Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Charles "Chuck" Bolté. Rob Cox. Heyward Cutting. Jack Brister. William "Bill" Durkee. The five Ivy Leaguers who were the first Americans to fight against the Axis Powers months before the United States entered the war.
In this post, I'll discuss particularly about one of the five men. He was an Ambler native who graduated from Dartmouth and immediately enlisted in the British army along with the other four Americans. His name was Jack Brister.
John "Jack" Frederick Brister, III (1920-1943) was the son of Dr. Frederick and Edna Brister. He was the youngest of eight children.
Fun Fact #1: His grandfather, William C. Brister, was the first president of the Ambler Trust Company from 1917-1924. The Trust building was constructed in 1916 under his leadership.
His family bought his grandfather's home in 1919. Jack attended Ambler High School where he was involved in EVERY school activity:
Track and Field
Jack graduated high school in 1937 with honors. He went on to follow his older bothers' footsteps and attended Dartmouth College studying English. During his final year in college, he was part of the Dartmouth Drama Club's 1940 festival of new plays where he performed a one-act play about "three convicts on the lam and the self-sacrifice of one that allows the rest to reach home." He won an honorable mention for his play, and also won praise from Pulitzer-prize winner Robert E. Sherwood.
Joining the War Front
Rob Cox decided to go to war on May 31st, 1941, and he was trying to recruit his friends to join him, including his closest friend from St. Paul's School in New Hampshire: Charles "Baldy" McLane.
NOTE: His friend Charles attended Dartmouth with Charles "Chuck" Bolté, who publicly committed himself to be enlisted in the army back on April 24th, 1941.
Baldy would not join his friend Rob and Heyward Cutting in the King's Royal Rifles, but he was certain that his friends from Dartmouth, Jack and Bill Durkee, would go with them.
NOTE: Jack was described as having "thick, bristly hair and a firm, strong build, was nearly six feet tall, and had an infectious grin."
Ever since being recommended by Baldy, he along with Chuck and Bill gathered with their closest friends and families on July 10th, 1941 for a last meal together at Christ Cella in New York. Jack, Chuck, and Jack's best friend Tom Littlefield went hitchhiking cross-country where they saw the "grandeur and scope of America for the first time," that made them realize that fighting for their country is awarding and worthwhile.
The five men met with Colonel Rex Benson, the British assistant military attaché at the embassy in Washington DC, at the St. Regis Hotel for a "somewhat official send-off."
Fun Fact #2: Colonel Rex Benson warned them not to take the British oath on allegiance so they won't lose their American citizenship. But Lieutenant Ritchie hurried them into recruiting office to pledge the oath of loyalty to the king. Jack and the boys were officially British soldiers, and were lieges of King George VI.
They caught the train to Boston and travelled to Nova Scotia where they embarked for England. A telegraph was sent to Jack's parents in Ambler, and to the other men's parents, from Colonel Rex Benson, saying the boys arrived safe in England.
Their first day at the Brushfield Camp in Winchester was on August 4th, 1941.
Their eagerness and impatience from the five "Yanks" caused them to be exhausted, Jack described his experience from his first letter he wrote to his family,
"From the liberal college to the Territorial Army! There is a jump! Every emphasis is changed--drill, sameness, the greatest smartness is in uniformity--this is the way you make armies of mobs."
During their training, they learned to load, aim, and shoot the rifles as well as learning how to prepare for the Lee-Enfield's weighty recoil and how to load a Bren gun in six seconds. They did all of this while wearing gas masks and being blindfolded.
On September 9, they began non-commissioned officer (NCO) cadre where they have the opportunity to command recruits. Weeks later, they received their lance corporal stripes.
On October 13, the five soldiers went up another level by going back to school for the Officer Candidate Training Unit (OCTU) cadre. They learned about interior economy, how to organize a barrack, map reading, assessing terrain, message writing, ranging weapons, memorizing directions, selecting lines of approach, reconnaissance.
NOTE: When the five men heard Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, they were shocked. They've been following the relations between the US and Japan before the event. 4 days after the Pearl Harbor bombing, Germany and Italy declared war on the US, which excited about.
Jack in the North African Campaign
Italy declared war on Great Britain and France on June 10th, 1940 to fight for the Suez Canal that was controlled by the British and for the Middle Eastern oil resources. In order to gain those resources and territories, Mussolini and his troops would have to go through the British first.
This did not make UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill happy. He kept pressuring his commanders in the Middle East to move quickly. The commander during this time was General Sir Claude Auchinleck, and he was ready to take on the Germans along with the British 8th Army, under the command of General Sir Alan Cunningham. During "Operation Crusader," Cunningham was replaced by General Sir Neil Ritchie after Auchinleck thought that Cunningham was too defensive.
In 1942, Rommel began his 2nd offensive as the British began to retreat eastward. As both sides began to build up their forces, Rommel was in a vulnerable position when supplies were limited. Ritchie did not take that advantage to attack Rommel, and it was too late for him to counterattack when Rommel made a hole in the Allies minefields on the Gazala line and resupplied his panzers. The British, again, retreated back, and Ritchie was replaced by Auchinleck himself. After the first battle of El Alamein, due to Auchinleck's poor leadership, Churchill travelled to the Middle East from Moscow, and appointed Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East, and Bernard Montgomery as commander of the British 8th Army.
The five men were wanted to fill vacant accommodations in a convoy in North Africa after Montgomery's British 8th Army were stuck in battle with Rommel's Afrika Korps.
Jack, along with Chuck, Heyward, and Bill, received orders to move off and join battalions near the front after four days of "acclimatization and hardening." Jack and Bill lived with the 1st Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) in open desert where discovered the "slit trench custom," meaning where men dig shallow trenches for themselves to sleep in.
On September 12, 1942, Jack wrote in his yearbook about his first experience of air attack as, "indirect, interesting, chilling but not really frightening."
On October 2nd, while he was on patrol duty in his jeep, mines under the sand exploded underneath his jeep, causing him to fly out of the jeep, only suffering a punctured eardrum. He ended up going to the hospital at El Qantara on the Suez Canal to have his ear treated.
Weeks after recovering from his punctured eardrum, he returned to his battalion where he saw them encamped with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Division. His commander of the 1st Battalion, Colonel Christopher Consett, welcomed Jack back.
NOTE: Jack and Bill were lieutenants of their companies in the 1st Battalion: Jack was the lieutenant of the A Company and Bill was the lieutenant of the C Company.
During the second battle of El Alamein, Jack used his platoon and bombed an enemy outpost, and a white flag was waved by the enemies, making Jack and his company cease fire.
On November 9th, 1942, as Jack and Bill led their platoons toward Gazala with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 spotted them from above and wounded Jack's company commander Sandy Goschen, and exploding shells from the cannon smashed into Bill's knees.
After losing Sandy Goschen, it was up to Jack to take the lead by taking over a platoon in company C for his friend Bill. And after traveling 376 miles in ten days, Jack and his company reached Tobruk.
On March 15, Jack and his comrades moved during the night before to the Mareth Line. Their mission was to cover the gaps between the three large hills that formed the basin.
Fun Fact #3: On March 19, 1943, General Montgomery met Jack, Rob Cox, and their comrades of the 1st Battalion KRRC for the first time, rallying them together for the Battle of Mareth. Jack described his encounter with Montgomery as, "splendid."
The Fate of Jack Brister
We are at this point of the final campaign. The British 8th Army and the US II Corps made progress to weaken General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim and his Afrika Korps during the battle of Enfidaville and Operation Vulcan.
On April 26th, 1943, the 1st Battalion were ordered to move forward 2,000 yards to take over an advance position of 7th Rifle Brigade on a low ridge, the Argoub el Megas. The Germans defended the northern end of the Argoub ridge while the battalion defended the southern end, which was lower than the northern end. While the battalion were moving up, bombs and shellings suddenly appeared, killing two riflemen.
As more bombings and shellings continued to drop onto the battalion, there were six massive new German Tiger tanks, armed with "88mm guns and shielded by nearly four inches of armor, as its thickest," overpowering the riflemen's antitank guns. They ended up falling back, leaving Jack and the rest of the B Company with their outpost at the Argoub southern edge in bad shape.
The riflemen began to improve the slit trenches while being too exposed to the enemies. In the morning of April 27th, bombs, shells, snipers, and air strikes continued to destroy their territory. At Company B headquarters, Jack was protecting himself while hunkered over a map with the company commander John Hope and another officer. Then a shell appeared in front of them, killing Jack instantly while his companions were wounded.
Sad Fact #1: On April 14th, Jack wrote a letter to Sir John Davidson, the KRRC colonel commandant, requesting to transfer to the American army. Jack expressed his patriotic solidarity to his last letter to Chuck saying, "For 23 years, I have been been pledging allegiance to the United States of America. The time has come to turn those words of allegiance into action of allegiance." Two hours after this instant death on April 27th, he was approved to transfer to the American army.
On May 7th, Tunis and Bizerte fell to the British and the Americans. Five days later, von Arnim surrendered to the Allies, ending the North African Campaign.
The Western Union messenger appeared at Jack's father's home in Ambler, fearing bad news awaits him. When he opened the telegraph, he found out the death of his son.
His father began to feel comfort when letters arrived from his son's commanding officers and friends from the regiment. He even stayed in touch with Jack's lover Maureen Robins, an Irish woman born in India who worked at the HMS Flowerdown. The two met while Jack was training at the Brushfield Camp. He described her in his diary:
"Maureen a bright--shining bright--angel of a dream than you never could really dream (it's so natural). She's a sensitive, kindly, pretty lovely girl. Her perception rivals Turner's and rises above it in sheer enjoyment. She's keen on the world she finds herself in. She is a great lover--in the fine sense of the word. She's the Irish I like. She saves a solider's day. 'A thing of beauty' ah, it makes a joy in your heart."
If you're wondering who Turner was, Betty Turner was a ranch woman who was a Wellesley graduate, and nursed Jack after he got sunstroke while hitchhiking cross-county with Chuck Bolté and Tom Littlefield. The two fell in love, and began a love affair. They wrote letters to each other while he was in England, but while having an affair with Maureen, he wrote letters to BOTH of them!
"His strenuous spirit and inexhaustible humanity sprang richly from the nourishment of Dartmouth, but it is not within the College itself to sense the emptiness that Brister leaves in the world.
He was a man who knew the common emotions, and knew them with the penetration and comprehension with which only great men feel. He was devoted, loyal and wild, capable of anything brave. Strong physically and spiritually, he had the stamina to try to the last the courage that ordinary men are merely stirred by.
[Brister] was more fully aware than any other fighter I have known of the great hazards of the present _ conflict and of participation in it, hazards political and moral, to social relationships and to individuals. He knew that victory is a chance to be taken. And yet he was able to participate in focused resolution and with humane compunction towards effecting war's necessary end."
- Dartmouth Alumni Magazine
"This is no hero story. Jack Brister, the Pennsylvanian, would have been embarrassed even to have it hinted that there were any heroics in him. It was just that he was restless. Things were happening that he felt were a threat to things that meant something to him. So Brister joined a foreign army. It was that simple.
When I joined the battalion right after the break-through of the Mareth line, Brister was the only American officer in the outfit who had not been killed or wounded. He had been waiting for months to be transferred into the American Army; he'd been in a foreign army a long time and now he wanted to be back with his own people. It wasn't that Brister was unhappy with the British. Far from it. He learned, as all of us did who were with the th Army, how simple, warm-hearted and courageous the Tommies and their colonial troops are. And the men in Brister's company simply idolized him. It was enough for them that a young American had come thousands of miles to get into their fight, but Brister has an infectious grin and a quiet sort of courage that the Tommies understood too. 'He's fine. And a cheeky bloke, too, 'e is. Takes a dim view of wars, but 'ere 'e is fightin' 'is blinkin' 'eart out.'"
- Glenn E. Smith, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine
Cox, Rachel S. Into Dust and Fire: Five Young Americans Who Went First to Fight the Nazi Army. (New York: New American Library, 2012).
Cox, Rachel S. "The Leading Edge: Americans at El Alamein." History Net. Accessed July 8, 2021. https://www.historynet.com/the-leading-edge-americans-at-el-alamein.htm.
Klinge, Frank H. M. Montgomery County 1927 Reading Main Line Vol 1, Plate 31, 1927.