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When the Navy docked on the Hill

Navy Bold, ambitious and arduous, the V-12 Navy College Training Program met the challenge of supplying officers for World War II. And the College on the Hill did its part.

By James Dempsey

“The outlook for 1942 looks grim,” wrote Rev. Francis J. Toolin, S.J., ’20, a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II.

The prediction could have applied both to consequences of the war then raging across the globe and to the future of Holy Cross itself, which, having survived the Depression, was now facing a wholesale emptying of its classrooms as young men enlisted—or were drafted into the armed services.

The priest was prescient. By late 1942, the United States was thoroughly enmeshed in the conflict, and, in November of that year—just a few weeks before the still-raw anniversary of Pearl Harbor—Congress lowered the draft age from 21 to 18. With no college deferment at that time, the future for all-male colleges such as Holy Cross was dark.

“We were hurting financially because of the depopulation,” says College professor of history, Rev. Anthony Kuzniewski, S.J. “There were too few students to sustain a faculty and make the physical plant economically viable. It was a close call for Holy Cross.”

But there was a silver lining in the clouds of war. Policymakers in Washington, D.C., had recognized that empty college classrooms meant a dearth of graduates from which the armed services could attract officer recruits. Their answer was the V-12 Navy College Training Program, which would send to college students who had already been accepted into the Navy and Marine Corps reserve programs; enlisted men who had been recommended as officers; and high school seniors who passed the national qualifying examination. In effect, the V-12 helped educate the Greatest Generation.

The College was also fortunate in that Sen. David Ignatius Walsh of the Class of 1893—the first Catholic to become governor of Massachusetts and a passionately loyal alumnus—happened to serve on the Naval Affairs Committee. Walsh ensured that his alma mater was one of the first in the country to receive V-12 recruits.

As a result, in July 1943, Holy Cross became one of 131 institutions across the nation to host a V-12 unit. In turn, the insertion of the military into the life of a quiet Catholic New England college wrought many changes: As recruits began to outnumber civilian students on campus, the halls of academe echoed to reviews, parades and inspections; floors became “decks,” walls “bulkheads,” doors “hatches,” stairways “ladders” and bathrooms “heads.” Wheeler Hall, where the trainees bunked, was known as “U.S.S. Wheeler.” A rifle range was set up in the gymnasium behind the chapel. The unit had a band and a drum and bugle corps—and published its own magazine. Naval equipment began appearing on campus, including 280 rifles, a 4-inch gun and, for some reason, a 30-foot whale boat with sailing rig. The gun was located in the basement of the chapel.

Most interestingly, perhaps—for the first time in its history, the College was attended by a group that had previously been scarce on Mount St. James Hill: non-Catholics.       

Robert Thomas ’46 entered the V-12 program in 1944. For him, the program was a godsend, a chance for a boy from a Carbondale, Ill., family hit hard by the Depression, to go to college. He passed the entrance exam in 1943—and was thrown into the mixture of academia and military discipline that was Holy Cross during that period.

“We were restricted to campus except for Wednesday afternoons, when we had a few hours to go to downtown Worcester,” he says. “At night you had to stay in your room and study. I can remember in the mornings getting up and running out to do exercise. There was very little time between classes, and a lot of physical training.”

The men accepted into the program were on active duty, in uniform, and subject to regular military discipline. They took a heavier-than-normal class load and spent nine and one-half hours per week in physical training; they also spent countless hours drilling, marching and standing for inspections and reviews. On the academic side, the College offered accelerated programs with short vacations. Commencements were held in October 1943; February and June, 1944; and March and October, 1945.

For a young Presbyterian such as Thomas, immersion into the daily life of a devout Catholic college was something of a culture shock.

“In class, the desk for the professor was raised higher than the other desks—there was a crucifix up front, and we would stand when the professor came in and say a ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father,’” he recalls. “That was a new experience for me, but it didn’t hurt me at all. Probably it was good for me.”

The meeting of the cultures was not without conflict, however.

“In those days Catholics and Protestants, especially where I lived in Carbondale, hardly spoke to each other—and so that carried over to me and to others,” Thomas says.

“There was going to be a military Mass—and we were asked to practice for it—how to genuflect and so on,” he continues. “We did the practice, but then we young Turks thought, ‘We shouldn’t have to do this.’ Well, one fellow had an uncle who was a congressman, and he called him; soon a notice came out that the military Mass would be optional.”

Fate would bring Thomas to another iconic institution of Worcester Catholicism—St. Vincent Hospital. Afflicted with appendicitis, he was admitted to the hospital for treatment.

“The nuns in their hooded white bonnets and gowns were sort of scary,” he says. The experience, however, left him with great fondness for his psychology professor, Fr. Dowling, who stayed with him the entire time.


When the Navy docked on the Hill continued >>>

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