Honorary Bachelor’s Degree Bestowed on Third WWII Veteran
Providence, R.I.--A World War II veteran who was wounded in action and held captive for six days by German soldiers was awarded an honorary bachelor's degree recently by Providence College.
Dr. Malcolm Ekstrand, a retired podiatrist from Warwick, R.I., was honored by College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. '80 during a ceremony at the Scandinavian Retirement Center in Cranston, R.I., where he resides. The guests included Army, state, city, and College officials; executives and staff members from Scandinavian Home, Inc.; and family and friends of Ekstrand.
"This generation has done so much for this country, and Dr. Ekstrand has done so much for our country and community," exclaimed Father Shanley prior to reading a citation and presenting the diploma to the beaming 87-year-old.
Ekstrand was the third World War II veteran to receive an honorary bachelor's degree this year from PC. George Fisher and Paul V. Salley were awarded diplomas during Commencement Exercises in May. All three were members of the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) that trained at PC in 1943 and 1944 and are the first in College history to receive honorary bachelor's degrees.
The ASTP was a rigorous training program instituted in 1943 by the Army at more than 120 American higher-education institutions. The goal was to train the best and brightest military recruits in key academic disciplines in the hopes of having them contribute to the anticipated rebuilding of Europe.
The nearly 400 young men enrolled in the ASTP at PC were suddenly called to service in March 1944 and never returned to complete their education. Thirty-seven members of their group, Unit #1188, were killed in action in Europe. A memorial plaque was dedicated to them at PC's War Memorial Grotto in 1998.
At the ceremony, Father Shanley remarked that the occasion had deep meaning to him. Like his father, the late Joseph V. Shanley '49, Ekstrand served in World War II, and both Shanleys were patients of Ekstrand's at one time, noted the president.
Father Shanley said he recently read Unbroken, the story of a World War II prisoner of war's survival, resilience, and courage. The account "reminded me of what people like Dr. Ekstrand and my father went through. They did it quietly. As Tom Brokaw ('05Hon.) said, this was the 'Greatest Generation.'
"To me," continued Father Shanley "this is personal. I can't be more thrilled to see you, Dr. Ekstrand. You and others like you served bravely, generously, and courageously."
A story of survival, faith
A member of the 26th Infantry Division (Yankee Division) of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, Ekstrand recalled how he felt his life was spared by God several times amid action just behind the front lines in late April of 1945. His troubles began one day in northern France, shortly after he had completed six months of KP duty for troops who were part of General George Patton's Third Army.
He was driving his superior, Captain Samuel Sims, when the pair briefly got out of their Jeep and were shot immediately and captured by German soldiers. Ekstrand was shot in the right shoulder--he later learned the bullet had actually entered the lower, left side of his back--while Sims was wounded in the arm.
Despite a series of harrowing incidents in which he didn't know if he would survive, Ekstrand--now separated from Sims--spent six days in a German hospital in Straubing. Given only water and one slice of bread a day, and not provided medicine, he was rescued when American forces captured the city.
Ekstrand later was taken to a U.S. military tent hospital, flown to a hospital in England, and then transported via a hospital ship back to the U.S. While in England, he was presented the Purple Heart by his uncle, U.S. Army Capt. Donald Smith.
Ekstrand recalled that the doctors he saw at the field military tent hospital were amazed he had lived since the bullet had passed through his entire back. He was convinced his life was spared thereafter because he repeatedly sought the Lord's aid. During the six days he was captured, he repeatedly read his New Testament and prayed.
"I said all week, 'Lord, help me,' over and over. There was no logical reason I was alive. The Lord was really good to me," he said.
Following his remarks and the degree presentation, Ekstrand was praised by several speakers, including R.I. Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts, Cranston Mayor Alan Fung, and Brig. Gen. Brian Goodwin, assistant adjutant general for Army, R.I. National Guard. Other military personnel who attended were R.I. Army National Guard (R.I.A.N.G.) Lt. Col. Ellis Hopkins '02G, R.I.A.N.G. Major Michael P. Manning '97 & '08Hon., and Majors Tucker Shosh and James Tuite of PC's Army ROTC Patriot Battalion.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be here," Goodwin told Ekstrand. "We stand on the shoulders of greatness."