By April C. Armstrong *14 and Allie Lichterman ’16
In October 1939, as the Nazi war machine crushed Poland, Princeton University’s newly admitted freshman Class of 1943 voted Adolf Hitler the “greatest living being.” A year later, the next freshman class concurred with this decision. These votes reflect the widespread American apathy toward the Nazi threat prior to the United States entering the conflict.
On December 7, 1941, nearly everything changed for Princeton and the rest of the nation when Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. President Harold Dodds urged students to stay in school by emphasizing, “the best equipment you can have for military service is a college degree and a sound physique.” Despite the plea, Princeton’s young men signed up for military service in large numbers. In the fall of 1941, undergraduate enrollment stood at 2,432. At the lowest point during the war, the total number of civilian students fell below 400.
Princeton’s curriculum also had to adjust to the pressures of war: there was a sharp swing in the undergraduate elective choices from humanities to technical studies. The Dean of the Faculty sent out a form to all instructors asking them to indicate subjects outside their own departments that they could teach, if necessary. A physical training program was set up to stress physical conditioning for war service. Despite these efforts, the low enrollment had stretched Princeton’s resources to the breaking point. Dodds noted in his preface to The Princeton Campus in World War II, “The 1942-43 budget was presented on one page and approved by the trustees with a deficit of $850,000.”
In order to stay viable, Princeton opened its doors to the military. The original program called for the establishment of a Naval Training School (known as the V-12) to give an intensive two-month course to about 750 newly commissioned officers. The primary purpose was to train officers for the moderate-sized craft of the Navy with particular emphasis on the then-new amphibious force. Ultimately, however, thousands of trainees flooded the campus to take part in programs like the Navy’s V-1, V-5, and V-7 ventures, the Army Specialized Training program embracing engineering and languages, the Marine V-12 program, the Naval School of Military Government, and the Navy Pre-Radar School. By July 1943, the total number of individuals who received training in the various military units on the Princeton campus was nearly 20,000.
The military trainees introduced a highly regimented way of life to a campus long accustomed to the relaxed living styles of civilian undergraduates. Dormitories were inspected for cleanliness and neatness every Saturday, and students marched at attention to the University dining halls for mess at 0640 every morning. Since all student officers had to report to their first early-morning formation at the same hour, even something as simple as shaving had to be planned. The men organized themselves into light-hair and dark-hair sections. The light-hairs shaved before turning in at night, leaving the washbasins and mirrors for their dark-haired cohorts in the morning.
The military brought other firsts to Princeton during the war, diversifying the population taking classes. In the summer of 1942, the Department of Defense funded an emergency course in photogrammetry (map-making from aerial photographs). The class of 45 included 23 women, the first female students ever to enroll in classes at Princeton. Later that same year, the Navy’s V-12 program brought Princeton its first black undergraduates. In 1947, one of them, John Leroy Howard, became Princeton’s first African American alumnus.
Princetonians were not just training to fight. They were also innovating the technology of war. Beginning in 1942, Princeton faculty, graduate students, and alumni of its departments of physics and chemistry began work on a secret project, joining thousands of other scientists. Their goal was to develop a nuclear weapon. Dissertations focused on research for this project were considered classified, hidden away in a locked cabinet alongside radioactive notebooks, and not rediscovered until 2009. The ultimate result of the “Manhattan Project” was the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
As was the case during World War I, the military’s utilization of the campus enabled to meet its expenses during these trying years. Like households throughout the country, Princeton too faced financial hardship and was often asked to do more with less and find ways to endure deprivation. As many households across the nation experienced the pain and anguish of losing a loved one to enemy fire, so too did Princeton lose 355 of its own. Princetonians fought in all branches of the military and were involved in every operation from Dunkirk to Okinawa. The number lost in World War II exceeded the total of Princetonians lost in all earlier wars from the Revolution through World War I. These students are honored alongside those Princetonians who died in other wars in Nassau Hall’s Memorial Atrium.
When Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 8, 1945, a group of 78 members of the campus community, from deans to students to secretaries, took turns ringing the bell in Nassau Hall continuously for 45 minutes. When victory was declared over Japan on August 14, 1945, a long queue of volunteers kept the bell at Nassau Hall pealing continuously for 3 ½ hours. As the bells chimed, the entire Princeton community—town, gown, and military—gathered for a bonfire in front of Nassau Hall to celebrate the end of war and the dawning of a new day for America and the world.
World War II’s lasting impact on Princeton continued, however. As students returned from war, enrollment increased quickly and dramatically—so quickly that Baker Rink had to be converted to makeshift living quarters, filling up with cots. These older veteran students were often married and many had children, presenting other challenges in finding housing. Princeton’s promise to educate those students who entered military service before their degree was completed, alongside the GI Bill’s federal benefits, brought thousands of veterans to campus immediately following the war. Determining how and when to grant credit for military service was an ongoing issue and sometimes required creative solutions, as was the case with Nicholas Katzenbach ’43, who studied 8 hours per day in a German prison camp and earned credit for ten courses by examination upon his return to New Jersey.
Like the rest of America, Princeton University never returned to what it knew as “normal” before World War II. Instead, the effects of the worldwide conflict reverberated for generations and left a legacy that permanently reshaped what it meant to be a Princetonian.
Related Archival Sources:
Moe Berg Collection, 1937-2007 (AC326)
Princeton Alumni Weekly
World War II Memorial Book (database)
Berg, Ethel. My Brother Morris Berg: The Real Moe. (Newark, New Jersey: Ethel Berg, 1976).
Blackmar, Charles B., ed. The Princeton Class of 1942 During World War II: The Individual Stories. (Princeton, New Jersey: Class of 1942, Princeton University, 2000).
Brown, J. Douglas. The Industrial Relations Section of Princeton University in World War II: A Personal Account. (Princeton, New Jersey: Industrial Relations Section, Department of Economics, Princeton University, 1976).
Johnson, Melissa A. Princeton, Forward March! A Guide to World War II Collections at Princeton University. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Library, 1992).
Root, Robert K. The Princeton Campus in World War II. (Princeton, New Jersey: 1978).
Susan Hamson (2003)