So the scrapbook where I serendipitously found the pictures of the gravel walks last week belonged to a fellow named Neil Brennan, seen here in the 1941 Campanile:
It came in quite a few years ago, in the mail if I recall correctly, and I hadn’t looked at it since then. I didn’t know anything about young Mr. Brennan at all, but the images were so striking and so unusual that I immediately started looking for more information. The alumni directory wasn’t much help; it doesn’t seem that he graduated from Rice. This is, by the way, not unusual for that era. There was a war on and sometimes young men came and went on someone else’s schedule.
I checked his registration documents and discovered that he came to Rice to study Chemical Engineering. This obviously isn’t much to go on but what the heck–I was already committed–so I just started googling on the off chance that something might turn up. Well, I can now tell you that there are quite a few Neil Brennans out there but I didn’t find any who were engineers. I was struck, though, by a Neil Brennan who became an English professor at Villanova. Definitely not a ChemE but the dates were about right and he wrote a short study of one of my favorite novelists, Anthony Powell, that was sitting up on a shelf on the second floor of Fondren. Again, what the heck, why not go up and have a look at it?
Ten minutes later I had, of course, found my man and he was indeed a long serving professor of English Literature at Villanova. Mr. Brennan left Rice, as I had suspected, for the military, although not, as was usual here, for the Navy but rather the Army. He fought in Europe and as a tank commander he earned a Silver Star and a Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism. Here is the citation for that award:
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Neil F. Brennan (0-1019146), First Lieutenant (Armor), U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with Company B, 735th Tank Battalion, attached to the 1st Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 12 January 1945, in Germany. On that date, Lieutenant Brennan commanded a platoon of the 735th Tank Battalion during action to reduce a strong pocket of resistance near Wiltz, Germany. In the course of the attack, infantry elements the tank platoon supported became leaderless, and the tanks were halted by a concentration of mines. Without hesitation, Lieutenant Brennan dismounted from his tank, organized the infantry and fearlessly led an assault against the German positions, inspiring the men by his heroic leadership. Boldly in the lead, armed with a sub-machinegun, he charged the enemy in their foxholes and single-handedly destroyed a machine gun nest. Under Lieutenant Brennan’s determined leadership the objective was attained. First Lieutenant Brennan’s fearless courage, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 1st Infantry Division, and the United States Army.
Headquarters, Third U.S. Army, General Orders No. 92 (May 2, 1945)
Neil Brennan passed away in 2006 at the age of 82. He left behind a set of remarkable photographs that I’m going to be talking about on and off for the next few weeks.
The fact that he began with chemical engineering and ended as an professor of English says a lot about his character. And good sense. Good detective work, Melissa!
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Hello. My father, Dick Carnes, and Neil Brennan were friends as teenagers and both were at Rice studying engineering, living in West Hall, during the 1941-42 school year. It’s a little confusing. It seems that Neil was in the Army in January 1942, serving meritoriously, but my dad mentions him in a letter dated March 1, 1942 as being bedridden with pneumonia back at Rice, in the school hospital and then in West Hall recouperating and eating cake sent by my grandmother. Is it possible he served a few months in the Army and then came back to school mid-semester? There is a break in my dad’s letters. None were written, or else they were lost, after Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor day, until the end of February 1942 so there is no mention of Neil’s activities during that time.
Another thing was that by then, my father was already an award winning photographer. It’s possible that the pictures you mention were taken by my father and copies given to Neil who put them in his college scrapbook. I thought of that because my dad was always taking pictures with his Graflex camera and developing and printing them and giving them to people. It was one of his hobbies.
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Dr. Brennan was my freshman English professor at Villanova. A fine teacher and very approachable. He held class one morning in his living room where we discussed the novel of the week during breakfast!