Eighteen-year-old George Berkowitz, wearing his brand-new Marine uniform, lined up in military order with his Dartmouth College classmates and awaited his orders.
The drill instructor shouted, “Right face!” Berkowitz turned left face. The drill instructor came over to scrutinize him, read his nametag and said, “Berkowitz!”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“Youʼre the dumbest sonofabitch I ever saw,” replied the drill instructor.
Berkowitz still remembered that insult years later, after he had founded the Legal Seafood restaurant chain. He believed the drill instructor for a week. “It was an indoctrination into the Marine Corps,” he said. “It’s a very fast way to gain maturity.”
Berkowitz belonged to a staggering number of young men who grew up fast in the military during World War II. In 1940, fewer than 500,000 served. The next year, nearly 2 million men put on uniform. The military gobbled up more than double that number over each of the next two years. By war’s end, the United States had 12,209,238 soldiers, sailors, marines and Coast Guardsmen, a 3,550 percent increase in six years.
Dartmouth Looks Into the Abyss
On Nov. 11, 1942, more than two years after instituting the draft, Congress lowered the draft age to 18. About 20 million young men were newly eligible, but half were rejected the first year. Some had health problems, and 20 percent who registered couldn’t read.
Dartmouth President Ernest Martin Hopkins realized the lower draft age could mean bankruptcy for his college. Formerly assistant secretary of the U.S. War Department during the first world war, he knew how many young men would get drafted in the second. He also knew very few of them could enroll in college, much less earn a degree. Dartmouth faced a crippling shortage of students.
Hopkins also knew the U.S. military desperately needed college-educated commissioned officers. It needed all sorts of expertise – engineers, navigators, quartermasters, metallurgists, radiomen, aerial photographers.
The solution was obvious: bring military training to campus on a massive scale.
And so the military and academia combined college education with military service. They did it through three major programs: the Naval Indoctrination Training School, the V-12 Naval Training Program and the Army Specialized Training Program.
The Navy V-12 Program
On July 1, 1943, the first day of the summer semester, the Navy V-12 program began on 131 college campuses across the nation. It had more than 125,000 students. In New England, 11 colleges hosted the V-12 program. Brown in Rhode Island. Bates in Maine. Middlebury in Vermont. Dartmouth in New Hampshire. In Connecticut, Yale, Trinity and Wesleyan University. Holy Cross, Harvard, Williams and MIT in Massachusetts.
Hopkins called on his friendship with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to make sure Dartmouth had a viable V-12 program. He had tremendous success. Dartmouth College hosted the largest V-12 program in the country, with 2,000 enlisted men and an officer staff. Dartmouth had 10 times as many military recruits as civilian students, who were either 4-F or pre-med. The military recruits so overwhelmed the civilians that some enlistees didn’t remember any civilians at all at Dartmouth.
Hopkins himself served in the War Department’s Office of Production and Management. It wasn’t unusual for academics to join the war effort. The presidents of Harvard and MIT, James Bryant Conan and Karl Compton joined the National Defense Research Committee. Harvard Law School Dean James Landis directed the Office of Civilian Defense.
Across New England’s campuses, boys had a hard time studying or making plans after graduation. They knew they might get called up. Campus newspapers reported on the war in Europe. Nazi troops occupied the Rhineland, advanced into Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland. Nations fell like dominos as the Nazis conquered Denmark, then Norway, then the Netherlands and then Belgium.
As commencement exercises took place in the spring of 1940, the Nazis invaded France. The fall of the French government was one of the most shocking defeats of the war. Soon afterward, Hitler’s advance guards swung north to the English Channel, where they threatened to trap British, French and Belgian forces along the coast. The Allies quickly organized a fleet of hundreds of boats to evacuate the troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Over eight days, 338,226 were heroically ferried across the English Channel to Dover in everything from destroyers to small fishing boats to pleasure craft.
Tom Braden was then a 23-year-old Dartmouth senior who later became a well-known columnist. He also wrote Eight Is Enough, a book adapted into a popular television series. He was galvanized by the fall of France and the Battle of Dunkirk.
Braden and his friend Ted Ellsworth wanted to join the fight, and decided to join an army already fighting – the British Army. They were selected for the Royal Americans, an elite unit in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps comprised of a dozen American graduates of Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard.
Braden made it through the war. Ellsworth survived, though he was captured and imprisoned in Oflag 64 at Schubin, Poland. Another Dartmouth graduate, Charles Bolte, lost his leg at the hip in Egypt at the Battle of El Alamein.
Making Up for Lost Tuition
In the days before the United States entered the war, young men anxious to see action joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, the British RAF, the British Royal Navy or the American Field Service as ambulance drivers.
Colleges developed courses to train students for the still-undeclared war. Starting in September 1941, for example, Bowdoin College lent its facilities for Naval Radio School training for more than 300 recruits living on campus.
The University of Vermont, struggling financially, brought U.S. Air Force training units to campus. Special six-to-eight-week courses were offered to help make up for lost tuition revenues.
Harry Hampton, Dartmouth Class of ’45, was in his dorm room studying with his roommate on Dec. 7, 1941. Suddenly they heard someone yelling in the corridors that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Everyone grabbed their radios and listened to the news from the Dartmouth Broadcasting System.
“Everybody had the feeling, well, when will I be—or had an awareness that we were all going to be ripe for pickings by one of the military services,” Hampton said.
Like most colleges, Dartmouth telescoped four years of education into two years and several months so students could graduate before they went to war. High school students like George Berkowitz were allowed to graduate early once they’d been accepted into a college. Students often graduated high school in March and started college in June.
Schools altered their curriculum. They redirected physics, math and sciences courses to the needs of men in the armed forces. Popular courses in foreign languages included Russian, Chinese and Japanese. Courses were given in air photography, camouflage and mapping – Sometimes teachers with no training taught photography, camouflage and mapping.
Samuel Florman, a V-12 from the class of 1946, remembers correcting a Dartmouth geology teacher making mistakes in his aerial photography course.
“The faculty was being asked to do all sorts of cock-eyed stuff that they werenʼt trained for,” Florman said. “You had a chemistry teacher teaching, you know, Italian or whatever and that was because of the faculty themselves had enlisted or had been called up. So that they were scrambling to cover the courses that needed to be taught.”
Dartmouth Starts a Navy
At Dartmouth, fraternities closed, Winter Carnival was cancelled, the Daily Dartmouth ceased publication and food and fuel were rationed. The college operated like a naval base during the rest of the war, run on military time, with reveille at 0600 and Taps at 2200.
The school called dormitories the “Navy Ships of Dartmouth.” Dorm rooms meant for two single beds had two sets of bunk beds. Every day the V-12 students woke at 6 a.m. to a recording of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” Every day they had room inspection. Then ty did calisthenics, formed in a line and marched to their meals. They were reviewed on Saturday. The commander came down and inspected them from their haircuts to their shoes.
“When you were in the Navy here, you really were in the Navy,” said Alan Epstein, a V-12 recruit from the class of 1947.
Once they got their uniforms, students had liberty from noon Saturday until Sunday night. Few had cars. Some joined the Outing Club and went camping. Others went home, taking the train or hitchhiking – a man in uniform quickly got a ride.
Some visited girls’ colleges nearby. Dartmouth’s Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital was training nurses for the military. They wore uniforms too. Since there were so few women on campus, the nurses had a lot of choices about who to date.
Once a month they had strength testing in the gym. If they didn’t keep up, they were shipped out to boot camp. Each student had to do a certain number of sit-ups and push-ups and shimmy up a rope.
On the Way to Parris Island
Dartmouth had a pool with a platform 30 feet or so above the water. Trainees practiced jumping off a sinking ship from it. They learned survival swimming, how to sweep their arms along the surface of the water if it burned. They had to leap off the platform, take off their trousers and blow them up over their heads to make floating wings and float around for a half hour.
Berkowitz remembers the courses as demanding, but the students were motivated. If they didn’t pass, they were sent off to war.
At Dartmouth, Chinese professor Wing Tsit-Chan had a reputation for never flunking anyone. “Everybody was trying to get into his class,” remembered Berkowitz, who took Chinese from him for one semester. Because of that course, he ended up in China. There he repatriated Japanese military and civilians from North China and Korea — a plum duty. “The best thing that ever happened to me was taking his course in Chinese,” Berkowitz said.
Paul Glover, class of 1945, didn’t buckle down to his studies – at first.
“I cut the classes and went to the ski meets and all that. And the professor was a guy named B.H. Brown, whose son had been in my class in Hanover High School. And of course I knew the old bastard. And he called me in, he said, “Glover, if you donʼt pass this exam pretty well, youʼre on your way to Parris Island.” In those days you were out to take a train the next day, and then you were a private. You werenʼt any officer candidate. And a lot of people flunked out that way.”
Though promised they could finish school if they maintained their grades, some groups of students, such as the engineers, suddenly received orders to go to basic training.
“The next thing you knew they were in the Battle of the Bulge,” said Peter Beck, a medical school student in the Army Specialized Training Program. “They took quite a lot of casualties there thinking they were going to avoid the war completely by staying in a classroom.
Decades after the war, Florman remembered the broken promises:
…representatives from the various services started showing up on campus and giving presentations. And it was like going to the movies. You went…this evening the Army is telling you how wonderful the Army is and what wonderful chances, opportunities you will have if you will only sign up with them. Theyʼll leave you in college. Then when you do go into the Army, youʼre going to be a four-star general before you know it. Then there were people…I know we didnʼt have an air force in those days. But there were special programs if you wanted to fly for the Army or if you wanted to fly for the Navy.
Florman called it “a salesmanship evening.”
…And a lot of my classmates—and I guess maybe even those in the class ahead—would sign up. And maybe one semester, two semesters later, as the war required, all the promises were forgotten, and suddenly dozens of classmates were swept off to boot camp and were in the middle of battle before anybody really knew what had happened.
From Dartmouth to Boot Camp to the Grave
Florman remembered a boy sent to boot camp because he had a soft voice.
They marched on the Green. And this is how you march. This is how you turn. As a matter of fact, this brings to mind: You were expected to take turns and after a while shout out the orders and lead the group and show leadership qualities. And if you didnʼt—and there was one; I donʼt know if he was our classmate, but he was down at Thayer School, Joe Vitalini, a wonderful fellow with a quiet voice. And he didnʼt satisfy the drillmaster. And next thing we knew, he was on his way to boot camp.
The drillmaster so frightened Florman he pulled his braces off his teeth during a drill, That earned the respect of his drillmaster and saved his naval career. The drillmaster selected another boy, Gene Cafiero, to lead his unit in close order drill. He later served as president of Chrysler Corp.
Many were not so lucky.
Over 300 of the 11,091 Dartmouth men who served in World War II died. The Class of 1942 alone lost 34 members. Twenty-three young Dartmouth men died in 1943, then another 23 in 1944, and still another 24 in 1945.
George Berkowitz survived the war and died in February 2022 at the age of 97.
With thanks to the Rauner Library Oral History project, World War Two at Dartmouth.
Images: Ernest Hopkins United States Office For Emergency Management, Lee, R., photographer. (1941) Edward R Stettinius, Jr., former director, Priorities Division, Office of Production Management OPM, and currently September 2,lend-lease Administrator. Dr. Ernest M. Hopkins, Minerals and Metals Executive of the Priorities Division. President of Dartmouth College. United States, 1941. Sept. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017689452/. Bobby Kennedy at Bates By Unknown, Courtesy of the Bates College Historic Photographs Collection – The Edmund Muskie Archives and Special Collection, Lewiston, Maine, Bates College, 1940s, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45202568. Tom Braden By http://spartacus-educational.com/JFKbraden.htm, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48798732. East campus By Kane5187 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2949909.