The University Record, July 10, 1995

Faculty, students responded to call during WWII

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

From the peace rally on the Diag in 1940 and the creation of the University War Board shortly after Pearl Harbor to rigorous physical conditioning of male and female students and the enlistment of civilian students to work in defense plants, the University did its part and more in the nation's war effort during World War II.

U-M's activities during the war years from 1939 to its end 50 years ago are documented and illustrated in "Michigan Goes to War," an exhibition mounted at the Bentley Historical Library and curated by Brian Williams and Kenneth Scheffel. Through photos, letters, pamphlets and official documents, the impact of the war on the campus is told from a variety of perspectives, including those of the students, faculty, administration and staff.

"Mounting an exhibit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the final stages of World War II gave us an opportunity to take a look at the surviving documentary evidence about the University community during the war and reassess and honor the contributions of those involved," says Bentley Director Francis Blouin. "We were amazed at the amount of documentation we have for the wartime activities of the University and of its students, faculty and administrators during the war."

On the eve of America's entrance into the war, the U-M became one of a select group of universities chosen to participate in the Navy Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. The University War Board, composed of faculty and administrators, was created to coordinate the University's role in the war effort. It recommended an accelerated three-term, year-round academic program, which won the Regents' approval and made it possible for students to earn a degree in two years and eight months. The Judge Advocate General's School, which trained army officers to administrate military justice, moved from Washington, D.C., in 1942 and took over the Law Quadrangle. The School and the Reserve Officers Naval Architecture Group, which provided postgraduate education in ship maintenance and repair, were unique to the U-M.

Students organized scrap drives, harvested crops throughout the state, raked leaves and performed other maintenance tasks on campus. In addition, they often worked part-time at area defense plants. A U-M scientist oversaw the development of a radar jamming device called the "Tuba," which effectively blinded German night sorties over Britain in the last years of the war.

The physics department perfected the proximity fuse, a radio device mounted in a shell, allowing detonation at a pre-determined distance from a target, a weapon that proved immensely valuable for blasting robot bombs over England, destroying German tanks and planes during the Battle of the Bulge and knocking Japanese suicide planes out of the sky before they reached their targets.

Several faculty participated in the atomic bomb project, and medical personnel from the Hospital "hit the beaches" of Normandy.

While Michigan gridiron stars like Tom Harmon joined the armed forces, marines and sailors from the training programs on campus helped fill the depleted team ranks. Among these "lend-lease" players was University of Wisconsin star Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, who earned four varsity letters during his brief tenure at Michigan. One of the more lasting changes in football strategy came in 1945 when coach Fritz Crisler developed the two-platoon system in an effort to help his squad of mostly 17-year-olds compete more successfully with older teams.

Nearly 32,000 alumni are known to have served in the armed forces. More than 12,000 veterans enrolled in the fall of 1946, creating an acute housing shortage that was satisfied in part with temporary mobile homes parked on Hill Street and married veterans being housed at Willow Village, 12 miles from campus, in barracks constructed for the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

After the war, the University continued its emphasis on research. The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, begun in 1947, was dedicated to research in the peaceful uses of atomic energy, a living memorial to former students who died in World War II.

At a Victory Reunion held in conjunction with the 102nd commencement during June 1946, the University honored the men and women who gave their lives in service to their country. In a memorial service in Rackham's Lecture Hall, members of the campus community gathered together to pay tribute to the 474 U-M men and women who lost their lives in World War II.

"Michigan Goes to War" continues through August. For additional information, contact Brian Williams or Kenneth Scheffel at 764-3482. The Bentley Historical Library is open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.