baxter) The warmth of Rollins College never seemed more meaningful to me than it did during the winter of 1944 when I was sitting in a foxhole near the French town of Metz.
There, in the bitter cold, in the midst of war, my feet froze. Not just cold. Not just numb. Way beyond frostbite. I couldn’t move. My toes turned gangrenous black while I clung to our unit’s communications radio to report troop movements, gunfire, and skirmishes, and waited for help.
Did my mind keep drifting back to Florida and Rollins? You bet. But the funny thing is that I hadn’t even been an official student then. I had just spent a few months on campus in late 1943 with hundreds of other soldiers. We were part of the Army Specialized Training Program. Chase Hall was our barracks—four guys per room. We took some classes, but we were not college students. Honestly, I can’t remember what we were supposed to be studying. Maybe because I wasn’t interested in the subject then. Or maybe because I’m 90 now.
But I do clearly recall that reveille woke us every day at 6 a.m., and we hustled to get dressed and put our room in order for inspection. (The manual told us how to hang our clothes and in what order.) Then we fell in for the daily flag-raising ceremony, marched around campus, drilled, and received more Army instruction. Yet what I recalled most while sitting in that frozen foxhole was the lush, sunny Rollins setting, and OK, I was young, so I remembered the female students too. Not that we were allowed to talk to them much.
My memories of the homey campus might have been all the more intense because we knew that it was only a matter of time before we got orders to move out and head to combat overseas.
And then, too, there was this strange coincidence: My parents, who had family in north Florida, had recently moved from Massachusetts and were spending the winter with good friends in Winter Park. That made Rollins seem even more like the home I left behind, as I shivered in my hole in the ground, wondering if I’d ever get out of it, much less back to warm, tropical Rollins. I don’t know why, but I always felt like I would, even as I got farther and farther away.
I arrived in France with the 95th Infantry Division three months after D-Day. We became part of the Red Ball Express, which kept ferrying fuel and food to Gen. George Patton’s fast moving tank units that were always outrunning their supply lines. The roads were pockmarked from explosions. The weather turned awful. But we kept going, until I found myself stuck in that foxhole.
It was comforting to recall my memories of Rollins—the beauty of the campus, the big events like the Animated Magazine and how the townspeople flocked to them. After a while, I even felt nostalgic for all the marching and drilling we did in the warm Florida weather. By the time help arrived at my foxhole, I couldn’t walk. The medics examined my feet and shipped me to a special hospital near Bristol, England. Thanks to new techniques and excellent care, they didn’t need to amputate. I recovered slowly. But it was safe and warm there. A lot of guys were worse off, so I couldn’t complain. After several months, the doctors said I was well enough to travel, and I sailed back to the United States with other soldiers. We were somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean when word came that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. I spent the rest of the war stateside, but I kept thinking about Rollins.
When the war ended, I returned to Florida, hoping to start college. I knew I couldn’t afford Rollins, even with the benefits of the GI Bill. I tried to enroll at the University of Florida, and their administrators said my medical condition allowed me to receive full tuition at a private college. Since the big public schools were filling up with returning GIs, they were glad to direct me to Rollins. What a strange coincidence! I could never have planned it. But I was heading home.
Throughout my time in the Army, I always felt like I’d get back to Rollins someday. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know when. But when everything fell into place, I felt like I’d been blessed. I still do.
Joseph Friedman ’49 made a full recovery from his wartime injuries and had a successful career as a real estate developer in Florida. He has two daughters and is now retired and living in Boca Raton. His wife, Zilpha, passed away in 2014. They had been married 57 years.