From the archives: A look back at Lawrence in wartime

Chelsea Johnson

Famously impermeable, the Lawrence Bubble has plagued students for decades. Isolated from world, national and even Appleton news, we often get stuck in our Lawrentian lives. However, even the most oblivious students can’t ignore some things. World War II shook the country, and Lawrence shook with it.

In a Dec. 14, 1941 letter to parents of current students, President Thomas Barrows explains the role Lawrence aimed to play in the war: “The preservation and advancement of the American way of life we so highly value depends in part upon the higher education of our best young people for the most responsible positions.”

Lawrence’s doors were to remain open, but life would not continue as normal on campus.

For many students, the possibility of being drafted was very real, though some men qualified for draft deferment if their studies were deemed to be in the national interest. Lawrence did the best it could to make sure students were not drafted in the middle of their studies.

In a memo to the male students, Dean of Students Donald DuShane advised eligible draftees that “your College officials, anxious to assure the completion of your education for your best interests and in the best interests of society, and at the same time desirous of furthering national defense and the public interest, have arranged to send a notarized statement to your local draft board.”

If students were drafted, Lawrence University refunded their tuition for the term and a share of their room and board fees.

Many students did not wait to be drafted, however, and enlisted in reserve units, or actively served on the front lines. In addition, 11 professors enlisted, including six in the special services.

For those who remained at school, the war was not far from their minds. Students organized blood drives, radio drills, food and clothing drives and even dug up old pipes for the scrap metal. The physical education program intensified, explained a pamphlet titled “Lawrence College and the War”: “Lawrence College recognizes its obligation to produce men who are physically fit… to condition men for the service that may lie ahead.”

While male soldiers did a majority of the front line fighting, women were not excluded from the war effort. Lawrence women were encouraged to “consider courses relating to one or another of these fields in which there is a great need,” according to a letter sent out to students, highlighting Lawrence courses in nursing, business, teaching and other fields that felt the wartime pressure.

In order to better fulfill the goal of educating young Americans, the Board of Trustees voted to adopt a trimester schedule that went year-round. In a letter to students, it is explained that “this change will enable young men to obtain the maximum amount of college education before entering the armed services, and will also help meet the increasing demands for college trained women.”

Lawrence also participated in the Navy V-12 program, a program that trained college students as officers for the Navy. To qualify, Lawrence had to pass physical and personnel inspections from four different Army and Navy officials. The Navy officially approached Lawrence on March 31, 1943, after passing Lawrence the previous year. The first group of 300 students began its training July 1, 1943.

During the two years that this program was active at Lawrence, 705 students were trained — 409 coming from civilian life, 296 being sent from previous active duty. Though they roomed and ate exclusively in “Good Ship Brokaw”, the separation between the V-12 trainees and regular college students was slight. During their training, V-12 students were encouraged to participate in campus life by joining extracurricular and athletics, and many joined fraternities.

As testimony to Lawrence’s “important contribution” to the Navy’s training program, Lawrence was given an honorary award June 23, 1945, as reported in the Annual Report of the President, Nathan Pusey.

Pusey wrote, “I think it is the fact that [the V-12 program] being here made it possible to keep something like a normal college life going during the past two difficult years.”

However, these two difficult years took their toll on the Lawrence community. 47 Lawrence students died in service from 1941 to 1945. These students operated radios, flew planes, escaped German prison camps and served countless other duties. Memorial Union was built in their honor, funded through alumni donations.

“They loved Lawrence as we do,” an alumni mailing reads. “We can show no finer appreciation than to perpetuate their names in this fine edifice — to help build a better college in their memory and in their honor.”