World Wars I and II: Mobilizing a campus

This article is part three in the five-part War at Brown series.

All quotes for this article were selected from transcripts from interviews conducted by Jessica Rotondi ’07 in 2006 for “Navy Blue and Brown: World War II Comes to Brown University” as a part of the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Assistantship Program.

Dec. 7, 1941 seemed like just another sleepy Sunday morning. After carousing until daybreak at a Sigma Chi dance, Chester Ruoff ’41 had fallen asleep in the living room of his fraternity among the debris from the previous night’s party. When he and his brothers came to, the news broke: the Imperial Japanese Navy had conducted a surprise strike on Pearl Harbor.

Fully awake now, the brothers were shocked, Ruoff remembered. “We couldn’t imagine a country the size of Japan attacking a country the size of the United States.”

Immediately after news of the attacks broke, President Henry Wriston gathered all the students in Sayles Hall and told them to “keep their powder dry” — to focus on studying and not rush off to war, said Evan West ’45.

Opportunities to support the war effort would arise, “and that was made very clear,” West said.

As had happened during the “Great War” two decades earlier, World War II forced Brown and sister school Pembroke College into a hybrid state of university and military training ground. In 1917, and again in 1941, fear, patriotism and diligence escalated to new heights on College Hill.

The first time around

Europe had been embroiled in conflict for nearly three years — since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 — when Congress issued its declaration of war April 2, 1917. University President William Faunce defended the United States’ entrance into the war on the steps of Faunce House two days later, The Herald reported at the time: “The United States is to fight against a gifted nation gone  morally insane, a blind giant trampling down every nation it can reach,” he said.

The next week, the University started a military training program consisting of drills, military gymnastics, military hygiene lectures and instruction in artillery and map drawing, ultimately enrolling nearly 500 men, The Herald reported at the time. Enlisted men on active service comprised the majority of the student body at the start of the war, and the Man-Power Law of 1918 would eventually compel the entire student body to enter military service, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

The Women’s College — renamed Pembroke College in 1928 — contributed to the war effort by conserving food, rolling bandages and knitting sweaters for donation to the Red Cross, according to Encylcopedia Brunoniana.

April 6, 1921, the University dedicated the Soldiers Memorial Arch to the memory of the 41 alums and students and one faculty member who died in the war, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. The War Records Committee listed 1,974 alums, faculty and students enlisted during the war.

French Generalissimo Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied Armies who accepted Germany’s request for an armistice, visited Brown three years after the Armistice and received an honorary degree. Commenting on the Treaty of Versailles’ stipulations that allowed Germany to remain a unified country, Foch declared in 1919, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

His words proved prophetic: 20 years and 65 days later, there would be a second world war.

A farewell to armistice

Even in the years leading up the United States’ entrance into World War II, campus was buzzing about bloodshed overseas, according to Herald coverage at the time. Sock and Buskin put on patriotic musicals, and professors mined for tungsten, a metal necessary for manufacturing high-grade steel, with ultraviolet flashlights around hills in Providence.

The University engaged with the war overseas primarily on an intellectual level, hosting faculty and outside expert speakers in lectures and debates on the morality and strategy of the war nearly every week.

Addressing student fears, Professor Charles Kraus, Brown’s director of chemical research and president of the American Chemical Society, said Adolf Hitler’s threat to unleash unfathomable forces against the Allied Powers bore absolutely no weight. “It’s silly even to think about a death ray,” he told The Herald at the time.

Professor of Biblical Literature Robert Casey was aboard the British SS Athenia Sept. 3, 1939 when it became the first ship sunk by German submarine during the war. He was walking on the top deck when the torpedo hit and spent the night in a leaking lifeboat with 70 other survivors before a destroyer came to their rescue, The Herald reported at the time.

“I may say I have never heard a British voice with more pleasure,” Casey told The Herald at the time. Casey’s museum notes and research for a paper on which he had been working for several years sank, along with the Athenia and her 118 dead, off the northern coast of Ireland.

A New (War) Curriculum

Brown adopted a wartime curriculum in World War I under directives from the U.S. Department of War and the Department of the Navy. The University conducted military drills and battle maneuvers, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana, and students in the naval unit trained on the seashore, studied navigation in Wilson Hall’s laboratories and worked in the rigging loft atop University Hall during bad weather.

The University stayed open during the summer of 1918, offering courses in chemistry, biology and engineering and accommodating 320 mechanics assigned by the government to train in the machine shops at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Both the corps and the naval unit disbanded in 1918 at the war’s end.

World War II also demanded a rigorous military education for Brown students. The University established the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1939, an extra-curricular unit for air training. The next fall, Brown established a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps unit with 110 members in expectation that the country would join the war. The unit was headquartered in Maxcy Hall’s Department of Naval Sciences and Tactics. The University also created the Division of National Defense Training Courses, offering courses on cryptanalysis, map reading and construction, Russian, gunnery and accounting.

The Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy urged students to speed up their educations to provide the armed forces with a steady flow of educated personnel. Brown began to operate year-round, with 700 students enrolling in the additional summer semester in 1942. The University allowed new freshman classes to enter three times a year, at the start of each term, and became the first university in New England to admit high school juniors of “exceptional standing” to accelerate education, The Herald reported at the time.

The University also expanded its curriculum to educate women to aid the war effort. “(The war) made it quite clear that women could do men’s jobs,” said Jane Cottam ’44. In December 1943, Brown established a war training course in practical analytical chemistry for women only, requiring just a high school education to participate.

Training grounds

The visibility of the war on campus extended beyond the curricular offerings and student body.

Luxuries like sugar and butter and gasoline were rationed. “We all got skinnier,” Cottam said.

The rise of paper and printing costs forced The Herald to start using a cheaper grade of paper and publish only thrice weekly, ending 23 years of daily publication.

The University was subject to “brown-outs,” when campus lights were turned off and shades were drawn. The Herald published Air Raid Precautions, detailing how students should proceed in the event of an air bombing of campus and listing the various signal alarms.

World War I physically transformed campus, with the University converting Hope College, University Hall, Maxcy Hall and Caswell Hall into barracks and the first floor of Rockefeller Hall into a mess hall, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Rhode Island Hall served as the headquarters of the Student Army Training Corps, and cannons guarded the entrance to Manning Hall, which became the headquarters for the Naval Unit.

World War II brought about even greater infrastructural change to the University. An obstacle course was constructed on Lincoln Field, and over 200,000 square feet of victory gardens cropped up around campus.

In May 1943, the University assigned 600 uniformed Navy men to active duty at Brown, housing them in student dorms. To accommodate the new influx of students who married in wartime, the University built two makeshift housing complexes — “Flat Top” on Lincoln Field and “Brown Town” by the gymnasium.

The drama of the war accelerated romances, with many women and men leaving school to join the effort. Cottam remembered one of her friends “met this person when he was going off to war, so she married him,” she said. “It didn’t work out.”

For others, tragedy struck too close to the heart. Cottam dated a Brown student who left for the war in an early draft. “I was madly in love with him,” she said. “He went and he didn’t ever come back.”

A splintered community

War sobered the campus atmosphere. Everybody was either studying hard to graduate or had already joined a reserve unit and would be called to serve immediately after graduation, said John Sen ’43, former editor of The Herald. “The war was always with you,” he added. “We all knew that, eventually, we might be killed.”

But the war also filled the minds of many students with adventure. “There was a certain glamour involved … a certain excitement,” said Bannice Webber ’45, adding that for some students the war was an escape from their obligations.

Anyone who did not join the war effort was passed off as unpatriotic or a slacker, Sen said. Pembroke and Brown students pitched in to the war effort, participating in fundraisers and rolling bandages, according to Herald coverage at the time.

The civilian and military mix divided the student body — they led separate lives, despite attending the same University, according to past Herald coverage. And “there might have been jealousy on the part of the civilians because the Navy guys had those nice uniforms,” Webber said. “They got all the girls.”

But when the members of the military units left for war, they in turn felt resentment toward “college boys,” an intellectual prejudice that pervaded Basic Training, Webber said.

The staggered timeline for graduation and the considerable number of students who simply dropped out to join the force splintered students’ sense of community with others in the same class year. “I’ve never been to a reunion because I really feel that I really don’t have a class here,” Webber said.

But for some, campus offered a safe haven from the war’s effects on the country. “When Pearl Harbor broke out, they looked at me on the bus or anywhere else that I went as though I were an enemy,” said Sen, a student of Chinese descent. He faced little discrimination on campus but remembered seeing Chinese-Americans in Providence wearing signs pleading “I am Chinese.”

Brown at war

By Jan. 7, 1942, eight Brown faculty members had taken leaves of absence to serve in the war, The Herald reported. In early February, Naval Aviation Cadet James Welsh, Jr. ’43 became the first Brown man killed since the declaration of war when his plane crashed in Jacksonville, Fla. Three weeks later, Charles Hanish ’43 became the second.

The Herald occasionally featured the writings of Brown alums serving in the armed forces. “We had to wear our gas masks and steel hats at all times and we had to be ready to pull out of here with full equipment on a few minutes notice,” wrote Victor Hillery ’41, former editor of The Herald, who served in the Army. “Men who had been issued personal arms had to have these with them at all times and it was a strange sight to see men going to church and to the movies with their submachine guns and rifles slung over their shoulders.”

The University hung a large flag near Rockefeller Hall, each day posting the names of Brown students and alums who died in the war.

A return to peace

A sense that victory was on the horizon trickled onto campus in 1945. On May 11, the first two prisoners of war returned to campus. When the Allies accepted Japan’s surrender Sept. 2 of that year, the University threw a victory dance.

At the end of the war, 177 former Brown students had lost their lives. The deceased ranged from members of the Class of 1907 to members of the Class of 1947 and included four graduate students and one woman.

Many students of the sciences and engineering returned from the war with a desire to study the arts and the humanities, Lloyd Noyes ’45 said.

Wriston established a temporary Veterans College for those whose educations had been disrupted by the war and the placement of ROTC and V-12 students on campus. The College helped these students — most of whom lacked formal entrance requirements — adjust to normal university coursework.

The campus soon returned to its peacetime state, albeit with some new additions. Major General William Curtis Chase, Class of 1916, donated a flag to the University that had been captured by Japanese troops from General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Manila until it was recaptured by one of the units in Chase’s division.

As a postwar gift of harmony, the Japanese Ambassador gave the University a Yoshino cherry tree. Early each spring, the tree would be the first to bloom on campus, its buds unfurling into clusters of fragrant pink flowers that would last all summer.

The next story in the War at Brown series examines the different sources of administrative, faculty and student activism and alliances at the University during the Cold War.

War at Brown