2007: The wartime campus
Edward D. Simsarian '45 describes the Princeton
experience during World War II
By Edward D. Simsarian '45
In September 1941, I went to Princeton and started on my college career.
I had had an interview with Radcliffe Heermance, the dean of admission, earlier
that year. In those days it was the policy of the admission office for the dean
to interview each applicant. My father drove me to Princeton for my interview,
and when it was over, Dean Heermance spoke privately with my father, suggesting
to him that perhaps I would be happier at some other college. My father never
told me about that part of the visit until some time during my married life.
I had no idea at the time what college would be like. High school had been
a breeze academically. Our tests were never longer than one hour. My first encounter
with a test of greater length was the series of College Entrance Examination
Board exams that I took in my senior year. They were a revelation. There was
a three-hour Scholastic Aptitude Test. Also, there were three one-hour achievement
tests and four College Board three-hour-long exams: English, Latin, mathematics
The cost of a Princeton education was modest by comparison to today's costs.
The tuition charge was $450, plus a $60 infirmary fee. The annual board bill
was $309 for all meals in Commons. Dormitory rooms varied in cost, depending
on the dormitory and room. The rooms in the newer dorms were more costly, some
as much as $160 to $200 per year. The least expensive dorm rooms were in Reunion
Hall, one of the oldest dormitories on the campus, at $64 per year.
There weren't enough dormitory rooms on campus to accommodate all of the
men in the entering freshman class. The University arranged for spaces in rooming
houses and private dormitories near the campus. I found a room at 11 Park Place,
and by February I had a room on campus, in Edwards Hall, which cost $45 per semester.
The total cost of my first year was $919, plus the cost of books and laundry.
I had several campus part-time jobs that paid a few dollars.
The courses in my first year at Princeton were English history, politics,
French literature, first-year chemistry, and military science, the ROTC (Reserve
Officers Training Corps) program offered by the Army. The Princeton ROTC unit
trained in artillery. That isn't quite what one would consider an appropriate
subject for a student of the liberal arts, but at the time it seemed like a good
idea, because the news from week to week indicated a drift of our country toward
war. It was in ROTC that I learned how to drive an Army truck, with a howitzer
hooked to the back of it. It came in handy during my basic training at Fort Bragg.
Our classes began Sept. 22. The reason that I remember the date is that I
had had two weeks of classes by the time of the Princeton-Williams football weekend
on Oct. 4. As I rode back to my room on my bicycle to get ready for the football
game that afternoon, I collided head-on with a car. I spent the next four weeks
in the Princeton infirmary, recuperating from a brain concussion and a skull
fracture. Williams won the football game. Charlie Caldwell, the Williams coach,
later was hired by Princeton and taught the Princeton teams how to play the single
wing: Williams' loss.
Enter Dean Christian Gauss, the dean of the college. Shortly after my arrival
at the infirmary, Dean Gauss paid me a visit and invited me to see him as soon
as I was ready to go back to my classes. When I was released, six weeks of the
term had elapsed, and the college was in the midst of mid-term exams. Since I
had had only two weeks of classes, I needed tutoring. Dean Gauss arranged it
for all my courses, and I was up to speed in a very few weeks.
While I was in the infirmary, near the end of October, the newspapers were
full of the sinking by a German submarine of the USS Reuben James, an
over-age U.S. destroyer of World War I vintage. The ship had been on patrol with
a convoy in the Atlantic and had picked up a U-boat signal. It was torpedoed
and blew up, killing 115 men, including the captain and all of its officers.
Woodie Guthrie, who survived three ship torpedoings as a merchant mariner, wrote
a song about it, "The Sinking of the Reuben James."
Americans were aware of the U-boat activity, especially people who went to
the Atlantic seashore during the summer months, but seemed to take little notice
of the sinkings. The sands often were caked with the heavy black bunker oil carried
by oil tankers that were being sunk by the U-boats with increasing frequency.
Our stance of neutrality and non-belligerency was fast becoming one in name only.
It was clear to many that President Roosevelt's sympathies were with the
allied forces resisting the Axis powers, but even though our ships were being
attacked on the high seas, the president didn't think that there was sufficient
unity in the country to ask for a declaration of war. For such a declaration,
the president sought a near-unanimous commitment, and at the time it wasn't there.
Many people felt that the Reuben James had no business escorting allied
vessels on the high seas. Also, in 1940, Japan had joined the Axis powers, and
war with Germany probably would have meant war with Japan. The country was not
prepared for war then, let alone for a war on two fronts.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, the war hit home with the attack by the Japanese on Pearl
Harbor. Not many people knew exactly where Pearl Harbor was; Hawaii was then
a territory of the United States.
I was on my way back to my room from chapel. As I approached our rooming house
on Park Place, Glenn Tisdale stuck his head out of his window on the second floor
of the house and shouted to me, "Hey Ed! The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!" We
went off to the dining halls for our Sunday noontime dinner, and the halls were
full of pumped-up freshmen and sophomores. Much of the talk centered around what
we were going to do, individually. One freshman said that he was packing it in
and was headed for Canada, where he would join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Several already had decided to join the Marines. Some of us called home and talked
with our families about joining the Army or Navy. The next day President Roosevelt
asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan, and Germany declared war
against the United States. That same week, we learned that a Japanese air force
of more than 80 planes had attacked and sunk two of Great Britain's newest battleships,
the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, off Malaya.
The following week, on the evening of Dec. 15, there was a convocation of
the whole university in Alexander Hall, at which time President Dodds addressed
the entire student body about the role of the University in the war. He announced
that he, along with the heads of other colleges in the country, had been in touch
with the military in Washington, and that our government had already made plans
in case of war.
President Dodds informed us that he had met with the faculty, and a program
of accelerated studies had been set up so that some of us could finish earlier
than usual and then go into military service. The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and
Army Air Corps set up recruiting programs for enlistment into various programs.
I decided not to accelerate, because I needed summers free so that I could earn
money for my college expenses.
The summer of 1942 was between my freshman and sophomore years. The country
was at war, and I had a summer during which I could work to earn some money.
I found a job in a factory that made decalcomanias (decals). The production was
entirely war-related. We were making decals of all sorts; some were instructional
in nature. We also made the insignias that were pasted on the wings and fuselages
of all military aircraft, for the air forces of Great Britain, France, and The
Netherlands, as well as for all military aircraft of the United States. For U.S.
planes, they showed a white star superimposed on a blue circle.
The manufacture of decals was by a silkscreen process, whereby clear lacquer
was first applied to a sheet of paper that was to carry the decal. Then colored
lacquers were applied to the sheet after the first clear coat of lacquer had
dried. When the decal was a finished product, it was moistened so that the colored
lacquer could be slid off the sheet and pasted onto a surface, such as the surface
of an aircraft wing or fuselage.
I went back to Princeton in September and started the first semester of my
sophomore year. I was assigned a room in Laughlin Hall, a relatively new dorm.
I had finished a year of ROTC and started my second year in the Field Artillery
program. That summer I had turned 18 and thus became draftable. In December 1942,
I volunteered for the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army. I was told to go back
to school and study until I was called to active duty.
Social life on the campus centered around the eating clubs. Freshmen and
sophomores took their meals at Commons; juniors and seniors ate in one of the
eating clubs on Prospect Avenue. The clubs were then a significant factor in
the reputation of the college as a country club for gentlemen. Membership was
by invitation only, with the exception of Gateway Club, which was a University
club to which anyone could apply for and gain admission.
Normally the bicker process of recruiting new eating club members started
in the second half of the sophomore year. Between Pearl Harbor Day and May 15,
the day that I left for Fort Dix, there was a gradual drain of students from
the college By January 1943, there were very few civilian students still on the
campus. Most of the upperclassmen and many of the younger students had left to
join the armed forces. The class breakups made bicker more difficult, because
it was presupposed that bicker groups would be made up of men who knew each other
and who wanted to join a club as a group. Such groups were known as "ironbounds." As
men withdrew to go into the service, there were fewer opportunities to form ironbounds.
Lacking the availability of an ironbound, I joined Gateway Club.
In 1942, the Navy set up a school for navigation and small craft training
for newly minted officers. The student officers were in uniform and under military
discipline. They fell into formation for reveille, marched to chow, marched to
class, and at the end of the afternoon they fell into formation for retreat in
the area between Foulke and Henry halls on one side and Laughlin and 1901 Halls
on the other. Civilian students walking about the campus watched the goings-on
with varying degrees of curiosity.
There was also an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) unit on campus.
The soldiers in the program were enlisted men, rather than officers. They had
been through basic training and were being sent to college campuses throughout
the country to study engineering, foreign languages, psychology, and medicine.
I was lucky to have a job as a table-waiter. If I worked nine meals a week,
I could earn enough money in a year to pay the entire board bill for the year,
$309. The waiters served three sittings at each meal. The first was for the Navy
officers, the second for the few civilian students, who ate with the table-waiters,
and the third was for the Army soldier-students. The drain of civilian students
from the campus resulted in a drain on the number of table-waiters. They, too,
were leaving for the service as they reached the age of eligibility. The result
was a shortage of table-waiters at a time when the need for them was increasing
In each of the five dining halls that together were called Commons (Madison,
Upper Cloister, Lower Cloister, Eagle and Sub-Eagle), there were three rows of
tables, 10 tables in each row, with a maximum capacity of 300. Each table had
10 places, five on each side, with a serving table between every two tables.
In normal times, each waiter served two tables. He could set his tray down on
the serving table and serve the table on each side.
During the 1942 Christmas vacation, the dining halls were down to as few
as six to 10 waiters at a meal. At one breakfast there were only six waiters
for all the dining halls, so we improvised. We put into service the dolly carts
used to clear the tables. One waiter pushed the cart. It was loaded with dishes,
pitchers of water and milk, and boxes of cereal. Another waiter placed the plates
and food on the tables. In this way two waiters could wait on a whole hall. The
dolly carts made it possible.
The Navy was fed first, and then 40 minutes later the Army was fed. During
the 40-minute gap we had to clear the Navy tables and set them up for the Army,
which gave us about 20 minutes to eat our own meals. No one complained, but the
timing wascrucial, and if anyone lollygagged, it would mean even less time for
the table waiters to eat.
At each meal the Navy officers came into the dining halls and stood behind
their chairs. That was the routine that they had to follow. They had to wait
until the commandant of the unit shouted "Seats" before they could
sit down and begin to eat. The waiters couldn't start their jobs of waiting until
the officers were seated, which meant that if anyone delayed the commandant,
all the timing would be thrown off.
One day, the commandant came into the dining hall and started to palaver
with the headwaiter, and after some time one of the captains of the waiters said
that he wished that someone would yell "Seats." That was enough for
me. I yelled "Seats" and all the officers promptly pulled out their
chairs and sat down to eat, and the waiters went into the kitchen for the hot
foods. The commandant stood there with the wind out of his sails, but we all
got to eat our lunch at the appointed time.
About 10 years later, I saw Tony Bernabei '44, the captain who made the fateful
remark that triggered my shout. He was walking down Cortlandt Street in New York
and saw me. We hadn't seen each other for nine or ten years, and he was working
for a bank. He reminded me of the "Seats" episode, and we had another
laugh over it.
There was a rigid rule concerning seconds on food being served. Seconds were
permitted on hot food, with some exceptions, but NEVER on desserts. NEVER! Everyone
knew it, if not consciously, at least subliminally.
The soldiers were not commissioned officers, and they had a more understanding
attitude toward the table waiters than the officers did. One day when a waiter,
my friend and classmate, Douglas Coombs '45, came into the dining hall with a
tray loaded with 20 dishes of ice cream, he hit a puddle of water on the slippery
floor. His arm carrying the tray went up into the air. He went down on his knees,
still holding the tray in his left hand, and managed to keep all the dishes of
ice cream on the tray and didn't lose a single dish. He waddled off his knees
and regained his walking stride and went to his assigned table to serve his customers.
The event was witnessed by quite a number of the soldiers. They rose, along with
the rest of the soldiers in the hall, and gave Doug a standing ovation. He had
saved their dessert.
During the second half of my sophomore year there was no certainty as to
when I would be called up. The college gave students in that situation (and there
were many of us) two options. One was to go along as before and hope to finish
the term before being called up. There was a risk. You could do half a term's
work and be called up and never finish any of the courses. The other option,
which I chose, was to take one course for three weeks, finish it, and go on to
another one. It was a good offering, because we would get credit for each course
completed. Also, there is nothing like studying one subject for three hours a
day for three weeks and taking the exam.
I finished four courses that way before being called up. My third course
that spring was "Economic and Financial History of the United States." It
ended on April 9, a Friday. The course material was extensive, and we had only
three weeks to cover the subject. The professor thought that the exam was too
difficult under the circumstances. He gave us the examination questions on Friday
morning and said that we could take them home with us if we wished. On Saturday
morning he gave us the exam with the same questions that we were given the day
before. Everyone did quite well.
The fourth course was a reading course in psychology. It was a disaster,
because I received my orders in the middle of the course and couldn't stay focused
on my studies after that. I received a 4, then the equivalent of a C-, the lowest
grade I had ever received at Princeton. I think that it was a gift, because at
that point I really wasn't functioning very well academically.
As more and more men went into the armed forces, there was a shrinking labor
force available to serve the increasing needs for the production of civilian
and military goods. Black workers in the South went north to work in war production
industries. Women applied for jobs. Rosie the Riveter became famous as a poster
girl, wearing a work shirt and blue jeans, with a red bandanna on her head and
holding a riveting gun. .
The day I reported for active duty, my mother went to work for Wright Aeronautical
Corp. in Paterson, N.J. She had the job of analyzing crash reports of U.S. military
aircraft, B-17s and B-29s. The reports came into the company from all over the
world. She made an inventory of parts needed for repairs, and they were shipped
out to the place of the disabled aircraft. She worked at that job throughout
the war and quit when I was discharged from the Army in April 1946.
College students took part-time temporary jobs when there were shortages
of labor. The Army Signal Corps maintained a quartermaster depot of signal supplies
and equipment at Belle Mead, N.J. A call went out to the surrounding colleges
for men to work as common laborers. Princeton answered the call by sending men
out to the depot on Sundays.
We reported to a pickup spot on campus, where we got into trucks that took
us to the depot about 10 miles away. We worked for eight hours, unloading boxcars
on railroad sidings and storing the equipment in warehouses. We wrestled with
coils of wire and cable, some of which weighed about 250 pounds each. Our four-man
crews would unload a boxcar in an hour or less. The regular laborers who worked
full time usually took all day to unload a boxcar. They thought that we were
crazy. We were paid 75 cents an hour, and an eight-hour shift paid us $6. That
was good pay. Our board bill at the time was $9 per week. The job also kept us
busy and out of trouble on Sundays.
One of the student traditions that Princeton freshmen looked upon with some
interest was the stealing of the bell clapper that rang the bell in the tower
of Nassau Hall. The bell in the tower rang the hours. It also tolled the beginning
time of each class period, when it rang for five minutes. When the clapper was
removed, the bell was disabled from tolling the class periods, and a small amount
of academic chaos ensued until someone from the Grounds and Buildings staff replaced
the stolen clapper. In those days, replacement clappers were stored in barrels
in the basement of Nassau Hall. If a freshman was caught in the attempt, he paid
a $30 fine. For any other student, the penalty was expulsion. I think that while
I was there as a student, the clapper may have been stolen three or four times.
In April, the campus warms up, and the juices start flowing, not just in
the trees and campus plantings, but in the students as well. That's when the
guys head for the
Nassau Tavern or find some other way to avoid studying. It was early that
month when Bob Roche '45 and I were bitten by the bug to get the clapper, even
though we no longer were freshmen. We often shot pool in the basement of Whig
Hall, where there was a pool table for use by the members of the Whig-Cliosophic
Society. The pool table shared the basement space with a janitor's closet, where
mops, pails, brooms, and a small wooden ladder, about seven feet long, were stored.
Bob and I had seen Grounds and Buildings men toting long extension ladders
and ropes about the campus. They were being used to clean up the debris of broken
branches and leaves. They were stored in the basement of Dod Hall, and it didn't
take us long to find the key to the tool room locker, on a ledge above the door.
We also needed a large wrench with which we could unbolt the clapper from the
bell. It was supplied by the Armenian owner of a Shell gasoline station on Nassau
Street whom I had befriended. Now we were in business.
At about 1 a.m. we lugged an extension ladder from Dod Hall to the back of
Nassau Hall. We placed the ladder against the back portion of Nassau Hall in
the corner of the wing that housed the Faculty Room. We went up the ladder, carrying
a smaller wooden ladder, the wrench, a towel, and a coil of heavy rope with us.
Once on the roof, we placed the smaller ladder on the base of the clock tower
and tied one end of the rope to one of the chimneys. We climbed up the smaller
ladder to the platform housing the bell, wrapped the towel around the clapper,
and wrenched off the two nuts holding the clapper-holder in place. That enabled
us to slide the clapper-holder and the clapper down from the bell and onto the
floor of the platform. We went down the smaller ladder to the roof and were stopped
in our effort by the sight of a campus policeman standing in a corner of Pyne
Library (now East Pyne Hall), waiting for us to go down the ladder. Plan B came
We tied the clapper and clapper-holder to the other end of the rope, lowered
it to the ground in front of Nassau Hall, and shimmied down the rope, untied
the clapper, and ran off with it and the wrench to our rooms in Edwards Hall.
According to custom and tradition, if a clapper stealer managed to get to
his room with the clapper, he was home free. We had made it. Home free. The next
morning we went to Commons to wait on tables for the breakfast meal. That was
when we learned, from waiters who roomed in Reunion Hall, that the campus police
had called in the Princeton Borough fire department so that they could surround
the building and train searchlights on it, with bullhorns urging us to come down
from the roof of the building.
Bob and I each had a claim on the clapper, so it had to be cut in half. My
Uncle Haig came to the rescue. He took the clapper to the Todd Shipyards in Hoboken
and had it sliced down the middle, just like a piece of cheese, giving each of
us a half of the clapper. A pair would be suitable for use as andirons.
During April 1943, I received orders from the Army to report to the Army
unit on campus on May 15. Early in May, I packed most of my belongings into the
family car and took them home. On the following weekend, I returned with my father
to pick up the rest of my belongings, and he stayed in my room that night in
South Edwards Hall. In a letter to my sister, Dad wrote, "This is the nearest
approach to my college career – an ambition never fulfilled. … So
I enjoyed being a Princetonian last night. It was Edward's treat."
We went to the Nassau Tavern for drinks and supper, and afterward we visited
the Tap Room, an enclave open only to men and out of bounds for women. My father's
reaction to the scene was something less than enthusiastic. In his description
of the chaotic scene he wrote, "Students circled tables with their booze.
I was surprised at the scene. It seemed they thought they were engaged in an
important function. I suppose they enjoyed it – pity they have no better
The next day Mother joined my father and me, and we all attended the chapel
service, and then we left the campus for home.
Edward D. Simsarian'45, a partner in the law firm of Tashjian, Simsarian & Wickstrom,
lives in Worcester, Mass.