The James Watson Snively Papers

A photo of the Snively family, sent to James while he was a POW.

A photo of the Snively family, sent to James while he was a POW.

The Student Life and Culture Archives recently processed the papers of James Watson Snively (RS 26/20/198), a University of Illinois student who served during World War II. James Watson Snively was born in 1924 in Rockford, Illinois. His parents, John Rowe Snively, Jr. (Phi Alpha Delta, Pre-Law 1921, Law 1923) and Mabel Ruth (née Holland) Snively (LAS 1924), both attended the University of Illinois.[1]  In addition, SLC has also acquired John R. Snively’s scrapbook from his time as a U of I student(41/20/246).

James “Jimmie” Snively attended West High School in Rockford and entered the University of Illinois in 1942, where he was a member of the University R.O.T.C.’s Pershing Rifles. [2]. This new collection contains the letters that Mr. and Mrs. Snively wrote to Jimmie while he lived in Urbana-Champaign, as well as the letters he wrote back to his parents, describing his life as a student. 


James Snively at Camp Wolters, Texas.

Many of these letters speak of the war raging in Europe. Jimmie’s letters reflect the understandable worries of a young man about going to war; as he watched his classmates be called up to fight, James wrote to his family, “The place is almost empty. It’s terrible.”[3]  In early 1943, he began infantry training at the Armory at the University of Illinois. His frequent correspondence with his family continued; he wrote, “Well, I suppose you want to hear about my Army Life?! I’m Private James Watson Snively in the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army of the United States!”[4] After training in Champaign, Snively was sent to Camp Wolters in Texas and to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia where he completed his training, before being stationed in North Africa and Europe. [5]


The Snively family receiving James Snively’s Silver Star on his behalf.

While in Italy on October 11, 1944, James “courageously continued to” fight against enemy fire despite his infantry being badly outnumbered; though “his companions dropped one by one…he stood alone and unaided, firing into the ranks of the approaching force”; during this fire fight, Snively’s side and leg were injured and he was captured by German forces. For his heroism, his family received a Silver Star in his honor.[6] Snively was held as a German Prisoner of War until 1945. Until they could confirm that he was alive and in a German prison camp, the military told the Snively family that James was “missing in action.” The collection contains the unopened letters that Mr. Snively wrote to his son that were returned by the government and the many letters and cards that the Snively family received from friends and family during this time.


A photo sent to James W. Snively from his father, John R. Snively, while he was a POW.

A notable item is the letter that alerted the family to James’s survival. An English couple, the Morses, wrote to the Snivelys on December 28, 1944, including information from a POW radio broadcast they had heard. During the broadcast, James said, “Dearest Family, Hope you are well. I love you darlings. War is over for me though I’m a prisoner in hospital. We’ll meet again. Please don’t worry.”[7]

A major part of the collection are the carbon copies of the daily letters that Mr. Snively wrote to his son while he was imprisoned, as well as artifacts from the POW camp and information sent to POW families by the Red Cross and American government. The postcards that James wrote to his family describe his life as a prisoner. He tells them, “What a day it will be when I enter the front door again! Almost the same boy except for a scar or two.” [8]


An anonymous postcard for the dashing bus driver. “Say, who are you looking for in the mirror when I happen to get on a bus you are driving[?]”

After the war and upon returning to Illinois, Snively was hailed as a local hero before becoming a Rockford City bus driver. Jimmie was popular with the female riders, who left him valentines and love notes.

James continued to have issues with stress, brought on by his time in combat, as well as pain in his leg, stemming from the injury he sustained during the war. He continued to be an avid traveler and remained in contact with some of the men he met while he was a POW. He died in 1996 and is survived by his brother, William “Billy” Snively (Law 1960) and Billy’s wife, Julianne, who generously donated the collection. [9]

The Snively papers contain a multitude of other items, including John R. Snively’s photographs as a student at the University of Illinois, postcards from James Snively’s many travels, military maps, and other family documents. The Snively papers are an invaluable treasure, documenting student life and the life of a military family during World War II.

In addition the Snively papers, John R. Snively’s scrapbook from his time at the University of Illinois will be processed and available for researcher use soon!

[1] Illio 1922, p. 132, 499; Illio 1924, p. 119, 446; Illio 1925, p. 69
[2] Illio 1943, p. 387.
[3] Letter, February 21, 1943. Box 1, folder “Letters from JWS to family, 1936-1943.”
[4] Letter, March 5, 1943. Box 1, folder “Letters from JWS to family, 1936-1943.”
[5] Letter, January 20, 1944. Box 1, folder “Letters from JWS. 1944-1945.”
[6] Letter, April 18, 1945. Box 5, folder “Letters & reports related to JWS’s time as a POW.”
[7] Letter, December 28, 1944. Box 2, folder “Correspondence during the war, December 1944-August 1945.”
[8] POW Post, November 26, 1944. Box 5, folder “POW Posts, from JWS, 1944-1945.”
[9] Illio 1960, p. 452.

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