Honoring a Veteran: Buck Marsh
Movies, documentaries, and history books recount the saga of World War II, giving us a glimpse of a soldier’s life in the trenches. One of the decisive battles fought in the European theater during World War II was the Battle of the Bulge, which prompted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say that it was the greatest American battle of the war and would be regarded as an ever-famous American victory. It was in this harrowing battle that Sergeant Malcolm “Buck” Marsh, Jr. would fight on the American side, and return triumphantly to U.S. and begin the next phase of his illustrious life.
A native of Florence, Ala., Marsh began his education in 1940 in electrical engineering at Tennessee Polytechnic Institute (TPI, now Tennessee Tech. University). In 1942, he enrolled in a new program at TPI—the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP)—which included infantry basic training for four months and then study at an engineering school in preparation for becoming a lieutenant in Army Engineers. But America’s entry into World War II interrupted these plans. Deployment orders for Marsh’s contingent came while they were in school at St. John’s University in New York after basic training. He was sent to join Company A of the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, and on December 29, 1944, he officially entered the “bloodiest U.S. battle of World War II.” Marsh was forced to defer his college plans until after the war.
“When I returned after the war, my wounded knee entitled me to enter an educational program,” said Marsh. After being tested and counseled for three days on his return in February 1946, the army recommended that he study architecture. “TPI did not have a school of architecture, so I had to look elsewhere,” he added. Marsh decided to follow his uncle who had graduated from Auburn Polytechnic Institute (API) with a degree in Architecture in 1928. He joined seven of his friends to start architecture studies at API.
After a brief term at the University of Northern Alabama, studying chemistry and physics, Marsh started school in API in 1946. “After my first quarter in architecture, Dean Bannister recommended that my bountiful energy would be best suited for another curriculum, a new program, Building Construction.”
“Classes were held at Dudley Hall location, which in those days consisted of several wooden buildings with black tar paper siding. Some classes were also held in Biggin Hall. Since I was allowed to transfer credits from TPI, I graduated in two and a half years. We had wonderful teachers in the program. Frank Orr, who taught us structures, design and strength of materials, had become dean when I graduated.”
On graduating, Marsh worked for a small contractor in Florence, Ala. After a few years, he started his own company custom building houses designed by his architect friends. In 1970, Marsh moved to Auburn to work for Burns, Kirkley, and Williams. “In 1972, CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott), an architecture company in Austin, Texas, contacted us to build Opelika High School. CRS, at that time, was a front runner in construction management (CM) and created CRSCM.” As an on-site manager for the project, Marsh was offered the first Construction Management job in the Southeast.
Marsh launched his own construction management company in 1978, and built the Helen Keller Hospital in Tuscumbia. In 1990, Marsh met Charles White, of White Construction Company, who had offices in Austin, Texas, and Jackson, Miss. “They wanted a presence in Alabama and bought my company,” added Marsh. “White was a leader in design-build project delivery. I went to work for them initially for five years and retired seventeen years later! We had a wonderful opportunity for design-build, utilizing it to build many projects from 1990 until 2008 when I retired.”
“Design-Build was fairly new and we had to have a trustworthy team, consisting of contractors for mechanical, electrical, precast concrete, equipment and security electronics. My philosophy in building was, first and foremost, to impress on all contractors that we were a team, depending on each other to perform quality workmanship whereby all crafts could interface in a quality manner creating a smooth and timely construction process. This usually resulted in a profitable project for all concerned. We undertook projects in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.”
“When we started building Opelika school, we introduced the expression fast-track. We did schedules, called critical path. We had to have a good handle on the budget without exceeding the estimate.
“Modern day building construction has evolved since then. Communications and electronic devices have expedited tasks in the industry.” Marsh was inducted to the IOTA Chapter of Sigma Lambda Chi on November 24, 1975. He continued his contact with Auburn as an adjunct professor of construction management from 1978 to 1980. “I enjoyed teaching ‘building science’ seniors on Tuesday and Thursday nights, but the rigors of my business and projects prevented me from continuing the assignment beyond three years.”
“I always told my students to strongly consider the firm where they would be working, because it was important to enjoy going to work every day. I asked them to try to develop a rapport with fellow employees and to not become loners if they wanted to advance to supervisory positions; to become familiar with architecture/engineering documents to the extent they were knowledgeable of the interfacing of each phase as it related to a quality finished project,” Marsh added.
Marsh has served on Phi Delta Theta’s House Corporation Board since 1973, including being the Board’s President from 1975–1989. He was named the chapter’s Alum of the Year in 2008 at the 2nd Annual Alumni Reunion Weekend in November 2008.
No narrative about Malcolm “Buck” Marsh Jr., is complete without mention of his early years in the army. He saw his first combat action at the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II. But the war did not end for Marsh after the Bulge. Together with his company, he had to cross the Rhine, aid in the capture of Cologne, and free a prison camp in Nordhausen, Germany. It is recounted in excruciating detail in his memoir (published in 2011), Reflections of a World War II Infantryman, a historic account of his preparation and participation in the war. Entering “A” Company as a PFC, Marsh became a squad leader during combat and eventually rose to the rank of 1st sergeant. For his heroic efforts during the war, Marsh was awarded the Purple Heart, and battle stars for the Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland and Central Germany. After the war, he stayed in Europe as part of the army of occupation and returned home in January 1946.
Marsh was named honorary command sergeant major of the 36th Army Infantry Regiment in 1999. He and his wife Wanda traveled to Germany to receive the award and visit some of the battle sites in Belgium. “There was one time when I couldn’t walk up a hill when memories came rushing back. Emotions welled up and it was difficult for me to continue.” Marsh said that talking about his war experience to his Auburn University Phi Delta Theta brothers as well as to his biological ones helped him cope with the traumatic experiences he had during the war. “It kept me from internalizing my experience,” he added.
Marsh was one of the veterans featured in the documentary WWII: Alabama Remembers presented by the Alabama Public Television. Malcolm and Wanda Marsh live in Auburn, and have three children, seven grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.
This article was originally published in the Quoin.