From White Shoe to Combat Boot
The wartime experiences of the class of 1945W can be told in terms of shoes. We came in shoes mostly white and some black and brown. We left Yale in GI shoes that were black, brown and cordovan. The white shoes that were left in the closet at home, with the thought they would be worn again after the war, became the symbol of a privileged class that enjoyed for a fleeting few months the elegance (and social snobbery) of pre-war Yale and then found itself subsumed into the uniformity of the military. We were the end of an era at Yale and returned from the war to ourselves swept up in a new, more egalitarian era.
We entered Yale in July 1942 on an accelerated schedule that would have had us graduate in 1945; hence the "W" for war to distinguish us from the class of 1945 and the future class of 1946. Of the 1,059 who enrolled, two-thirds had come from prep school (100 from Andover alone) and the rest were high school graduates.
The war was strangely remote, even though we knew that eventually we were destined for combat. I can recall no bull sessions about the course of the war (not good in our freshman year) or about grand strategies that would lead to victory. Embraced by Mother Yale, we lived our freshman year almost as if there were no war. We were waited upon at Commons by scholarship students who earned their board by becoming waiters. I still cringe at how white-shoe upper classmen in Pierson would make me take back their breakfasts because the eggs were not properly done.
Did we feel like shirkers? Not really. After all, we had been told by Freshman Dean Buck that "You are a privileged class beyond most," and that the government wanted us to stay at Yale because, as President Seymour explained, "it wants men who are educated to understand the meaning of this war, men capable of leading others to make the sacrifices necessary to victory."
With such elitist dispensations from on high, we enlisted in programs that might keep us at Yale for a while-in the Army's ERC (Enlisted Reserve Corps) but mostly in the Navy's V-12 program because the Navy was then regarded as the gentleman's service.
I don't recall that we studied very hard, or that the professors were particularly demanding of students who by virtue of ill-fitting uniforms had become warriors in training. The one academic hurdle imposed by the military was freshman physics. Unbeknownst to us as we struggled with Newtonian physics was that we had a future rendezvous with the results of a nuclear chain reaction achieved in the fall of 1942 in a squash court at the University of Chicago. As young naval and marine officers commissioned in 1944, we were to be spared our ultimate assignment-the invasion of Japan.
For those who remained in the V-12 program, the regime was an incongruous blend of the academic and the military. We were told from the outset that we were "living on borrowed ime," but that didn't mean Yale traditions had to be abandoned. In freshman year, the ambitious heeled the News or tried out for varsity football. As sophomores, we joined fraternities. And in January 1944 there was a Tap Day in the courtyard of TD, even though by then a large number had departed for the service. Yale continued to play football with the rationale that intercollegiate sports promoted the combat spirit. I don't know what it did for us who watched, cheered, and drank milk punch after the game.
We drifted away to war. Those who had signed up in the ERC expecting to be able to spend several terms at Yale were called up by the Army in January 1943, setting off a binge of farewell parties. We drank a lot in those days. The NROTC cadets were commissioned in February 1944, and the several hundred V-12 students went off to midshipmen schools in July 1944. Overall, 38 of our classmates were to die in military service, one as early as 1943 in North Africa, but most of our losses were in 1944 and 1945 in both the European and Pacific theaters.
We straggled back to a different Yale after the war. The civilian uniform had changed from jacket and tie to military fatigues and army boots. We who had been waited upon by black stewardmates cheered for fullback Levi Jackson and for linemen with Slavic names that we had difficulty pronouncing. In ways not appreciated at the time, the GI Bill of Rights was heating up a simmering melting pot and opening up educational opportunity for those who had not been born to the white shoe tradition. But individuals have a way of clinging to the past. One of my first acts upon being discharged was to use my clothing allotment to buy a sport coat at J. Press. The jacket still hangs in my closet, not worn only because it no longer fits. As for the white bucks, the size of feet does not change. Sneakers are more comfortable.
John Finney was managing editor of the Yale Daily News. After World War II service on