Web Exclusives: PawPlus

April 4, 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 and physics.

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 rapidly.

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 into play.

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 outlet."

The next day Mother joined my father and me, and we all attended the chapel service, and then we left the campus for home. END

Edward D. Simsarian'45, a partner in the law firm of Tashjian, Simsarian & Wickstrom, lives in Worcester, Mass.