On the morning of September 1, 1939, the Polish cavalry, their raised sabers glistening in the sunlight, rode out to meet the invading German tanks in one of the most uneven displays of scientific technology in the history of warfare. The rapid defeat of the Polish cavalry and other antiquated Polish forces marked the beginning of World War II in Europe. The United States watched for more than two years as the Nazis overran Western Europe, attacked Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and conquered parts of North Africa. During the same period, Japan extended its conquest of Asia, including China and much of Southeast Asia. American isolation from the war ended on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous “Day of Infamy” speech before Congress, which then declared war on Japan. On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and World War II became a global conflict. In San Francisco, thousands of people flocked to Ocean Beach immediately after news arrived of the attack on Pearl Harbor and stared out to the horizon, looking for Japanese ships and planes in anticipation of what many believed would be the imminent invasion of California. For the first time in history, a blackout was called for in the city, with all lights to be turned off by 6:15 p.m. On the campus of the University of San Francisco, St. Ignatius Church canceled the evening services that had been scheduled for Monday, December 8, and the illumination of the church towers was discontinued for the war’s duration. During the war, however, St. Ignatius Church, with its tall spires, remained on all of the maritime maps to help naval captains guide their ships into San Francisco Bay. For servicemen shipping out to fight in the Pacific, those spires were the last objects seen after leaving the Golden Gate, and the first objects seen when coming home to San Francisco.
On the eve of the nation’s entrance into World War II, the University of San Francisco made a significant organizational change. A separate College of Science was formed out of the College of Arts and Sciences, which had been established in 1925. By underscoring a separate science college, USF may have enhanced its prospects for obtaining federal funding for science-based military training programs, such as the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) for military engineers, once the war began. The 1940 USF catalog stated:
The advance of scientific knowledge has progressively demonstrated the interdependence and interrelationship of the basic natural sciences. The Department of Biology, Chemistry and Physics have therefore been grouped together to constitute the College of Science. The integration of these departments into a single College makes possible coordination and balanced development of the specific fields of instruction….Success in scientific pursuits requires an inquiring mind, thorough grounding in fundamental theory, a trained faculty of observation, and manipulative skill. The ultimate of success is attained when these qualities are developed in the student against a broad background of cultural education. It is to this purpose and ideal that the College of Science is dedicated. In the classroom and in the laboratory the student is thoroughly trained in scientific theory and technique; while, at the same time, such courses as English, foreign language and social sciences contribute to his cultural development.
With the beginning of the war, the University of San Francisco underwent profound changes. Enrollment dropped precipitously as the young men of the university volunteered for the armed forces or were drafted. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, enrollment in all divisions of the institution stood at 1,337. By the beginning of the spring semester of 1945, total enrollment had declined to 321 students. The onset of the war also produced a change in the USF academic calendar. Beginning in the fall semester of 1942, the traditional two-semester schedule for undergraduate students was replaced with a tri-semester system in which the traditional six-week summer session was lengthened to a regular semester. This change was made to accelerate students’ completion of their programs in light of their expected service commitments, and to give students the opportunity to go to officer’s candidate school when they reported for active duty. The 1942 USF summer catalog described other changes:
The old “tempo” of college life must be scrapped. The Army, the Navy, industrial production and now education must be geared to a maximum speed without sacrifice of efficiency. Motivated by these grim truths, the University of San Francisco whole-heartedly dedicates its energies to assist in “winning the war and winning the peace.”
Despite a change of “tempo,” all peacetime degree requirements, units, grade points, prerequisites, and programs were maintained during the war. According to the USF catalogs from 1942 to 1945, the science programs, in concert with the social sciences and liberal arts, continued their rigorous academic standards.
Given the dramatic enrollment decline and the consequent budget shortfall during the war, USF President William Dunne, S.J., traveled to Washington to keep the ROTC program and obtain other military training programs for the university. Fr. Dunne’s efforts began to bear fruit in July 1943, when the United States government established an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) at USF. This program, for the training of engineers and other technical personnel, brought 300 students from all over the country to the university, adding to the institution’s geographic diversity. Many former ROTC students were also reassigned to USF for further training. On the north side of the campus, along Golden Gate Avenue, eight temporary buildings, including barracks, offices, and an infirmary, were hastily built. These buildings survived well past the end of the war for classroom use, and only with the construction of the Harney Science Center in 1965 and University Center in 1966 were the barracks finally removed from campus. The accelerated ASTP program, with its heavy demand for intensive science courses, initially helped stabilize USF’s uncertain financial situation. In March 1944, however, the government announced the discontinuation of the ASTP program nationwide due to the desperate need for overseas manpower. At USF, the program was officially closed in 1944, and the students were ordered to active military service. The termination of this program, the ending of student deferments, and the conscription of vast numbers of college-age youths further added to the economic problems of the university. By 1944, revenue had declined enormously, and USF was running a monthly deficit of more than $6,000.
While USF was struggling to survive economically, thousands of its current and former students were serving overseas in all branches of the service, and more than 50 former science and pre-medical students were in the army, navy, or marine medical corps risking their lives to save others. Throughout World War II, an alumni publication called the Don Patrol kept the University of San Francisco community informed about the many young men of the school who were in active military service abroad. The publication reported on the promotions and decorations received by former USF students, provided information about those killed or missing in action, and often quoted from servicemen’s letters from the front. The August 1943 issue, for example, noted that up to that point in the war, 1,900 former USF students had joined the military, 15 had been killed, and five were missing in action or had been captured by the enemy. The same issue reported that Colonel Jim Sullivan of the Army Medical Corps, class of 1912, had been taken prisoner by the Japanese during the fall of Bataan in the Philippines. Colonel Sullivan did not survive the war. The August 1943 issue also described “soldier-doctor, Bill Reilly, class of 1923” as a “good-Samaritan for American and Axis troops alike somewhere in North Africa,” and the February 1945 issue reported that Captain Paul Tanaka, class of 1933, was with the Army Medical Corps “somewhere” in France. Other issues of the Don Patrol noted that Lieutenant Jim Daly, class of 1944, was “doing a fine job taking care of the boys” who were fighting the Japanese, and said that James Murphy, class of 1931, was “serving somewhere in the South Pacific,” having recently been promoted to the rank of captain by the Army Medical Corps. Graduates of USF also assumed stateside positions in military hospitals during the war. The March 1944 issue of the Don Patrol reported that Major Ted Schomaker, class of 1923, had recently been appointed head of surgery at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, that First Lieutenant Frank Bruscia, class of 1942, was serving as a marine corps dentist in Winter Green General Hospital in Kansas, and that his classmate, First Lieutenant Herbert Shoemaker, was a dentist at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. According to various issues of the Don Patrol, other USF students attended medical or dental school during the war in preparation for service as commissioned officers.
Many of the young men from the University of San Francisco who were serving in the military also wrote letters to their former teachers and priests. Later, many of these letters were reprinted in the Saint Ignatius Church Bulletin. One of the most popular recipients of those letters was Alexander Cody, S.J., English professor at USF and priest at St. Ignatius Church. The letters written by his former students provide glimpses into the lives of young men during World War II while in training, on the front, and at those times that permitted a degree of reflection and introspection. Due to wartime security concerns, the exact location of the letter writer was generally not revealed, and even the name of the writer was often omitted. In one letter, a former student who had joined the Army Medical Corps reported from the Italian front: “The war is causing a lot of casualties which we are trying to heal as fast as possible. There have been a few strafing attacks on combat units next to us and air activity overhead, but we are doing all right.” Not all of his patients were as fortunate, however, and the former USF student wrote: “One of my patients is a Catholic Chaplain who had his leg blown off while trying to bury a dead soldier on the front lines. A booby trap was attached to the dead man.”
A combined USF and St. Ignatius High School service flag (the two schools were joined until 1959) was displayed above the altar of St. Ignatius Church during the war. The flag included white stars representing faculty, students, and alumni who served, and gold stars representing those who lost their lives. By the end of the war, the flag had more than 3,000 white stars and 136 gold stars, of which 106 represented USF students, alumni, and faculty members who gave their lives during World War II. Continuing the tradition from World War I, the service flag was blessed at special ceremonies held in St. Ignatius Church on Sunday, May 24, 1942, and on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1944. At both ceremonies, William Dunne, S.J., president of USF, delivered sermons. The 1944 ceremony was announced as a “religious patriotic service of remembrance,” beginning with an academic and military procession. James Lyons, S.J., chaplain of a military unit then undergoing training at USF, sang Mass, and the enlarged service flag was rededicated to those who had served and died.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian