Updated: Dec 4, 2021
It has been exactly eighty years since America was attacked at Pearl Harbor - on our own soil - and without provocation. Although we didn’t know exactly how we would enter the war, we were not entirely unprepared, as the United States had voluntarily become the arsenal to the world under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt.
I grew up with the following family story and never really thought much about it. I knew that my father had entered the war later than most of my friend’s fathers, and I knew the reason why. But as I have grown older, it has finally occurred to me that though the story made sense, and made me proud to be an American, I have never heard any others talk about their parents participating in this program, or even read about it in all the history I have studied over the years.
But let me start at the beginning. My parents both graduated from high school in the spring of 1941, my dad in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Mother in Rapid City, South Dakota. They were both good students, and knew exactly where they were going to go to college, and what they would major in (music, in both cases). Their lives were right on track.
And then December 7th happened. Many young men didn’t wait for the draft, but immediately started signing up for the military, and college students, especially freshmen, started re-evaluating their own plans. I don’t know the exact timeline, but it seems that the government very early on recognized that America was going to need more than frontline soldiers to win a world war. The military was also going to need college-educated leaders and officers for what everybody assumed was going to be a long conflict.
All the freshmen - men and women - at the two Nebraska colleges where my parents were enrolled, were immediately placed on an accelerated academic regimen, whereby they would attend classes year round, allowing them to graduate in only three years, instead of the standard four. The men signed up for the service of their choice right then and there, knowing that their first steps after graduation would be to boot camp. My dad chose the Navy, and switched his major from music to something more pertinent to his new role: physics. Mother wasn’t expected to enlist and stayed the course with her major, which was probably for the best, because just eighteen months later she was one of four people in Lincoln who were bitten by deadly tse tse flies brought from Africa via military transport. She nearly died. In fact she was the only survivor, and confounded medical science for the remainder of her 87 years.
So in the spring of 1944 my dad graduated on schedule, but she had lost so much time due to illness that she remained in school for another semester. During one hectic week in mid-May their schedule was: graduation, wedding, a three day honeymoon in Chicago, followed by reporting immediately to basic training! For a full year Dad was assigned to various naval training camps around the country including Sandpoint (Idaho), Chicago, Washington, DC, and Boston. Mother trailed him to each of these locations, finding jobs as mundane as store clerks, to essential draftsman at the Pentagon and M.I.T. Now fully-trained, Dad had just received his orders to the Pacific when the war ended abruptly with the Japanese surrender.
Most American servicemen around the world started packing for home, but Dad still owed Uncle Sam one more year (without ever seeing combat). But since he was still stateside, his superiors freely admitted that they didn’t know what to do with him.
Dad, being Dad, sniffed out a brand new law being implemented for returning servicemen, called the G.I. Bill. He convinced his Commander that he could go to Graduate School while finishing his tour of duty right there in Boston. And that’s exactly what he did! It is also the reason that I was born in Boston, instead of Nebraska (though it does look impressive on my passport!)
I have always believed that he must have been one of the very first G.I.s to take advantage of this ground-breaking bill which changed the course of history for a lot more families than just mine.
(He started immediately in the fall of 1945 and earned his Masters in the spring of 1947.)