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WWII anniversary inspires Manhattan High’s production of ‘South Pacific’

By Bethany Knipp

It’s been nine years since Manhattan High School put on “South Pacific” for its annual musical, but this year, there was all the more reason to do it.

“This is the 70th anniversary of the push to take back the Japanese-held islands,” said drama director Linda Utoff.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a move that lead to America’s involvement in World War II.

In May 1943, the U.S. started conquering its islands near Alaska, and in August of 1945, President Truman ordered atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – leading to a Japanese surrender. 

“South Pacific” is a musical classic about love and race during World War II, composed by Richard Rogers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  It premiered on Broadway in 1949, and has had two different runs as a popular movie.

The plot focuses on two romances: One occurred between American nurse Nellie Forbush (Faith Janicki), who was stationed in the South Pacific, and Frenchman Emile De Becque (Lane Sorell). Nellie has a difficult time accepting Emile’s mixed-race children — and meanwhile, Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Willie Michaels) struggles with his issues with race regarding his Asian sweetheart Liat (Macy Lanceta). 

It just works out that Manhattan High’s production of “South Pacific” will premiere the day after Veteran’s Day, a holiday that means something to not only veterans, but to their children — some of whom attend Manhattan High.

“So many of our kids are from military family service. It’s clear to them what sacrifice to your country really means,” Utoff said.

The show’s description from the high school is that as the action “takes place one step removed from the battlefront, there is a decidedly casual aspect to the enlisted men. They are caught in a middle ground — not quite in the war, not quite out of the war.”

For a character study, MHS student Sam Varner visited Meadowlark Hills retirement community to meet with some veterans who had served in the South Pacific.

At Meadowlark Hills, 15-year-old Varner met Bill Stamey, a vet from Manhattan who not only had experience with that part of the war, but had an unusual connection with “South Pacific” author James Michener. 

Stamey, is a 91-year-old former dean of Kansas State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, and knows the background to this particular musical well.

Not only did he serve in the South Pacific from the summer of 1944 to the end of the war a year later, he had Michener as a substitute teacher when he was a college freshman in 1940.

Michener wrote “Tales of the South Pacific,” published in 1947, on which the musical is based.  But before he wrote the stories and became a famous author, he was a social studies teacher at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

Stamey said he would have taken Michener’s course, a requirement for sophomore students, had Michener not left at the end of the 1940-1941 academic year — eventually to join the Navy where Michener’s own service inspired “Tales of the South Pacific.”

Stamey said Michener already was a big name at the university, winning the favor of Stamey’s older friends who took his courses.

“He was a delightful teacher. He made everything so interesting,” Stamey said. “I had no idea that he’d be a nationwide celebrity.”

And Stamey had no idea what he’d be doing when he was ordered overseas.

The 20-year-old had enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves when he started college, knowing if he didn’t, he would be drafted and have less control over his future.

Just as the sailors in “South Pacific” could be more casual than the men on the frontlines, Stamey could be, as well.

He didn’t see combat at any time throughout his deployment, nor at the tense end of the war in August of 1945.

“I didn’t go through any battles because Mr. Truman had dropped the atomic bomb and the Japanese were surrendering.”

But Stamey said he was still apprehensive about being away from home the whole time.

“I was more anxious because I had gotten married,” Stamey said.

He married his wife, Rae, in June of 1944, had a 10-day honeymoon and went overseas. Their marriage survived during their separation and now, it’s lasted for 68 years.

Stamey spent most of his time in the South Pacific in Gaum after he went to Hawaii and the Philippines. He said everyone just wanted to go home. They missed they’re girlfriends, he said.

“I was around a lot of really good guys,” he said. “We all had pretty much the same goals – to do our duty, whatever it was, do it good and get back.”

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