Swarthmore at War, Part II

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

_(This is the second in a two-part series on Swarthmore at War. The first can be found here

“How normal and congenial it all was in the fall of ’41—then after war was declared—confusing and tense with men leaving—blackout drills—the difficulty of rounding things up for the yearbook which I was editing—was it relevant to be in college?”

In the early nineties, class secretary Dick Burrowes ’45 and his wife Jean ’46 put together a booklet on Swarthmore student life during World War II entitled “The Fractured ‘Forties: Together Again after Five Decades.” It’s a collection of reminiscences from the days when Reveille and Taps were played outside the barracks of Wharton, and students went without milk twice a week to raise money for Europe. Among them:

“Turning on the radio at 4:00 am … to hear of the American invasion of North Africa—knowing I was the only person on the campus who knew of this event.”

“Hearing of the deaths of classmates we had known and loved … Anxious talk among us. Should we stay or go? What to do? Botany majors who switched to pre-med and gave up peaceful dreams of research and plant collecting … Liberal Arts majors who were drafted and died.”

“[The war] probably had some impact on marrying directly out of college (war fever, patriotism, long years without ‘our boys’, etc.)—but I have never regretted going right from commencement gown to wedding gown. Perhaps under other circumstances, I would have had a ‘career’ of some sort before marrying.”

Still, in many ways, Swarthmore stayed the same. Most Phoenix articles from the war period are about standard topics like socials, lectures, and sports; references to the war are surprisingly few and far between. There was a kerfuffle over the new P.E. requirements for men, which found its way into the Phoenix nearly every single week throughout 1942; an April Fool’s issue proclaimed that “It is our duty to maintain our health for victory” through exercises like “Nab a Jap.” There was a push for a stronger core curriculum, and Béla Bartók and Pearl S. Buck visited campus.

I think I could write an entire column on wartime student life and just focus on gender roles. Nearly every mention of the Navy men on campus is accompanied by a description of how excited the women were to have them on campus. Dean Everett Hunt summarized the situation: “Whether or not the women show a … partiality to the uniform is a moot question. The requirement that the V-12 men be in their rooms at 9 o’clock on five nights of the week is a boon to the civilian boys, and on Saturday night many of the Navy boys go to their homes. But the complaints still exists that Saturday night dates for civilians are difficult.”

Swarthmore first rented the Mary Lyon buildings in 1943 to house the Navy. A Phoenix article in March 1943 told of an intrepid band of girls who braved the walk to be rewarded with “a building whose windows blazed with lights and sailors who greeted them in the traditional manner. (Need we say more?) … If you can exchange a good operation yarn, play a snappy game of bridge, and understand anything from a Texas to Brooklyn accent, then a lot of pretty swell sailors are waiting for you down at Mary Lyon’s.”

During a President’s Address, John Nason thanked Swarthmore’s women for keeping the humanities and social sciences classes full during the war, when Navy men dominated the sciences. One former student remembered “being one of two girls in a physics class with 90 sailors,” but some barriers were more than social; a Phoenix article mentions a mechanics class in which “freshmen women are not permitted to register.” Looking at classes like that, and photo captions like “Engineers entertain the weaker sex,” you realize that Swat hasn’t perfectly lived up to its image as a paragon of progressive coeducation. My favorite Phoenix headline of all time might well be “Engineers Introduce Curious Co-Eds to Amazing Machinery and Efficiency.”

As for the curriculum, the biggest structural change to the school was the new summer term, seen as a wartime necessity. Nason argued, “Men in college now no longer have four years in which to absorb their share of higher education. They must be through by 20.” The summer term was not without sacrifices; one article lamented, “When janitor service was curtailed, men learned how to sleep in unmade beds.” Furthermore, “a recent survey in Wharton revealed that each man had on his skin seventeen and one-half mosquito bites.” That sentence appeared under my second-favorite Phoenix headline: “Sly She-Skeeters Bite Hot-and-Bothered College.”

The Chinese Navy came in 1943, and shared rooms in Wharton with the American navy. Phyllis Nelson Yuhas ’45, whose personal letters are in the Friends Library, described them: “The biggest event around here lately has been the arrival of the Chinese navy … They’re grand looking fellows, each a little model of Chiang Kai Chek, and very polite and swell.” American students enjoyed teaching dances to the “Little Admirals.”

There’s a letter in the Friends Library from Frederick Liu, who came with the Chinese Navy to Swarthmore in 1943. He worked at Princeton in the ‘70s, and remembered his experience at Swarthmore fondly: “Swarthmore was so peaceful which seemed almost unreal to a young man who spent 5 continuous years in battles or field hospitals.” Liu’s son attended Swarthmore. The alumni council tried to locate the rest of the Chinese naval contingent several times, but didn’t meet with much success. It’s assumed that most of them either died or became impossible to track down in the war and subsequent revolution.

The English Department secured the famous British poet W. H. Auden as a visiting lecturer during the war, from 1942 to 1945, and students were starstruck to have such a celebrity on campus. Stories abound about Auden’s reputation as an unconventional iconoclast. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “My seminar on Romanticism starts tomorrow. Quakers or no Quakers, I shall serve bread and cheese and beer at four o’clock.” He also penned one of the greatest exam questions in college history, for his Elizabethan Literature class: “Explain why the Devil is (a) sad and (b) honest.”

He described and criticized Swarthmore in his 1944 poem A Healthy Spot. And if any further proof is needed that Auden’s stay at Swarthmore is the stuff of legend, he once called out to students who wrote for the Phoenix, “Fellow Irresponsibles, follow me. When I am Dean of Men, which, if there were any justice in this world, I should long ago have become, I will make you sorry you were ever born. But in the meantime, let’s go underground and make bombs.”

I’ve written briefly before about postwar transformations at Swarthmore. The sudden influx of soldiers on the GI Bill who enrolled in Swarthmore after serving overseas was completely unprecedented in American higher education, and while Swarthmore didn’t suddenly increase enrollment like many schools, the college did change. The war years were turbulent, but in some ways the postwar changes have been more lasting. A soldier who came back to Swarthmore after the war remembered:

“I was appalled by the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp I helped liberate in Germany but knew I should not hate my enemies … Most young people think they are immortal. I quickly learned that this was not so. I saw entire cities flattened and depopulated. (I saw Berlin and Warsaw.) I came to grasp the impermanence of institutions, the frailty of civilization … [After the war] infantry lieutenants and top sergeants with shrapnel in their bodies sat beside pink-cheeked youths just out of suburban U.S. high schools. It was a strange mix, but surprisingly, I detected no friction. There was little mixing, however. The place was less homogenous than before. Also, there was much more drinking and sex. Swarthmore had lost its innocence.”
–’47, name withheld

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