Three graduate student researchers were hired over summer 2020 to record the lives, feats, and deaths of fallen Cougars from the Pacific Theater in World War II.
And, a recent graduate has volunteered to help with research through the end of the year.
Here are their own stories.
Samantha “Sam” Edgerton
Her interest in World War II started in childhood. Three of Samantha “Sam” Edgerton’s grandparents had connections to conflict, and she wanted to know more.
Her maternal grandfather served in the North Africa and Sicily campaigns with the United States Army. Her paternal grandfather, a first-generation Mexican-American, worked as a barber for the United States Navy, joining in 1944. And her maternal grandmother worked at Camp Atterbury in south-central Indiana during the war years.
Today, Edgerton is working toward a doctorate in modern American history. Her research interests include gender, race, ethnicity, and popular culture in the post-World War II American West.
“When the opportunity to work on the Fallen Cougars Project came up, I absolutely jumped on it,” she says. “I think it’s such an important project, and I’m definitely feeling more than privileged to be able to contribute to what’s going to become a permanent digital exhibit about people who—at one time—lived and walked here in Pullman and how they went from being ordinary young people to finding themselves in these extraordinary situations and performing some of the most heroic actions in the war. They contributed to moments that changed the course of global history.”
Edgerton (’17, ’19 MA History) is hoping to earn her doctorate in 2023. She “took the long way” to WSU, working in the insurance industry for eighteen years before going back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree in 2014. She started at community college, then transferred to WSU Vancouver where she majored in history and minored in women’s studies.
For graduate school, “I applied to WSU Pullman because I felt it offered the best situation for my family,” says Edgerton, a second-year doctoral student with two children at home and two more out of the house.
“I’m older. I’m a wife. I’m a mother. And I’m reading letters from mothers who lost their sons and wives who lost their husbands,” she says. “You’re looking at a point of origin; for many of these people the loss of their husband or son or brother was a turning point for a lot of things.”
Edgerton has spent two summers working on the Fallen Cougars Project. On Veterans Day 2019, she presented some of her findings at the Pullman Depot Heritage Center.
“I love writing the biographies,” she says. “You feel like you’re providing a service, to keep this promise that their husbands and sons didn’t die in vain. This is something they’ll be remembered by. This is something that hopefully makes them knowable in some way. It really appeals to me to try to help humanize them, to help them be not just names on a wall but students who were at WSC and had a lot of similar issues that students do today. They might not have been Winston Churchill or FDR, but they had hopes and dreams—and were in some of the biggest battles of this globally changing conflict.”
Jordan Bergstrom has a family history of military service.
His father served in the United States Army. His paternal grandfather served in the United States Marine Corps. His paternal great-grandfather, who immigrated from Sweden, joined the United States Army two months before the end of World War I. And his maternal grandfather fought in World War II—also with the United States Army—then re-enlisted in the newly established Air Force when the Korean War broke out.
“If I had the opportunity to tell my grandfather’s story in this way, that would be great,” Bergstrom says. “I thought maybe I could do that for someone else’s grandfather.”
Bergstrom is a second-year doctoral student, studying twentieth century U.S. political ideology with a focus on the early part of the Cold War. He’s planning to graduate in 2024, then hopes to teach history at a college or university.
He learned about the Fallen Cougars Project from fellow doctoral student Samantha “Sam” Edgerton. “It seemed like an important thing to do,” he says. “I jumped on it.”
Through his research, Bergstrom finds he identifies with some of the fallen Cougars. “You find yourself being very empathetic toward them. There are these little personal connections. Some are from towns that I’ve lived in or—based on their college activities or what they studied at WSC—have been to some of the same places on campus. You feel like you get to know them in a weird way. There’s a human dimension. When you’re looking at the report card of some kid who died, it makes it more visceral, more real.
“Memorials are great. They deserve to be memorialized. But it’s very impersonal to have your name on a wall devoid of all context. There’s a sense of keeping alive some essence of who they were and the idea that maybe we can learn something from that.”
It also makes the work that much more difficult. “Every single one of these people was killed,” Bergstrom says. “You know how the story ends from the start.”
“I love doing oral history interviews with people,” says MJ Vega (’18 History). “I want to make history accessible to people.”
Of particular interest to him is the World War II era.
“We’re so far from World War II that it almost feels abstract,” he says. “We lost a lot of great guys who had a lot of life to live but died serving our country. You don’t really know about them unless you go out of your way. There’s a difference between knowing their names and knowing who these people were.”
Vega is a first-year master’s student studying public history, specifically the experiences of Japanese-Americans in Pullman and Moscow during World War II and the evolution of Americanism in rural communities. He expects to graduate in 2021 and would like to ultimately work in a museum or with archives, similar to the University’s war records he worked with throughout the summer.
“Some guys are hard to write about,” Vega says. “Some guys just don’t have a lot of material on them. Occasionally, you’ll find what they were thinking or what they were feeling—and they become more real to you. I couldn’t imagine doing what they did. They had to grow up fast. I hope that I’m doing a good job and that I’m doing a service to them because they did a service for us. It’s the least we can do for them. We lost a lot of great people in the war, people that would’ve made a difference in their communities. But they helped make this country what it is. They were Cougs, just like us. Some were only here for a semester. Some were here for a year or two. But these guys all seem like great guys. They could’ve been anybody’s best friends.”
“One of my great-uncles was shot down over France—twice. And both times the French Resistance helped him get out,” says Gracie Kent (’20 Anthro.), who’s volunteering with the Fallen Cougars Project through the rest of the year while she figures out her next steps.
The recent graduate was drawn to the project because of her love for history, which was her minor. The WWII era holds particular appeal. “It’s hard for me to explain why I enjoy learning about that time period,” she says, “but it was very formative for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
Kent took Raymond “Ray” Sun’s World War II class during her last semester at WSU and was intrigued by his Fallen Cougars Project. “I wanted to get some experience researching, and I thought this project was not only a great opportunity but a really good cause,” she says. These servicemen “weren’t able to come back and tell their stories. To be able to tell their stories seemed really meaningful, and I wanted to be part of it. It’s very fulfilling.”
During the summer, Kent was working on the stories of two brothers-in-law who were both killed in action. Spring semester, she completed a portrait of Captain Allen Ferguson, a husband and father who disappeared in the Hürtgen Forest attempting to rescue men wounded on an early morning patrol in late 1944. Reading a letter he wrote to his young son from overseas tugged on her heartstrings. “I saw that letter, and I thought, ‘I have to write about him,’” she recalls.
“I know it sounds really simple, but I just want these stories to be told,” she says. “As we get further and further from their generation, it’s even more important that their stories get recorded and presented. I want a lot of people to read them and think about these people and their sacrifice. To me, the present becomes more meaningful when you realize what came before and everything that led up to you being here.”
On the web
Video: Hear from the undergraduate students who helped research and write some of the initial biographies during the 2017-2018 academic year in this 25-minute video.