The Year of the Soldiers

In 1943, Kenyon became a U.S. Army Air Force training site for meterologists

I n February of 1943, after months of fierce fighting, the Allies pushed Japanese troops out of Guadalcanal and proceeded to set up a major military installation. In that same month, the first wave of soldiers mounted the hill from the Gambier train station and began their occupation of Old Kenyon. They soon dubbed their new post "Guadal-Kenyon." The soldiers, eventually reaching two hundred in number, were assigned to a U.S. Army Air Force Technical Training Detachment. At Kenyon they would be given the background training they needed for meteorology school. The "pre-mets" were the first of several Army groups that would share the College's campus with the regular undergraduates during the war.

World War II had naturally upset the routines of colleges all over the country. But men's colleges, in particular, were struggling to stay afloat as more and more young men went for soldiers. Early in 1942, the U.S. Navy expressed an interest in taking over Kenyon's plant. President Gordon Keith Chalmers had replied that the Navy could have the plant but that "the faculty felt that the College would be of greater use in trying to prepare men for the armed services and defense work." The Army contracts seemed the ideal solution, helping Kenyon remain viable and identifiable as an educational institution while contributing to the war effort.

The College was one of twelve institutions hosting the basic pre-meteorology, or "C," program. For one year, high-school graduates with no college experience took a heavy load of mathematics and physics, plus coursework in English, geography, government, history, and speech. Military drill and exercise were also part of the program. The soldiers who were sent to Gambier had the privilege of being taught by the men who wrote the book. Kenyon faculty members, chief among them math professor Charles T. Bumer, designed both of the pre-meteorology programs the Army adopted. Another dozen campuses were chosen to host the six-month "B" pre-meteorology program, whose participants had already studied at least one year of college math. Graduates of both programs moved up to the "A" course, which would turn them into the weathermen the Army Air Force needed so desperately.

The Army required a faculty-student ratio of 1:15 for the "C" program. Chalmers had to find additional faculty members, an especially difficult assignment in fields where the military and industry were also drawing on the available expertise. A couple of undergraduates who had nearly completed their degree work helped to fill the faculty ranks for the math and physics departments. In others, faculty members such as Professor of English John Crowe Ransom taught soldiers along with the College's regular students. In writing to poet Robert Lowell '40, Ransom conveyed a sense of pride in the pre-meteorology program, "a much more collegiate offering than any other contingent is taking."

With the number of civilian students in decline, the pre-mets formed a large part of the total student body. They were granted representation in student government, a voice but not a vote. The soldiers shared the athletic facilities with the civilians and formed teams that played against Kenyon teams and other training programs. They published a newspaper, The Meteorite, and even put together a yearbook. Like the College's civilian students, they mixed with the young women of Gambier and Mount Vernon, and several men found their future wives in the area.

Anyone who had enlisted because of the opportunity to train as a meteorologist would, as he well knew, become just another soldier if he flunked out. Though they were a bright group of men, not all the pre-mets had work habits and secondary-school training strong enough to see them through. The first thinning-out occurred only two months after the beginning of the program; a math screening test in April resulted in the dismissal of twenty-eight men. Those who had successfully cleared that hurdle waited anxiously to hear what happened to the men who had been shipped out to basic training. In September, the Meteorite carried news from one private who had been dismissed: "Kenyon men have shown up very well on the drill field, and we have been excused from further close order drill." A few weeks later another soldier reported that the men were generally finding it easy to qualify for other special-training programs. They all missed the College, he said, "not so much the Vector Analysis and Physics as the fine associations which we had there with the faculty as well as the students."

In August 1943, a second group of soldiers arrived on campus. The members of the U.S. Army Specialized Training (AST) Unit concentrated on foreign languages and area studies; they were preparing for liaison work in France and Germany. A friendly rivalry between pre-mets and "ASTs" quickly developed, with the pre-mets feeling they were the more elite unit, in terms both of mental and physical fitness. Their strutting mimicked that of the upperclass Kenyon students, with regard to the lowly freshmen who had arrived at about the same time.

The Army programs exposed thousands of men to college life--or a pretty good facsimile of it. The participants were selected for their abilities, and many came from a socioeconomic class whose members had not generally sought out higher education. The soldiers' success on college and university campuses has been seen as a first step toward the approval of the G.I. Bill, and the training programs are rightly lauded for their democratic approach. Nevertheless, they were not free from discrimination. For African-Americans, special training was often separate and sometimes patently unequal. In his book Blacks in the Army Air Forces During World War II, Alan M. Osur reports that in 1942, when it was estimated that ten thousand meteorologists were needed, a total of seven spots were reserved for blacks in the training program. Many African-Americans with fine qualifications were turned away.

While the College was not in control of selecting pre-meteorology students, it was in charge of choosing faculty members for the program. Chalmers was very supportive of the efforts being made by the Japanese-American Student Relocation Council. This organization was helping citizens of Japanese descent who had been evacuated to relocation camps, matching them with colleges and universities where they could begin, or continue, their studies. Ichiro Hasegawa was the first of several nisei to enroll at Kenyon. He had nearly finished the requirements for a degree in chemistry at the University of Washington in his home state. His family's internment not only interrupted his studies but also deprived his parents of their livelihood. The College gave Hasegawa a scholarship to pay his tuition. To help with other expenses, Chalmers gave the brilliant young man a job--teaching soldiers in the pre-meteorology program.

As the pre-meteorology unit approached graduation day in February 1944, Kenyon expected a new group of soldiers, an engineering unit, to take its place. However, the Army was facing a serious shortage of manpower. Reinforcements were needed for upcoming campaigns, and the Selective Service draft had reached the bottom of the barrel. Military leaders combed their ranks, making sure they were putting the manpower they already had to the best use. When Congressional hearings turned the spotlight on the 140,000 soldiers in training programs around the country, the outcome was inevitable. And so the word arrived at the College: the AST program would be scrapped, and all soldiers would be shipped out by April 1, 1944. There would be no new soldier-students.

"Kenyon will be hit the hardest of the Ohio colleges and universities affected, as its enrollment now consists of 339 AST men and only 75 regular students," a newspaper reported. But Chalmers refrained from any criticism or complaint. "The training program was not devised to `save the colleges' . . . If the present decision has been made as a result of civilian and domestic pressure, we regret it. But for whatever reason it was made, we are not disposed to argue with those on whom we all depend to wage the war." Tight times were ahead, but the College had faced such difficulties before. And once again, Kenyon would survive.

Teresa Oden is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group.

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