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Queens College World War II Veterans History Project

Queens College WWII Veterans Project Cover

The People's Solemn Burden: Queens College in the Second World War

Scott Lipkowitz, MLIS/MA History, Queens College 2020

An agitated silence descended upon the students and staff of New York City’s Queens College as President Paul Klapper rose to address them on the morning of December 8, 1941. On the previous afternoon, a radio transmission bearing the grave news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had cut like a scythe into the relative calm of what was, up until that point, a quotidian winter’s day. For some, including Queens College freshman Donald Dugan, the ruin of the naval air station arrived as a shock “too huge” to comprehend. For others, war was an inevitability. “It was only a question of time,” Dugan’s fellow undergraduate Arnold Franco believed, before the incipient conflicts in East Asia and Eastern Europe came to claim the attention, energy, and effort of the United States. For President Klapper, war was an event he had “prayerfully sought to avoid.” Queens College, Klapper had once declared, would be “a people’s college,” dedicated to preserving the nation’s peace. Now, however, Klapper had little choice but to ask his students and colleagues to share in the people’s solemn burden. “War,” Klapper informed the gathered assembly, “has come to us.”1

In its immediate wake, the war brought with it anger and fear, and it was the latter emotion which ultimately brought Klapper’s speech to a premature end. Rumors of a German aircraft carrier prowling Long Island Sound reached the president mid-sentence, prompting a hurried exodus from the campus. Though the German carrier ultimately proved to be a phantom, the scare drove home the war’s transformative power. Like the First World War before it, the Second World War’s expansive scope, tremendous complexity, and heightened ideological stakes ensured that no American community would be insulated from its disruptive impact.2

Over the last several decades, military historians have produced an extensive literature examining the complex interplay between warfare and the societies which engage in it. Broadly defined, societies are amalgamations of various smaller communities whose group cohesion, organization, and direction are based upon a set or sets of shared principles. War poses a unique challenge to those principles, placing stress on the communities which adhere to them at the individual, group, and ideological levels. As a constituent community in the larger American fabric, Queens College was not immune to these stresses; the Second World War was a crucible which the college had no choice but to endure. Confronting the war's effects forced the college to grapple with profound existential questions. What were the college's responsibilities to its students, its staff, and its nation in a time of war? Could, or should, the college actively prepare its students to fight? Was it possible to uphold the university’s dedication to education and the democratic ideal while at the same time expending every resource at its disposal in the service of war? How the college answered these questions, and how its faculty, students, and staff rose to the war's challenges, is the story told herein.3

“A poignancy not anticipated:” War Comes to Queens College

Conceived when the college was first chartered in 1937, Queens College’s motto, Discimus ut Serviamus (We learn so that we may serve), was intended as a reminder to the student body that in obtaining an education, they were simultaneously furthering the democratic ideal. Debate is a chief manifestation of that ideal, and in the years immediately preceding America’s entry into the Second World War, the university’s student body vigorously engaged in it. “There was an enormous split in the college,” remembered Arnold Franco, over whether or not the interests of the United States would be served by entanglement in another European conflict. Naysayers pointed out that the First World War had cost roughly 100,000 American lives, with little to show for it—the world, as recent events demonstrated, had not been “made safe for democracy.” Shedding more blood was thus no guarantee of the United States’s security. Franco, however, was decidedly against this line of reasoning. At the age of fifteen he had made an abortive attempt to join the American volunteers then fighting in the Spanish Civil War; and when he arrived on Queens College’s campus in 1940, he quickly became the standard-bearer for those advocating greater American involvement in the European theater. Sooner or later, Franco argued, the storm then brewing overseas would break upon American shores.4

Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor largely rendered this debate moot. But the attack did not obfuscate the importance of the ideal which the debate represented. On the contrary, President Klapper observed, the war had given the college’s motto a “poignancy…that was not anticipated at the time of its adoption.” Both Japanese aggression and the Nazi war machine’s facile march across Europe seemed to place democracy itself in jeopardy. “[Learning] so that [one] might serve” was no longer a gentle reminder of first principles, it was a forceful call to action.5

To most effectively respond, the college evolved an all-encompassing ‘war culture.’ Taking advantage of the university’s relatively recent birth, the administration began in the spring of 1942 to alter the curriculum to reflect the war’s exigencies. Courses once devoted to the liberal arts now assumed a military focus. Classes on geography and astronomy became classes devoted to navigation and naval history. Poetry was supplanted by European languages and Morse Code. And sections which previously covered the civilian applications of trigonometry, engineering, and radio communications now emphasized their martial utility. Working in partnership with the American Red Cross, the department of Home Economics developed a non-credit course entitled “Defense Nutrition,” aimed at providing students with strategies for coping with wartime food shortages.6

No department was exempt from this radical change. Nor did the faculty and administration limit their efforts to building the intellectual foundations of civilian preparedness and military science. War is, in the end, a physical contest. To prepare students for the rigors of campaigning and military life, Queens College instituted a several courses devoted to military drill. Spearheaded by the Chairman of the Physical Education Department, Dr. John Dambach—who had served in the armed forces during the First World War as a captain in the Army Air Corps—the course was designed to provide students with a basic understanding of the most recently promulgated “military movements and corresponding command drills.” Dambach, however, was not long for his academic post. In September of 1942, he would depart the college to reenlist with the Army. Ultimately, some forty-eight Queens College faculty and staff members followed Dambach’s example, exchanging their civilian careers for service in the nation’s ever-expanding military apparatus.7

The college’s nascent ‘war culture’ likewise permeated the student body. Previous divisions over American involvement were replaced by a unity of purpose. Organizations supporting the war effort quickly materialized on campus, including a war committee designed to “coordinate student defense activities.” Students donated blood, collected necessary war materials, and began a letter writing campaign to bolster the morale of those overseas. Drawing upon the energy which fueled the campus’ pre-war debates, the Debating Society presented “five for freedom” speeches across the borough in an effort to inculcate civil defense awareness and action in the broader Queens community. Lasting approximately five minutes, the Debating Society’s speeches outlined the civilian’s role in keeping the nation safe, as well as steps civilians could take to ensure an American victory overseas. Students also supplemented previous activity in the college’s Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) with participation in the recently conceived Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). Instituted in mid-1942, the ASTP was envisioned as a means by which the Army could satiate its appetite for university-trained officers. However, facing a man-power crisis in early 1944, the War Department abruptly terminated the program. Participants, such as Queens College sophomore Jacob Rand, who believed the ASTP to be their ticket to Officer Candidate School, were reassigned to billets in the infantry, armored, airborne, and civil service divisions. Current records indicate that approximately twenty Queens College students participated in the program over the course of its two year existence.8

Though the college’s male population experienced greater mobilization as soldiers, sailors, and aviators, the college’s female students did not find themselves confined to non-military roles. While many Queens College women certainly took the lead in the campus’ civilian initiatives—organizing supply, blood, and material drives, and hosting social events for soldiers and their soon-to-be embarking classmates—many sought a more active role in the armed forces. Sensitive to this desire, and eager for individuals to fill vital non-combatant roles, the Army, after some prodding by Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, established the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in late 1941—the Army’s first non-medical service to substantively employ women within the ranks. Initially, WAC graduates were formed into companies and assigned to the Army Air Forces (AAF), Army Ground Forces (AGF), and Army Service Forces (ASF) to preform work as clerks, stenographers, and vehicle drivers. As the war progressed, however, the roles assigned to WAC participants increased in scope and complexity. Current records are unclear as to the exact number of Queens College students who enlisted with the Women’s Army Corps. Only two, Miriam Gersten and Miriam Mendelow, are definitively known to have served.9

Far more Queens College women signed on with the Navy as part of the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) program. Created by President Roosevelt on July 30, 1942, the WAVES served a similar function to the Women’s Army Corps. Short of going to sea, WAVES undertook necessary support roles in nearly all of the Navy’s operational, strategic, and logistical bureaus. Approximately forty Queens College students, including Eileen Boere, Evelyn M. Haig, and Edith Tonkonogy are known to have served in this capacity.10

WAVES, WACS, ASTP candidates, and the all-encompassing shift in collegiate focus dramatically altered the college’s day to day existence. The campus’ war-time demographics reflected the redirection of college-aged men and women to the military, industrial, and support domains. An estimated seventy percent of the college’s inaugural class of 400 students—the class of 1941—traded in their caps and gowns for uniforms and combat helmets. Moreover, given the war’s centrality in American life, the college took on the atmosphere of a military barracks. Male students could regularly be seen drilling in close order formation on the quad; and the campus’ C and I buildings, once host to academic pursuits, were transformed into accommodation for ASTP candidates. In the end, however, all communities are conglomerates of individuals. While the war precipitated institutional change for the college as a whole, each and every Queens College student was forced to confront the war’s personal presence and meaning.11

Some did not wait for the war to come to them. Robert Francis Minnick was a junior in 1939 when he left school to volunteer with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Perhaps in response to increasing Nazi rapine and avarice, Minnick felt compelled to enlist as a Pilot Officer in the only North American nation then actively involved in the war. Minnick arrived in Scotland on April 1, 1940, but was killed shortly thereafter in a training accident—Queen’s College’s first casualty of the conflict. Though he would not be the last, Minnick’s zeal for the cause was unique.12

Much more typical was college freshman Donald Dugan. Dugan had been sitting quietly in his family home in Queens Village, preoccupied with end of the semester assignments, when his portable radio broadcast news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. War had previously held little interest for the recent college entrant. Dugan’s chosen major, economics, reflected a preoccupation with what was at the time, for most Americans, the sole existential concern: the Great Depression. Consequently, when Dugan contemplated the incipient conflicts in East Asia and Eastern Europe, if indeed he contemplated them at all, he did so only in passing; as the son and nephew of First World War veterans, Dugan was cognizant of international affairs, but, like his forebears, he too believed the current war to be “over there,” far removed from American concerns. Following that infamous Sunday afternoon, however, Dugan’s trajectory took a marked turn. Conscripted into the Army on January 28, 1942, Dugan ultimately served in the Medical Corps, attached to the 291st Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division. Dugan’s journey through the war took him from France to Belgium and on into Germany before leading him home to complete his studies.13

Jacob Rand similarly waited for the war to claim him. Inducted into the military in September 1942, Rand was treated to the typical peripatetic army experience. As a Tech Sergeant, Rand initially completed basic training with the Coastal Artillery at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Offered the chance to complete his degree by enrolling in the ASTP, Rand jumped at the opportunity, and was subsequently shuffled between Queens College and the Brooklyn and City College campuses. When the program terminated, Rand repeated basic training at Fort McLellan, Alabama, before shipping out to France, where he was assigned to Troop C, 113th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron Mechanized. In late March 1945, Rand’s unit took part in the Allies’ first push into Nazi Germany, the crossing of the Rhine. It was here, while observing for the American artillery, that Rand first came into contact with the fear and mortal danger that war produces. “Two guys and myself,” Rand later recalled, were sitting “in the kitchen in this parish house [having] K-Rations…and all of a sudden something came over like a freight train.” German artillery had begun to shell Rand’s unit. Searching in vain for safety from the steel rain, Rand and his comrades huddled in the home’s archway. “We figured that [was] the safest place to stand,” Rand remembered, and as the house disintegrated around them, “the three of us stood there…one guy in front of me…one in back, and at that point, these two guys were on their knees praying.” Rand and his compatriots ultimately survived the shelling. Others were not so lucky. During the bombardment “a tremendous piece of artillery…hit a civilian house,” killing all its occupants. After the war, Rand returned to the States to pursue a career as a physician—a notion Rand later intimated he had never entertained as an undergraduate. “I thought I could have a career as a singer,” Rand remembered, “But after the war was over, I wanted to become a physician.” When asked what prompted the change, Rand laconically replied, “[No] idea, it just came into my head.”14

In all, roughly 1,900 Queens College students and faculty members participated in the war effort in some capacity, both in the United States and in the war’s European, African and Asian theaters. Their experiences were as diverse as the individuals themselves. Arthur J. Foley and Leo William Levine saw the war from the skies over China and Japan—the former was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the 493rd Bomber Squadron, 7th Bomber Group, the first squadron to test the AZON radio guided bomb, while the later served as a radio operator on B-29s. Arthur Liblit saw the war from North Africa, participating in the Allied assault on Tunisia, while his fellow Queens College alum, Peter Renzo, was decorated for his service in Italy, Germany, the Balkans, and southern France. And Private John Morell, about to enter his junior year when he was assigned to the 219th Field Artillery Battery, 35th Infantry Division, fought on the ground during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Yet despite their divergent backgrounds, paths, and wartime occupations, Levine, Liblit, Renzo, Morell, and all those who left Queens College to participate in the twentieth century’s greatest conflagration made a common sacrifice: they “learned [war’s terrible lessons] so that [they] might serve” the nation in its hour of need.15

“Do not ponder with the brave:” History and Remembrance

From December 1941 until August 1945, the Second World War loomed over Queens College like an ominous and omnipresent specter. Its presence could be felt in Jefferson Hall—the college’s administrative center—in the corridors of the C and I buildings, and in the strained breaths of students training on the quad. The war challenged the university at its most fundamental level. And for many in the Queens College community, it exacted the ultimate toll. Of the approximately 1,900 students who went off to fight, more than sixty never returned.

One of those who fell, Private John Morell, found his final resting place on a battlefield in Northern France on July 28, 1944. He was twenty-three years old. Morell’s death, like those of the other Queens College students who made the ultimate sacrifice, reminds us of the unavoidable truth of human conflict: that war involves the playing out of millions upon millions of individual tragedies. At the same time, Morell’s death serves to remind us that, as President Klapper stated at the college’s first annual “Dedication Day” in 1943, the “ever potent memories” of those no longer with us should “inspire us to rededicate ourselves to the cause for which they died.” The passage of time and the dawning of a cynical age have tended to cast a pall on that cause—and by extension, upon those who saw fit to fight for it. Seventy-five years on, the war’s outcome now seems pre-ordained; an inevitability only to be contemplated in passing. But for those who faced the Second World War head on, the triumph of the United States, and of the democratic ideal, was anything but a foregone conclusion.16

Over the past seven decades, the experiences of those Queens College students, faculty, and alumni who unflinchingly bore the people’s burden has passed from memory into history. In 2006, the History Department began a race against time to preserve those memories. History is, after all, intimately and inexorably entwined with remembrance. Each retelling, each new investigation, breathes life into our collective past—but only if that past is preserved. “Do not ponder with the brave,” an anonymous poet eulogized in the college’s student newspaper, The Crown, “there is a greater will, that finds more honor in this grave, than all the hurt that blood can spill.” Yet despite the poet’s admonition, it is for us, the living, to ponder the sacrifice and burden borne by our forebears. It is to their everlasting memory that this commemoration is dedicated.17

Notes:

1 William Spisak, “Queens College World War II Alumni Commemoration Project,” Queens College WWII Veterans Project, accessed September 1, 2019, para. 7. I am indebted to William Spisak, who, as an undergraduate in the History Department in 2006, assisted with the Queens College World War Two Veterans Project’s initial stages, and conducted the bulk of the research upon which this essay is based; Queens College, The Silhouette (Queens, NY: June 1942), 9, Queens College Archives, accessed September 1, 2019; Donald Dugan, “WWII Veteran Transcript,” transcript of an oral history conducted by Bobby Alan Wintermute, Queens College WWII Veterans History Project, accessed September 1, 2019; Arnold Franco “WWII Veteran Transcript,” transcript of an oral history conducted 2010 by William Spisak, Queens College WWII Veterans History Project, accessed September 1, 2019.

2 Spisak, “Queens College,” para.7

3 For a detailed examination of the ‘War and Society’ approach to military history see Don Higginbotham, “The New Military History: its Practitioners and Their Practices,” in Military History and the Military Profession, eds. David A. Charters, Marc Milner, and J. Brent Wilson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992).

4 The Silhouette (Queens, NY: June 1942), 4-5, 14.

5 The Silhouette (Queens, NY: June 1942), 14.

6 The concept of the college’s ‘war culture’ is borrowed from Spisak, “Queens College,” para.12-13.

7 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 14.

8 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 11; For a more detailed look at the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) see Louis E. Keefer, “Birth and Death of the Army Specialized Training Program,” Army History 33 (Winter 1995): 1-8; Jacob (Rand) Ranofsky, “WWII Veteran Transcript,” transcript of an oral history conducted by Bobby Alan Wintermute, Queens College WWII Veterans History Project, accessed September 1, 2019.

9 On the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) see Judith A. Bellafaire, The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service (Carlisle, PA: Center for Military History, 2015).

10 On the Navy’s Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service (WAVES) see “The WAVES’ 75th Birthday,” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/manning-the-us-navy/waves_75th.html, accessed 1 Sept 2019.

11 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 28; Queens College, The Silhouette (Queens, NY: June 1943), 42-43, Queens College Archives, accessed September 1, 2019.

12 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 3-6.

13 Dugan, “Veteran Transcript.”

14 Ranofsky, “Veteran Transcript.”

15 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 21-24, 32.

16 The idea of war as a tableau consisting of millions upon millions of individual tragedies was first coined by Peter Hart in his The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 31.

17 Spisak, “Queens College,” para. 32.