WWII on Twin Cities Campuses

A couple weeks ago I looked at how some of Bethel’s neighboring colleges and universities in the Twin Cities experienced the First World War. Today I’ll turn to the Second World War, again pulling some tidbits from Merrill Jarchow’s history of private colleges in Minnesota but here broadening a bit to see how the Twin Cities’ institutions of higher learning reflected national trends.

Airplane propellor mechanics workshop at the Univ. of Minnesota during WWII

Airplane propellor mechanics workshop at the University of Minnesota during World War II – Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Some readers will remember the Vietnam antiwar slogan “What if there were a war and nobody went?” Well, in 1939-45 there was a war and everybody went, or nearly everybody:all classes, all races, both sexes. Civilians, too, worked, suffered, sometimes fought, died. For once in human history a war was fought that was everybody’s war. (Samuel Hynes)

In The Soldiers’ Tale, Minneapolis-born WWII pilot-turned-English scholar Sam Hynes summarizes the near-universal impact of World War II on American and other societies. Colleges as small as Bethel and universities as large as the University of Minnesota could hardly escape the effects of history’s largest war, one that enrolled sixteen million Americans in the military and had profound implications for how the other 116 million worked and worshipped, ate and traveled, taught and learned.

Much of the impact was felt retroactively, thanks to the G.I. Bill and other legacies of wartime. (“We now realize that World War II marked the end of one era and the beginning of another,” proclaimed Carleton College president John Nason in 1970.) But V.R. Cardozier, in the introduction to his Colleges and Universities in World War II, frames well the effects felt during the war years themselves:

…people [in American colleges and universities] were affected by the war and the events that grew out of it no less than the population at larger and responded similarly. Colleges and universities were somewhat insulated from much of the stress of wartime, but students, faculty, and staff felt as strongly about the war as other citizens. Their lives went on, but instead of single-minded dedication to academic matters, their thoughts were continuously drawn to the war, and its effect on American society and themselves personally. (p. x)

Well, I’m not sure that American college students had ever possessed “single-minded dedication to academic matters,” but let’s move on and look at some of the effects Cardozier documents and how they were felt on Twin Cities campuses:

1. Abandoning Neutrality
Peace rally at Cal-Berkeley in April 1940

April 1940 peace rally at the University of California, Berkeley – U.S. National Archives

The events that led up to the war and even the first year of the war largely provoked strong support for neutralism, isolationism, or even pacifism among American college students. A national student peace rally was repeated every April from 1935 until 1942, and student newspapers and letters to President Roosevelt argued strongly against American participation in a second World War. Cardozier notes that as late as fall 1941, only 13% of students at Ohio State University thought the U.S. should go to war with Germany.

In his centennial history of Augsburg College, Carl Chrislock reported that that the historically Norwegian Lutheran school’s students were “even more neutralist and anti-war than the national average,” overwhelmingly opposed even to FDR’s efforts to amend the Neutrality Act so as to let the British and French buy war materiel from American suppliers. The invasion of Norway in May 1940 shifted these sentiments somewhat, but most students continued to favor neutrality.

As the possibility of their being caught up in the war grew more likely in 1940-1941, many students responded by engaging in even more pranks and practical jokes than usual. As Cardozier puts it, “Not that frivolity and play had not been prominent on campus throughout the 1930s, but the tempo grew, and young men entered into these activities with a fervor that suggested that they felt their days were numbered and they had to consume as much of life as possible before it was taken away” (p. 123).

Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Here’s how Cardozier narrates the aftermath of December 7, 1941:

On college campuses, the mood was somber; students were confused, gloomy, and disbelieving. It could not happen! The implication for college men was clear; they would sooner or later likely be called to military service with the specter of combat and possibly death looming in their future. Most were quiet and unsure of what to do or think. A few went out and got drunk. At Yale, a group of students, overcome with anger, went berserk and invaded a local hotel, smashing windows and wrecking the lobby, but at most colleges, students were simply stunned; they sat around in groups in their dormitories and fraternity houses discussing the implications for the country and for themselves personally. (p. 3)

While there were exceptions (I’ll be writing about the war at a leading Mennonite school in a week or so), most college students quickly abandoned their opposition to the war: “On college campuses, there was no lack of patriotism. Despite earlier student opposition to war, once America was attacked it was difficult to find anyone on college campuses who did not support American involvement in the war” (Cardozier, p. 123).

 2. Enrollment Challenges and Military Training

The most pressing concern, of course, was that college enrollment would be decimated as draftees were called up and others (male and female) in the suddenly patriotic student population volunteered for service. Already in fall 1941 the number of male students was down 8% from the year before — less because students had joined the military than because they took high-paying manufacturing jobs. (Even before Pearl Harbor, war industry was gearing up, to prepare for American participation and to help supply the British, Soviet, and Chinese war efforts through Lend-Lease.) That figure dropped another 15% by the beginning of the 1942-43 academic year, but that was actually a smaller drop than what had happened during WWI, when the fall 1917 enrollment was over 20% down from 1916.

But as the war dragged on and the military’s need for manpower increased, enrollment decline became a serious problem. By the beginning of the 1943-44 year, enrollment was not quite 70% of what it had been in 1939-40. Minnesota was particularly hard hit, with its schools enrolling only 58% of their 1939-40 population by 1943-44. In part, that probably reflects the state’s high number of small private colleges, which generally suffered more than state schools. Just from fall 1942 to fall 1943, Cardozier reports, male student enrollment at church-related colleges fell by 60%.

(He adds that there was significant social pressure on men to enlist: “Mothers confronted young men and said, ‘My son is fighting in the jungles of the South Pacific; why aren’t you in uniform!’ It was so serious that, in a few cases, such young men resorted to wearing a black eye patch, carrying a walking stick, or exhibiting some other symbol that suggested they were physically unqualified for military service, especially when traveling on bus and train trips. On some campuses, some young women refused to date young men not in uniform, in the belief that it was patriotic to spend their time with those who wore uniforms,” p. 124.)

Unlike larger universities, most of the smaller schools didn’t have their enrollments protected by the on-campus military training programs set up by the Army, Navy, and Army Air Force — which featured heavy doses of math, engineering, and physical training. Facing dramatic losses of male students, Hamline resorted to offering courses in subjects like pilot training, X-ray technology, engineering, and occupational therapy.

Navy V-12 band at St. Thomas, 1945

The band of the Navy V-12 program at St. Thomas, 1945 – Courtesy of the University of St. Thomas Archives

But some private colleges in Minnesota did host significant military training programs. Not surprisingly, St. Thomas (which had been one of the first schools to host an ROTC program, in 1916) became one of the 131 campuses to host the Navy’s V-12 program, which prepared college students for officer candidate school. About two-thirds of the V-12 corps were at private colleges, with St. Thomas being one of the eleven Catholic schools to host the program. Another Minnesota Catholic college, St. John’s of Collegeville (before the war a “relatively isolated and largely self-sufficient Benedictine community,” according to Jarchow), avoided the debilitating enrollments felt by most male-only schools by hosting 1500 members of an Army Air Force training detachment.

3. Life on Campus

What did all of this mean for life on campus at Twin Cities schools and other American college and universities? Probably the most noticeable effect was that women, for the first time, became the majority at coeducational schools. Before December 1941, about two in five American college students were women; within two years, women accounted for five in eight of the same population. (At Bethel the percentage was upwards of 70% by 1943, when the junior college enrolled only 132 students.)

At the same time, it shouldn’t be overlooked that a significant number of young women did put their studies on hold during the war. Nationwide, the female student population dropped nearly 12% from 1939-40 to 1943-44, in part because of enlistment in the military’s auxiliary services (WACS, WAVES, etc.) but more so because women took manufacturing and government jobs. Such work, writes Cardozier, “was often exciting, it provided many young women unprecedented levels of income, and it was patriotic, which meant that some young women whose families would not previously have permitted them to work away from home allowed them to do so” (p. 117).

Nursing cadets being sworn in at the University of Minnesota, 1944

Cadets being sworn in to the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, 1944 – Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

And those women who stayed in school sought to support the war in other ways, as at St. Catherine’s, the Catholic women’s school in St. Paul:

The desire “to do something” to assist in the war effort, the temptation to take jobs in the defense industries, became more insistent. As a result nearly eighty students withdrew during the academic year. But after the initial shock, life on campus settled into the serious business of study, prayer, and home-front co-operation in the world-wide struggle then going on. In January, 1942, a board of defense was created at the college to supervise and synchronize the whole gamut of war-related activities, from stamp and bond sales, blood donations, classes in first aid and nutrition, to spiritual endeavors. (Jarchow, p. 224)

For any student, male or female, the college experience during WWII was significantly different from peacetime in a variety of ways. For example:

  • Most generally, the campus mood featured several emotions not felt as often or as deeply in peacetime: “Surrounding society as a whole and hovering over each campus like a cloud were understandable melancholy, anxiety, and uncertainty, but also a sense of unity. Casualty reports containing the name of a friend, a classmate, or a loved one periodically deepened the gloom” (Jarchow, p. 141).
  • Most schools moved to a six-day week and expanded their summer programs, to accommodate military training programs and to let other students get in as many credits as possible before they were called up.
  • Many universities added courses in Asian and Latin American history, politics, and languages, and there was something of a national outcry when a study revealed that only 18% of colleges and universities required any study of American history. But generally, the humanities suffered a significant blow as interest shifted to engineering and applied studies. (Enrollment in fields like history, philosophy, and English didn’t really start to recover until the 1960s.)
  • Sports like football, baseball, and basketball (and many extracurricular activities outside athletics) were canceled or significantly curtailed at school that didn’t have military training programs. Student newspapers and other publications either disappeared or (because of paper shortages) were produced less frequently and with shorter issues.
  • Rationing produced some inconveniences, less with food (“College dining halls continued to serve ample meals, although certain foods might be absent for short periods, and students became accustomed to menus that were not always exciting,” says Cardozier) than gas (public transit and especially hitchhiking became more commonplace). But American college students didn’t suffer anything remotely like the deprivations confronting their British and German peers, who in turn had it easy compared to what Russian and Chinese young people were going through.

To summarize the effects of the war on campus life, I like this passage that Cardozier quotes from Mary Watters’ 1951 history of Illinois at war:

Student life became more than dances, for the duration, at least. Inquiring reporters found a different temper on prairie campuses where students had once lounged “in a timeless world of soft drinks and juke boxes.” Something of the blithe spirit was gone; coeds as well as servicemen had grown up rapidly. Student members of college war councils assumed responsibility as air raid wardens, salvaged paper, sold bonds and bought stamps, rolled bandages, sent letters and school papers to thousands of alumni overseas, and did the innumerable tasks of war on the home front. The American college was “converted” to war not quite as thoroughly as industry and its reconversion was less rapid and complete. The path to war was marked by the scarcity of cokes in college snack bars, the prevalence of uniforms in classrooms and armed guards before laboratory doors, professors of Greek and art struggling with classes in mathematics and physics, the curtailment of “weekends” and the disappearance of the long summer vacation, the expansion of colleges of medicine and engineering, the shrinkage in schools of commerce and graduate studies and the virtual disappearance of those of law.

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