WELLSBURG - Lou Beltrame was surprised to receive a college diploma in the mail, having graduated from Follansbee High School and entered the military, not college, following his graduation more than 70s years ago.
But it was Beltrame's military service, which included driving generals and other officers to the front lines of fighting, that earned him an honorary master of military arts degree from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn.
A resident of the small community of Louise in the Wellsburg area, Beltrame is one of 850,000 soldiers who, over a three-year period, participated in seven large-scale maneuvers in 22 Tennessee counties to prepare for their deployment to the European and Pacific theaters.
HONORED WITH DEGREE — As a former member of the Army’s 503rd Quartermaster Car Co. during World War II, Lou Beltrame of Wellsburg has been awarded an honorary master’s degree in military arts from Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tenn., where he and thousands of other soldiers trained before deployment to Nazi-held areas of Europe.
In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the troops' assignment there, university officials decided to honor the many veterans by presenting the honorary degrees to as many veterans and their family members, in the case of those now deceased, as they could find.
The recipients were invited to a ceremony on May 8, the 67th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. The date was chosen because 22 of the 25 Army divisions that trained there would go on to serve in Europe.
Beltrame was unable to attend the ceremony, but his daughter, Karen Serafine, arranged for the diploma to be mailed to him.
Beltrame, who has returned to the campus for a few reunions, recalled how he and thousands of others were camped in tents across the Cumberland University campus.
"The whole college was empty. The officers took over it. We pitched our tents on the football and baseball fields, wherever was available," he said, adding it was quite cold on Tennessee's wintry nights.
"We'd hang our clothes up the night before and when we got up, they'd be stiffer than a board," Beltrame recalled.
The officers lived indoors, he noted, but the experience prepared the troops well for the conditions they would encounter abroad.
According to various written accounts, the troops engaged in drills on farms and other areas near the school that were dangerous enough to result in the accidental deaths of 250 soldiers.
They included 20 who drowned when their pontoon boat overturned in the Cumberland River.
Beltrame said as a member of the 503rd Quartermaster Car Co., he drove soldiers to the drills in large trucks. He wasn't in danger, but he recalls hearing about the accidents.
"A lot of them got hurt and some got killed, too," he said.
While Beltrame remembers marching for 25 miles at a time and occasionally training on the rifle range, his primary responsibility was maintaining Jeeps; weasels, which were tracked vehicles designed for use in snow; and other vehicles used by the Army.
When he was deployed to Europe, he would continue to perform that role, later being promoted to staff sergeant.
Beltrame recalled landing at Normandy, following the initial invasion force, and how truckloads of bee's wax were used to waterproof the engine and other areas of the Jeeps so they could be driven from landing crafts to the beach.
While serving in France, Germany and Belgium, Beltrame also drove many officers, including Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley, to the front lines.
Beltrame and his passengers were the target of both the German Air Force and "buzz bombs," pilot-less aircraft carrying missiles. He also has seen some of the atrocities committed at Buchenwald, a German concentration camp where Jews, Poles, Slovenes, religious and political prisoners and others were held captive and an estimated 56,000 died.
But he prefers not to discuss that.
Bestowed for "rigorous studies of military operations during Army maneuvers" conducted at Cumberland, the diploma arrived with a letter signed by Harvill C. Easton, the university's president.
Easton wrote, "When you first set foot on our campus in the 1940s, your presence made a tremendous impact on the university - a small university playing a big role in one of the most important events in our country's history.
"It is our privilege to honor those who have served, defended and made sacrifices for our country. On behalf of a grateful university, thank you," Easton said.
Beltrame said he's surprised to receive the recognition.
"I just did my job. I didn't think anybody was watching me," he said.