Auburn alumnus, war hero talks Battle of the Bulge, time at Auburn

Published: July 03, 2019
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By the time Malcolm “Buck” Marsh Jr. was 21 years old, he had already fought in one of the bloodiest U.S. battles of World War II: the Battle of the Bulge. Earlier this year, Marsh’s wartime experiences were shared for the world to read in Adam Makos’ book, “Spearhead.”

Marsh, who went on to graduate from Auburn University in 1949, traveled with Makos to Germany a few years back to revisit battlegrounds and share his war stories for Makos’ book. Hailed as a “masterful storyteller” by the Associated Press, Makos integrates human drama and military action to tell the true story of tank gunner Clarence Smoyer and his experience in the Battle of Cologne. During the battle, Marsh’s story comes into play as the young infantrymen fight to clear a path for Smoyer’s tank. The book also details the journey of modern day Smoyer and Marsh when they visit Cologne and relive the harrowing battle.

Marsh’s involvement in the U.S. Army first began at the end of his freshman year at Tennessee Technological University.

“A group of recruiters came to my school and told me they had just started a new program to develop engineers in the Army, and they recommended I enter the program,” Marsh said.

The accelerated Army Specialized Training Program included basic infantry training for four months and then an accelerated study at St. Johns University in preparation for becoming a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, the number of casualties from World War II happening overseas created a dire need for soldiers, and, in December, Marsh and his fellow classmates had their studies disrupted as they were sent into combat. Marsh was appointed to Company A of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment with 178 other men. As the men prepared for combat, the company divided into pairs and shared foxholes in the Belgian snow. Marsh describes his experience in the Battle of the Bulge as harrowing.

“The snow was about 20 inches deep and we had to dig foxholes in frozen ground, about a foot deep and laid down in them,” Marsh said. “It was scary, I got shot at a lot. I was fortunate to get put in with a wonderful group of people.”

After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Marsh went on to cross the Rhine and fight across western Germany helping to capture Cologne and liberating a prison camp near Nordhausen. Marsh eventually rose in the ranks to become a first sergeant. During combat, Marsh was hit by shrapnel, wounding his knee. Finally, in 1946 Marsh returned home to the states, highly decorated. He received a Purple Heart and three Battle Stars: one each from the Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland and central Germany.

Because of his knee injury, Marsh visited Veterans Affairs for advice on what to do next. After vocational and aptitude tests, the Army recommended that he study architecture.

“I loved school at Tennessee Tech, but they didn't have architecture. I had an uncle who graduated Auburn in ’28 so I decided to try my luck there,” he said.

Marsh started Auburn in 1946 and, after a quarter in the architecture program, he was approached by the dean who recommended Marsh’s “abundance of energy” would be better suited for the building construction curriculum.

During his time at Auburn, Marsh was also involved in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

“Most of them were veterans and we had a wonderful time together,” Marsh said. “Talking with them helped me not to internalize my wartime experience.”

Marsh is currently the longest-serving member of the Housing Corporation Board for Phi Delta Theta, serving since 1973, and is the founder and chairman of the East Alabama Phi Delta Theta Club.

Marsh met his wife, Wanda Mitchell, while at Auburn. She studied English and they married shortly after her graduation in June 1949.

Upon Marsh’s graduation from Auburn, the couple returned to his hometown of Florence, Alabama, and Marsh started his own construction company. In the early 1970s, an architecture company in Austin, Texas, contracted Marsh to build Opelika High School on the construction management concept, or CM, which is a service that uses specialized project management techniques to oversee the planning, design and construction of a project.

“I was one of the first persons in the state to be exposed to the construction management concept. After we built Opelika High School, we built 15 more schools on the construction management concept. I was very proud of that,” Marsh said.

At the time, Marsh said, CM was a new idea, and he was asked to serve on the national board in Chicago to advance the concept of construction management.

In 1990, White Construction Company, a leader in design-build construction that had offices in Austin and Jackson, Mississippi, wanted a presence in Alabama, so they reached out to Marsh and bought his company.

“The trend of design-build was just getting started so we got a lot experience,” Marsh said. “We built a bunch of churches and schools and did about $300 million in projects.” Marsh worked for White Construction for 17 years and retired in December 2007.

Marsh now spends his days traveling with his wife to see their seven grandchildren. He is also an active member of his church and looks after the 100-year-old church regularly. “I’m a devout Christian; combat will teach you to live a Christian life,” Marsh said. He also stays in touch with his company men from his war days as the group hosts a reunion every year.

“It’s dwindled down to four of us now. We have what we call the spearhead room and everyone brings their pictures and we sit down and reminisce,” he said.

On Memorial Day of this year, Marsh was selected by the city of Auburn to receive the 2019 Distinguished Veteran Award.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.