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Frequently Asked Questions
Princeton during World War II

In October 1939, as the Nazi war machine crushed Poland, the newly admitted freshman class at Princeton University voted Adolf Hitler the “greatest living being,” and a year later the next freshman class repeated the verdict. The vote was a strong indicator of the apathy that engulfed the student body at Princeton and on other campuses before the United States entered the war.

Pearl Harbor changed everything. President Dodds urged students to stay in school by emphasizing, “the best equipment you can have for military service is a college degree and a sound physique.” Despite the plea, Princeton's young men signed up for military service—and the impact was fierce. In the fall of 1941, undergraduate enrollment stood at 2,432. At the lowest point during the war, the total number of civilian students fell to below 400. In addition to the loss of students, Princeton's program of instruction also felt the pressures of war: there was a sharp swing in the undergraduate elective choices from humanities to technical studies. The dean of the faculty sent out a form to all teachers asking them to indicate subjects outside their own departments that they could teach, if necessary. A physical training program was set up to stress physical conditioning for war service, but the lack of students had stretched Princeton's resources to the breaking point. “The 1942-43 budget was presented on one page and approved by the trustees with a deficit of $850,000,” noted President Dodds in his preface to the book The Princeton Campus in World War II (Robert K. Root, 1978).

In order to stay viable, Princeton opened its doors to the United States military. The original program called for the establishment of a Naval Training School (known as the V-12) to give an intensive course of two months duration to about 750 newly commissioned officers. The primary purpose was to train officers for the moderate-sized craft of the Navy with particular emphasis on the then new amphibious force. Ultimately, however, thousands of trainees flooded the campus to take part in programs like the Navy's V-1, V-5, and V-7 ventures, the Army Specialized Training program embracing engineering and languages, the Marine V-12 program, the Naval School of Military Government, and the Navy Pre-Radar School. By July 1943, the total number of individuals who received training in the various military units on the Princeton campus was nearly 20,000.

The military trainees introduced a strange, disciplined way of life to a campus long accustomed to the relaxed living styles of civilian undergraduates. Dormitories were regularly inspected for cleanliness and neatness every Saturday, and students were marched at attention to the University dining halls for mess at 0640 every morning. And, since all student officers had to report to their first early-morning formation at the same hour, even something as simple as shaving had to be planned. The men organized themselves into light-hair and dark-hair sections. The light-hairs shaved before turning in at night, leaving the washbasins and mirrors for their dark-haired cohorts in the morning.

Just as it had 27 years before, it was the military's utilization of the campus that enabled the University to keep its operating expenditures within its income during these trying years. Like households throughout the country, Princeton too faced financial hardship and was often asked to do more with less and find ways to endure wartime hardships.

And, just as many households across the nation experienced the pain and anguish of losing a loved one to enemy fire, so too did Princeton lose 355 of its sons to war. Princeton men fought valiantly in every branch of the armed services, and extended to every operation from Dunkirk to Okinawa . The number lost in World War II exceeded the total of Princeton men lost in all earlier wars from the Revolution through World War I. “Our obligation to the men we honor today, and to all their fellows who also made the same ultimate sacrifice, will not be discharged merely by wreaths of flowers or ceremonial tributes on Memorial Day,” said President Dodds at the dedication of World War II panels in the Memorial Room of Nassau Hall in 1949. “It will only be discharged as we remember them by our deeds; as we truly sustain the promise of the memorial for the fallen. . . we shall remember them.”

When Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945, the bell in Nassau Hall was run continuously for 45 minutes. When victory was declared over Japan on August 14, 1945, a long queue of volunteers kept the bell at Nassau Hall pealing continuously for three and a half hours. As the bells chimed, the entire Princeton community—town, gown, and military—gathered on Nassau Street to celebrate the end of war and the dawning of a new day for America and the world.


Related Sources


Annual Reports to the President, 1940-2003

Audio-visual Collection, 1912-2000 database

Moe Berg Collection, 1937-2007

Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present

Bureau of Student Placement Records, 1941-1953

The Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)

Graduate School Records, 1870-1993. See Series 3, Dean's Subject Files, 1895-1993.

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, c. 1850-1996

Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005. See Series 36, Wars and Princeton, 1796-Present. The World War II section contains letters and diaries from Princetonians in service.

Nassau Hall War Memorial Records, 1946-1950

Office of the Dean of the College Records, 1919-2001

Office of the President Records: Jonathan Dickinson to Harold W. Dodds Subgroup, 1746-1999. See Harold Willis Dodds Records, 1896-1990.

Office of the Registrar Records, 1803-1998

Office of the Secretary Records, 1853-2001

Oversize Collection

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Listening Center Records, 1939-1941

Veterans of Future Wars Collection, 1936-1947

War Service Bureau Records, 1940-1949

World War II Memorial Book database


Published Sources

Berg, Ethel. My Brother Morris Berg: The Real Moe. (Newark, New Jersey: Ethel Berg, 1976).

Blackmar, Charles B., ed. The Princeton Class of 1942 During World War II: The Individual Stories. (Princeton, New Jersey: Class of 1942, Princeton University, 2000).

Brown, J. Douglas. The Industrial Relations Section of Princeton University in World War II: A Personal Account. (Princeton, New Jersey: Industrial Relations Section, Department of Economics, Princeton University, 1976).

Johnson, Melissa A. Princeton, Forward March! A Guide to World War II Collections at Princeton University. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Library, 1992).

Root, Robert K. The Princeton Campus in World War II. (Princeton, New Jersey: 1978).


Susan Hamson (2003)


Last modified: Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 13:57:17 EDT