Archives reveal life at Lawrence during WWII

By Ollin Garcia Pliego

The United States entered WWII right after Japan attacked the American fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. At Lawrence, all male students and faculty between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register for military service under the Selective Service Act. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had started the training program in the country to be prepared in case entering the war was unavoidable.

Robert S. French Professor of American Studies and Professor of History Jerald Podair explained that the war could have been avoided between the United States and Japan, but emphasized that this was not possible against Germany:

“The inevitability … that unlike Japan, where it was possible … that some sort of comprise could have been reached. Specifically with Japan getting out of China. I think that war with Nazi Germany in the long run was inevitable. It wasn’t a geopolitical situation that could be compromised … it was an ideological and philosophical conflict with Nazi Germany that was going to have to be resolved with war at some point.”

Margaret Dixon Nauer ‘44 wrote her Lawrence memoirs in a short narrative titled “How Lawrence College Got Through WWII.” A freshman at Lawrence in 1941, she described first hearing about the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

“One day when a few of us were playing bridge in the third floor lounge at Ormbsy Hall, Betsy McCoy raced into the room and shouted, ‘The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor!’” Nobody among her friends knew where Pearl Harbor was except for Nauer , because she had lived in Hawaii with her family.

While walking around campus in the early days of the 1942-43 academic year, Nauer witnessed a student preparing to leave for war:

“I remember walking through the fraternity quadrangle once [in 1942] and there on the Delt back porch were a few guys grouped around another who was holding his papers that were orders on when to leave and when to report,” she wrote.

Lawrence’s ninth president, Thomas Nichols Barrows (1937–1943), thought that the student enrollment was not going to be affected by the war. However, after Pearl Harbor, juniors and seniors were the main targets in the military drafts. Professor Emeritus of History Charles Breunig wrote in his book “‘A Great and Good Work’: A History of Lawrence University 1847-1964” that:

“Starting the academic year 1942-43 with approximately 700 students, the college lost sixty men and twenty women by the end of the first semester (fifty of the men to the armed forces). Soon after the second semester began, all men in the Army Air Corps Reserves and all but seventeen of the Army Enlisted Reserves were called to active duty,” he wrote.

With the United States’ full participation in the armed conflict, Lawrence’s former Athletic Director Art Denney designed a strict physical program for all male students in school. This consisted of “an obstacle course laid out on the river bank near the Alexander Gymnasium and a steeple chase course in the ravine to the east of the varsity football field, now the Banta Bowl”, Breunig said.

Enrollment had drastically decreased by 1943, and the future of the university did not look promising. An announcement from Washington D.C. during the summer of 1943 included Lawrence as one of 131 colleges and universities in the nation to host a V-12 unit of 300 cadets, who were appointed to study and train on campus.

With the ongoing war, the V-12 unit’s main goal was to prepare a strong supply of young officer candidates for the various branches of the armed forces: the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Breunig reported that, “About 80 percent of the first group at Lawrence were chosen from students already at Lawrence or other colleges, 10 percent were picked directly from the fleet, and the remainder were high-school graduates who had scored well on the V-12 test.”

For the most part, the war in the Pacific and Europe received minimal attention in The Lawrentian. Only the D-Day landings in Normandy were mentioned in the school paper. One editor wrote for The Lawrentian on Jun. 9, 1944 that:

“Sometimes we who are here at Lawrence are seemingly isolated from the rest of the world are noticeably out of touch with the events which are taking place on foreign shores. This week seemed different. The arrival of D-Day brought the war and its newest tactical onslaught much nearer to all of us.”