The 1940s: Iowa State and a World at War

Originally published in the summer 2014 issue of VISIONS
Historical photos by Special Collections Department / Iowa State University Library

The decade of the 1940s changed the United States and transformed the world. Not surprisingly, these years saw Iowa State College (as ISU was then known) undergo a metamorphosis as well. Since the 1890s, ISC had been nationally known for agriculture and veterinary science, but the crisis of war accentuated Iowa State’s transition to a nationally known college of science, engineering, and technology that joined agriculture as the flagship programs of the institution.

ISC began the decade with roughly the same student demographics that it had had since the turn of the 19th century, but the war changed the fabric of the student body as well. In partnership with the Army and the Navy, Iowa State opened a series of non-collegiate courses and programs to provide technical education for servicemen and training for junior officers. Between 1943 and 1946, when the last class of the Navy V-12 program graduated, over 12,000 men cycled through special military classes at ISC.

Following the war the college combined ingenuity and diligence to meet the challenge of enrolling large numbers of returning veterans. But, perhaps the greatest change, and the one that spoke of the future, came in 1948 and 1949 with a new surge in enrollment, not from returning veterans, but from high school seniors across the state and the nation who sought access to higher education in unprecedented numbers.

Standing watch in Friley arch, 1945 Bomb

Friley Hall was turned into the barracks for the Naval recruits. They ran the dorm like a ship, with bells to toll the hours and sailors to stand watch, like these two in 1944.

The looming specter of war
The decade began with renewed campus and statewide confidence. Iowa’s farm economy had largely recovered from effects of the Great Depression, and ISC’s enrollment had surpassed pre-Depression levels. Student numbers had reached a low of about 3,800 in 1933-34, but enrollment rebounded as the economy recovered and reached over 7,000 by the end of the decade. This influx of students helped convince the legislature to provide funds for a new men’s dormitory in 1940, named after President Charles Friley. But the local and statewide optimism brought on by the economic recovery was overshadowed by the looming specter of the war in Europe.

Beginning in the late 1930s ISC students took increasing interest in the series of European diplomatic crises. Faculty, students, and administration all took anxious notice as President Roosevelt first declared a “limited national emergency” on Sept. 8, 1939, the selective service act on Sept. 16, 1940, and finally an “unlimited national emergency” on May 27, 1941. These acts helped to prepare the country for war, and they also changed the relationship between the federal government and land-grant institutions across the country, compelling colleges and universities to organize for the national defense effort.

In spite of fears and anxieties about international affairs, the carefree lifestyle of the 1930s undergraduate continued largely unaffected by things that to some seemed remote. The “class break” for Homecoming (no classes on Homecoming Friday), VEISHEA, fall and spring formals, fraternity and sorority galas, football, basketball, track and field all continued as largely as before. It was a joyous time for many.

Of course, the event that shattered the hopes and confirmed the worst fears of pre-war America came in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. The effect of the war’s arrival on the campus is perhaps best summed up by a 1944 senior class memory from the Bomb: “About the only thing we remembered about our sophomore year is Dec. 7. It was just before finals, and everyone was more concerned about where they would be winter quarter than about their chem blue book. We saw the first of the defense stamp corsages and the last of the VEISHEA cherry pies.”

More than 4,200 Iowa Staters were in the service by the time this photograph of the Blue Star Flag was taken in 1944.

More than 4,200 Iowa Staters were in the service by the time this photograph of the Blue Star Flag was taken in 1944.

‘Iowa State goes to war’
The war had a profound impact on ISC, and nearly every aspect of curriculum, instruction, and student life focused to support the war effort. The autumn of 1942 saw the cancellation of the Homecoming dance along with a prohibition on lawn displays, and the much-coveted Friday off from classes before Homecoming became a thing of the past.

The college began to house a number of special non-collegiate training programs for members of the armed services. These technical courses varied in length from five to 16 weeks and prepared electricians, firemen, and even cooks/bakers for the Navy. At first, the number of trainees was small and easily housed in a portion of the newly built Friley Hall. The trainees had been inducted into the Navy, received regular pay, held to rigorous discipline, and the floors on which they lived were run as if they were on a ship at sea, with regular watches and bells to toll the hours. The men in these programs were encouraged to take part in college activities, and as the numbers of servicemen on campus grew in 1943 and 1944, they would greatly affect student life.

But large numbers of military trainees lay in the future, and in 1942 a largely pre-war student body worked to support the war effort. The Health and 4-H Club councils mobilized their memberships to knit various garments for the Red Cross to disburse to the troops, while the Science Women’s Club volunteered to write and send cards and letters to Iowa State servicemen stationed around the globe. The college formed the Student War Council composed of both men and women in 1942. The Council encompassed 19 major student organizations and worked to raise money from all parts of campus. In 1943 alone this group raised over $1,700 through the sale of war bonds and stamps to aid the war effort. The Student War Council appointed student wardens to lead blackouts on campus and helped with paper drives.

In 1942-43 the college expanded the academic year to four full quarters (fall, winter, spring, summer) so that a student could accelerate through the curriculum and graduate in only three years and then be deployed for the war effort.

ISC worked hard to meet the uncertainties and stress of having friends, family, and loved ones overseas. The faculty from economics, sociology, and history offered a noncredit team-taught course entitled “The Citizen in the World Crisis,” in the winter and spring quarters of 1942. Many students attended the class, and while there was an academic component, there was just as much discussion to relieve stress and assuage fears.

That same year, a group of women students organized weekly meetings on Wednesday afternoons in the Memorial Union to discuss current issues. As the Bomb reported, topics included women in defense and how college students could aid the victory effort. While special classes and Wednesday afternoon meetings no doubt fulfilled their stated  purposes, they almost certainly acted as venues for students and faculty to share news and stories about friends and loved ones away at the front. But classes and meetings only went so far, and individual groups of students often held all-night vigils clustered around radios listening for war news.

Even though the government encouraged all male students to stay in college until called for the draft, increasing numbers of men leaving campus for military duty left positions open for women who capably filled them. Junior women took over men’s places in roles of major responsibility in VEISHEA and campus publications in 1943.

The Bomb reflected an upbeat attitude toward the war in 1942-43; its opening spread across two pages was headed with the slogan, “We Work to Win!” Homecoming was a subdued affair in comparison to the pre-war years, but VEISHEA went on as usual. The theme for VEISHEA in 1942 was “Iowa State Goes to War,” and not surprisingly it was full of patriotic themes. In spite of the war, VEISHEA drew an audience of 15,000, and for the first time military cadets received their commissions at the celebration. In spite of paper shortages and printing restrictions imposed by the war, the ISC Bomb printed 4,300 copies – the largest in its history. As the Bomb closed its pages for its 1943 edition, it told its readers: “Their feeling is optimistic – We’re here in 1943, we’ll be back for reunion in ’53.”

The 1943 VEISHEA queen, Dorothy Isaacson, was flanked by US Navy cadets rather than by college students.

The 1943 VEISHEA queen, Dorothy Isaacson, was flanked by US Navy cadets rather than by college students.

Sober Reflection
But the “We Work to Win!” positivism of 1942-43 gave way to a more sober reflection on the war in 1944. That year the Bomb opened with a picture of students looking at a Blue Star flag with the number 4,257 under the star, representing the number of ISC men and women in the armed services. The dedication for the 1944 yearbook read simply: “To the men and women of Iowa State in the service of our country, we dedicate this book thoughtfully remembering those of our number who will not see it.”

The year 1944 saw the number of military cadets and the disruption to the normal campus routine that they brought reach their peaks. Between 1942 and 1944 these programs grew in variety and number. The Army introduced an Army Special Training Program (ASTP) course in December 1942 meant to produce highly trained recruits in technical fields, and in July 1943 the Navy added a V-12 program to educate junior officers at Iowa State. All of these Army and Navy trainees needed to be housed in campus-owned facilities, and it was not long before the Army and Navy trainees outnumbered the regular collegiate student body.

To meet the need for cadet housing, first, all of the male students were turned out of Friley Hall, and then all of the women housed in the dormitories east of the Knoll were moved into the fraternity houses (whose men were turned out) to make room for increasing numbers of cadets. As the Bomb put it: “This is the way we live this year [1943-44]….. with servicemen in the dorms, women in the fraternities, and men moved to the edge of nowhere. It wasn’t easy at first when it turned out that there were 23 to one bath, but it was fun and there are always things like that to be straightened out.”

The college achieved that “straightening out” by the spring of 1944. The men who had been spread into housing off campus were pushed into the “Wards.” These were associations of homes in the community that combined to create and maintain some sort of collegiate existence. These “Wards” held their own dances and formals, participated in their own intramural events, and in many respects acted like dormitory floors or fraternities.

Just as the war had disrupted Homecoming, during the war years it disrupted VEISHEA as well. The celebration was shortened to two days in 1943 and one day in 1944, and the celebration in these years possessed a decidedly different tone. Two naval cadets rather than college students flanked the VEISHEA queen in 1944, and the parade was cancelled from 1943 to 1945 to meet the needs of the war effort.

While the students and the college contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, perhaps ISC’s most historically significant contribution was kept in utmost secrecy: the refining of uranium for the Manhattan Project. Frank Spedding from chemistry and Harley Wilhelm from physics, along with their colleagues and students, developed a process to create “biscuits” of pure uranium metal that could then be refined into fissionable material suitable for an atomic bomb.

Between 1942 and 1945, Spedding and his team produced approximately 1,000 tons of pure uranium metal. In recognition of their work, the government awarded ISC the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in war production with four stars, signifying 52 months of service in the war effort. No other educational institution in the country received this award that the federal government had created to recognize wartime excellence in private industry.

Harley Wilhelm led the team that supplied the Manhattan Project with solid "biscuits" of uranium. Pictured in 1948 are Frank Spedding, David Lilienthan, W.A. Waymack, and Harley Wilhelm.

Harley Wilhelm led the team that supplied the Manhattan Project with solid “biscuits” of uranium. Pictured in 1948 are Frank Spedding, David Lilienthan, W.A. Waymack, and Harley Wilhelm.

The post-war campus
By early 1945, the number of Navy and Army cadets on campus lessened as the war wound down. Some of the ISC  men came back to ISC as seniors after serving only nine months on active duty. As the Army and Navy classes were scaled back, ISC students reoccupied the dormitories and fraternities. With the military’s departure, a semblance of normalcy and a longing for peace after four stressful and draining years of war found expression in student  publications. “Peace,” the 1945 Bomb suggested, “is a lot of little things… Smooth, green fields, unscarred by rolling tanks and bursting shells…brilliant sun…the time to lounge in the Union and discuss trivialities… the opportunity to join the morning parade to classes. Yes, peace is a lot of little things.”

As classes opened in the autumn of 1945, ISC saw enrollment blossom. Many of these students were returning veterans who received financial aid through the G.I. Bill to help them achieve a college education. These young men and women stood poised to enter the new post-war world, and the self-confidence expressed in their writing demonstrates that they not only understood the magnitude of the task before them, but that they expected to accomplish it. The students clearly understood the power of technology and their responsibility to use that power for good. “New generations,” the frontispiece to the 1946 Bomb reflected, “will be educated in the concepts of truth.” And Iowa State was to be one of the places where that education would take place.

While ISC could certainly provide the kind of technological education that the students called for, it encountered difficulties in finding places to teach and house them in the first years following the war. In the fall of 1945, enrollment reached 8,400, and then 9,200 the following autumn; 1,100 of them were married. To meet these challenges ISC turned to the federal government and secured a number of surplus structures, which they intended to be temporary that would house and teach students.

With the new influx of married veteran students, ISC needed to respond to meet their housing needs. The War Department responded by providing the college with enough structures to build what became Pammel Court, seen here under construction in 1946.

With the new influx of married veteran students, ISC needed to respond to meet their housing needs. The War Department responded by providing the college with enough structures to build what became Pammel Court, seen here under construction in 1946.

In January 1946, the ISC Student noted that 36 of a planned 150 temporary housing structures were ready for occupancy. This project soon became known as Pammel Court and by 1947 had spread to the north of the Chicago & North Western railroad embankment. Pammel Court reached its peak in terms of size and occupancy in 1947. That year about 3,600 students were spread across 152 trailers, 50 quonset huts with two families each, 79 demountable houses, 704 metal barracks, and 65 private trailer lots.

While conditions were cramped, the students and their families made the best of things. The Court included recreation and daycare facilities, along with a cooperative grocery store that boasted nearly 1,000 members in 1949. Holidays such at Thanksgiving were undertaken on a cooperative basis in Pammel Court during these years, as families  gathered and shared with neighbors.

Nevertheless, there was no disguising the fact that the buildings were government surplus and never intended for long-term student or family living. Constant maintenance problems with the number and variety of buildings plagued college authorities. One of the most frustrating maintenance issues for residents came in the winter of 1948-49. To  escape the cold days of winter, a significant number of rats gnawed their way into some of the buildings. The residents met this challenge by organizing a cadre of “some 75 volunteers [who] undertook a vigorous ‘anti-rat’ campaign which met with good results.”

Cooperative spirit was ever-present in the years right after the war. Here, Elizabeth and Harry Tullis and their daughters Suzanne and Patsy arrive with their portion of a cooperative Thanksgiving dinner with friends in their Pammel Court unit in 1948.

Cooperative spirit was ever-present in the years right after the war. Here, Elizabeth and Harry Tullis and their daughters Suzanne and Patsy arrive with their portion of a cooperative Thanksgiving dinner with friends in their Pammel Court unit in 1948.

Just as the federal government had provided the answer to meet the increased student housing needs, so too did it provide the answer to meet ISC’s needs for classroom space to teach the new students. Fifteen wooden buildings were acquired from the War Department. They housed reading rooms, classrooms, academic offices, graduate assistant offices, and conference rooms. They were drafty and cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

A nationally known school of science and technology
The significant number of new students on campus after the war changed the campus dynamic. Since so many of these students were much older than the pre-war collegian, they acted differently and had to be treated differently. The number and type of student clubs and organizations multiplied in the years after the war.

The 630 Club was one of the most prominent. Formed in the wake of the Cyclones’ disastrous 63-0 Homecoming loss to Oklahoma in 1946, the 630 Club worked to infuse Cyclone spirit on campus. The group did everything it could to boost Cyclone athletics: holding pep rallies, naming the “athlete of the week,” and placing that athlete’s photo in the Memorial Union. The group was such a success that it thrived and continued by the original founders as alumni, which helped transform it into the Cyclone Club.

Over the last years of the decade President Friley received an ever-increasing flow of petitions from students who  organized portions of campus for their causes. One of the largest petitions to reach the president came in the autumn  of 1949 over the issue of Friday classes before Homecoming. Since ISU’s first Homecoming in 1912, Friday classes before Homecoming had been cancelled to prepare for the alumni celebration. While the dance, lawn displays, and barbecue had been restored by 1949, the prohibition on the class break had not been rescinded. So, on the Thursday night before Homecoming, nearly 3,000 students marched on the Knoll with a petition asking President Friley to restore the tradition. At first the president refused, but he finally agreed to give the students Friday afternoon as a  break from classes to prepare for the coming of the alumni.

As the decade drew to a close, college authorities anticipated a drawdown in enrollment as the post-war boom fueled by returning veterans began to fade. Instead, the fall of 1948 saw the freshman class reach nearly 2,800, the largest in the history of the institution. But the number was not as significant as the fact that recent high school graduates  made up the vast majority of the class. In fact, the class was so large that its Freshman Days meeting filled the floor of the Armory.

This great influx of students coming straight from high school reflected not only the demand for access to higher education among post-war Americans, but also the fact that parents now had enough economic resources to provide that education for their children. The last years of the decade also saw ISC’s summer sessions remain heavily  subscribed. In 1948 nearly 3,500 students enrolled in each of the five-week summer sessions – the most in ISC’s history.

The new freshman class of 1948 was so large that it filled the entire floor of the Armory.

The new freshman class of 1948 was so large that it filled the entire floor of the Armory.

The large number of students not only changed the nature of student housing, but also the way the college registered the undergraduate population. Before the war, students had all registered for classes on the floor of the State Gym. Everything was done with paper and pencil. The post-war enrollment boom placed great stress on this system, and the administration soon realized that changes had to be made. In 1949, ISC registrar Jesse R. Sage found a technological solution to the problem. He told the Bomb staff that the college had secured a “modern” IBM punch-card registration system. “The new machines will fall just short of thinking,” the Bomb mused, “since they will alphabetize, sort out desired information, and perform tedious jobs normally requiring many workers.”

As the decade ended, it was clear that going forward ISC would no longer be primarily known for agriculture. The work done by Spedding and Whilhelm’s team for the war effort translated into significant amounts of federal funding, which would continue to enhance research in the post-war years. The Ames Lab and the Atomic Energy Institute meant new federal money and resources for new buildings, faculty, and graduate students. New buildings appeared on campus: Electrical Engineering (now Coover Hall), the Metallurgy Building, the Office and Laboratory building, the Synchrotron building, and Spedding Hall.

Thus, after a chaotic decade, Iowa State College reached the midway point in the 20th century as a nationally known school of science and technology. The carefree innocence of the quiet pre-war past was a rapidly fading memory.  Throughout the 1940s, change came at a hectic pace. The ISC that entered the 1950s was as large as it had ever  been and served a broader constituency, which placed increasing pressure to expand the curriculum and the types of majors that the institution offered. These pressures and expansions served as some of the final pieces in the foundation for the college to become a university in 1959.

Douglas Biggs (’82 history, MA ’86) is an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.


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