Robert McAlpine and Vernon Sumwalt joined the University of South Carolina’s first Navy ROTC class in 1940, knowing they would go to war. They graduated in 1943 and survived most of the World War II sea battles in the Pacific.
Sumwalt witnessed the battle of Leyte Gulf – the war’s largest sea battle – from the deck of a light cruiser and participated in numerous other engagements. McAlpine’s destroyer participated in the initial bombardment of Iwo Jima, and he later saw kamikaze suicide planes nearly sink the aircraft carriers Bunker Hill and Franklin.
On Thursday, the two, now both in their 90s, were invited back to watch 95 University of South Carolina midshipmen pass in review on the school’s historic Horseshoe and celebrate the class of 1943’s 70th anniversary.
“Feels good to still be living,” said Sumwalt with a wide grin as he watched students lounge around the Horseshoe, some decked out in Halloween costumes.
“The place hasn’t changed a bit,” McAlpine said.
Although 13 men graduated in that class, only four are alive today. Sumwalt of Rock Hill and McAlpine, a Union native now living in Gainesville, Fla., were the only two alums who could make the trip.
As part of the ceremony, three Navy ROTC supporters received honorary recognition as “admirals of the year.” They were Gene Warr, a 1981 USC graduate and chairman of the university’s board of trustees; Toney Lister, 1968 grad and also a USC trustee; and Harold Sturm, who helped found the alumni chapter 30 years ago.
But McAlpine and Sumwalt were centers of attention.
“These are gentlemen who, in the dark days of World War II, took one step forward, raised their right hand and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and then set sail to do so by going in harm’s way,” said alumni association president Bob Davis.
McAlpine served as a deck officer on USS The Sullivans, a destroyer named in memory of five brothers from Iowa killed in action early in the war. After the war he worked for the U.S. Forestry Service and retired in Gainesville.
Sumwalt was aboard the light cruiser USS Phoenix. He went on to graduate from USC Law School in 1948 and practiced law for nearly 45 years.
Following the ceremony, McAlpine, 92, was interviewed for the “South Carolinians in World War II” series on ETV, a partnership between the ETV Endowment and The State newspaper. Sumwalt will be interviewed later.
During the interview in the president’s conference room, McAlpine was greeted by USC president Harris Pastides. After learning that McAlpine lived in Gainesville surrounded by Gator fans, Pastides offered him two tickets to the USC-Florida football game on Nov. 16.
“I think I might take him up on that,” McAlpine said, grinning.