When President Franklin Roosevelt announced his decision to lend arms to Great Britain in December 1940, he declared, “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” Many Americans were still hesitant about entering the world stage, but all doubts disappeared Dec. 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Yale became a small but important part of this arsenal, and the campus’ mobilization and experience during these crucial times symbolize the nation’s shift of attitudes toward a growing sense of character, duty and sacrifice.
An isolationist institution
Yale’s experience in World War II did not begin as nobly as it ended. It started as the story of a conservative student body promoting isolationism.
In 1936, there were peace week demonstrations on campus, and although the rallies were not the work of the few Nazi sympathizers at Yale, they did reflect the 1930s widespread attitude of appeasement and pacifism.
James McDermott ’42, who served and died for his country after graduation, wrote to his mother Feb. 5, 1939 about the debate on campus relating to the crisis abroad after hearing an author speak to the Yale Political Union about why America could not avoid war. The author failed to convince the YPU, which voted two to one against intervention.
“The other fellow [a student for isolationism] who really meant what he said spoke against the measure, pointing out the fallibility of humans in prophesying, and declaring it was foolish to rush into something that might possibly be avoided,” McDermott wrote. “He declared that it took more courage to stay out of the war than to go into it.”
Yale students, including future Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41, who was then chairman of the Yale Daily News, were among the principle founders of the America First Committee in 1940. The committee, which attracted prominent Americans, including aviator Charles Lindbergh, voiced opposition to providing aid to the Allies.
“One of the biggest events they did was invite Charles Lindbergh to come and speak,” history professor and Yale historian Gaddis Smith said. “They filled Woosley Hall with a very enthusiastic audience.”
Then-Yale president Charles Seymour, a firm interventionist, disliked the attitude on campus, but some feel his administration did little to change it.
“A somewhat shameful action of this was the administration’s refusal to help Jewish refugee scholars come into the United States,” Smith said. “Yale did less than any other major institution. It was still a fairly anti-Semitic place.”
Although the anti-Semitic attitudes did not disappear fully until Brewster, ironically, toppled the social structure of the University decades later, isolationism became less acceptable as 1941 progressed and then was eradicated with Pearl Harbor. Japan had awakened the “sleeping giant.”
Call to duty
When America entered the war, Yale entered fully behind it.
“They’ve been calling up reserves unexpectedly, and I might get yanked out of school,” McDermott wrote to his mother Feb. 2, 1941. “I’d sort of like to finish college before I get militarized if it can be managed.”
Although students wondered when service would begin, few questioned their responsibility to serve the nation.
“We were at war. There was no intellectual debate about it,” Navy veteran Greer Allen ’45W said in an interview. “Already the nation had gotten itself mobilized to help Britain, so the conventional reason was that we should support the enemies of the Axis. I think anyone who would have challenged that would have been investigated and perhaps prosecuted.”
Allen was part of Class of 1945W, whose members saw their college years interrupted by service and eventually returned to Yale to graduate in the latter half of the decade. Upon entering in the summer of 1942, they only received six months of the old and elegant Yale education, which at that time included students wearing coats and ties to meals served by waiters.
Within the same year, military uniforms replaced the old dress codes, while mess lines replaced the waiters. As Winston Churchill prophesied, the New World rushed to the rescue of the Old World, and as an ironic result, Yale had to sacrifice the aristocratic old-world elegance it had previously offered its students.
Yale devoted more and more of its resources to the war after 1941, and seven of the 10 existing residential colleges became Army and Navy housing.
In response to plummeting numbers of civilian undergraduates, Yale fell into economic trouble in 1942 and began to rent its property and education services to the military. By 1943, the Air Force had established an aviation school at Yale, and Jonathan Edwards, Timothy Dwight and Trumbull colleges were the only colleges that continued to house civilian undergraduates. There were only 565 undergraduates by 1944 , Brooks Mather Kelley wrote in his book “Yale: A History.”
University officials worried about the mobilization’s long-term effects and tried to preserve the academic environment. Despite the large number of Yale faculty members who left for government service, Greer said older faculty members remained in greater numbers than their younger counterparts.
“I had some great classes when I was in uniform,” Greer said. “In many ways, I could guess that the students had a greater access to the senior faculty in ways they would not have today because the younger people [professors] were gone.”
While mobilizing for war abroad, New Haven, like most cities on the East Coast, refined its internal defense systems.
McDermott, who had already enlisted in the Marines, described the war time precautions on campus while trying to write his thesis, amidst all the confusion.
“The week was also interrupted by the practice blackout,” McDermott wrote home Feb. 22, 1942. “It all went off approximately according to schedule, with no excitement. The result was that the Timothy Dwight shelters supposed to house about 700 people had about 7 occupants.”
Students chose to gather at a movie theater rather than in the bomb shelter. But despite this nonchalant facade, students and city residents worried about safety.
“There was actually a fear that the Germans were going to bomb New Haven,” said Stanley Flink ’45W, who served in the army. “There was a genuine fear that could happen.”
Flink, now a political science professor, worked as a journalist after his graduation in 1948 and produced amateur films, including documentaries about Yale during World War II.
Despite these concerns, there were some perks to attending Yale during war. Great jazz bandleader Glenn Miller was stationed at Yale to form military bands.
“His first headquarters was at Yale, and they [Miller’s band] did a broadcast at Woolsey Hall a couple nights a week, and they played for the GI’s” Flink said.
Yale also was able to easily post an undefeated football season in 1944 thanks to its new recruits — Army and Navy enlistees.
Yalies in action
Although Yale’s major contribution to the war was teaching and training over 20,000 future soldiers, during the course of the war, 18,678 alumni served in the war and 514 gave their lives, according to “Yale Men who Died in the Second World War” by Eugene Kone.
Capt. McDermott landed in late February 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima, where U.S. forces were determined to rid the island of over 20,000 entrenched Japanese defenders.
On Feb. 24, 1945, after a harsh day of fighting and a break in the lines, McDermott’s heroics allowed his battalion, which had suffered heavy casualties, to make a safe retreat. He plugged the hole in the lines and directed an artillery barrage to allow the men to fall back. McDermott earned the Navy Cross for his actions.
“Stouthearted and indomitable in his concern for the safety of our troops, he remained steadfast in his isolated position with local security from enemy action and continued to adjust his devastating fire close to our lines, effectively thwarting an imminent Japanese counterattack and enabling our troops to re-form without casualty,” the Secretary of the Navy wrote in a letter awarding McDermott the Navy Cross.
McDermott was killed by a sniper March 3, 1945, according to the secretary’s letter, stored in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscript and Archives. The U.S. forces secured Iwo Jima March 16 at the cost of 6,000 Marines.
At the end of the war in 1945, victorious soldiers returned home to a nation indebted to their service abroad, and Congress passed the GI Bill, giving veterans money for college.
Yale had promised all its students, including the ones admitted only for military purposes, that they could finish their studies after the war. But a new freshmen class was also arriving in the fall of 1946, causing the undergraduate population to soar to around 9,000. The University had to pack students into residential colleges and temporary housing locations.
But after fighting a bloody war, students easily ignored the housing crunch.
“I didn’t even think, ‘Oh it’s crowded,'” Greer explained. “I had been in the service, where if you want crowded you got crowded.”
The school also became increasingly diverse thanks to the return of military students from a variety of backgrounds who would not have otherwise been admitted to Yale.
“There was quite a bit of diversity from 1945-1950,” Smith said. “It was still prejudiced against Jews, and there were virtually no blacks. It was a more diverse white European origin.”
Yale was a microcosm for America during the war years. It went from isolationism to total war mobilization in the course in a short time. Even after the war, some conservative politicians embraced the vision of a new post-war isolationism, but they no longer had a majority in the country. In 1950, Yale closed its doors again and reverted to its pre-war traditionalist ways.
But from 1941 to 1945, Yale alumni, students and faculty both at home and abroad showed their courage and honor in defending their nation and its democratic ideals.