The Caltech Experience During Wartime

Published : Saturday, November 12, 2016 | 6:04 AM

Left: Members of the V-12 navy unit at Caltech in 1941 Credit: Courtesy of Caltech Archives / Upper Right: 1946 "The Big T" yearbook photo of Caltech alumnus and Associate Howard Jessen / Lower Right: Rear Admiral Wilson Brown inspecting V-12 unit at Caltech in 1944 Credit: Courtesy of Caltech Archives

Caltech alumnus and Associate Howard Jessen (BS ’46) recently donated to Caltech to endow the Howard E. and Susan C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructorship in the Humanities through a matching program established by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The gift will help enrich humanities instruction at Caltech and create opportunities for early-career PhDs. Jessen, who came to Caltech by way of the Navy’s V-12 program—a World War II program through which future officers were able to earn bachelor’s degrees—took time to reflect on his experience.

In 1943, Howard Jessen entered the U.S. Navy’s V-12 program as a freshman at the University of Texas. Soon after, the Navy transferred him to Caltech to complete his undergraduate degree in civil engineering. When Jessen arrived in 1944, Caltech was a campus transformed by the war. Civilian students lived off campus and more than 500 naval students occupied the student houses, turning double-occupancy rooms into quads with the installation of bunk beds. A sick bay was created on campus for military students to see doctors and dentists. Although the school was not yet co-ed, the number of women working on campus greatly increased during wartime.

“The faculty had feared that many of the Caltech traditions would become lost with the advent of the Navy program, and with the necessary change in routine and discipline. However, it has been gratifying to note that the apprentice seamen are entering into the school activities and are exhibiting a fine school spirit,” noted a report in the September 1943 issue of Engineering and Science Monthly.

Caltech’s research enterprise was influenced by the war effort as well. While on campus, for example, Jessen and his fellow students heard about faculty members conducting ancillary research and development to aid military causes.

“When the war is over many remarkable discoveries and accomplishments will be revealed that have been developed during this period of intense work and research,” read the December 1943 issue of Engineering and Science Monthly.

For V-12 students, Caltech life was, of course, regimented. Every morning, they exercised at Tournament Park before returning to the houses to clean their rooms, make their beds, and as Jessen recollects “swab down the alleys.” Then they got into formation with their platoons—four platoons to a house—and stood for announcements and inspection of their shoes, clothing, and hair before beginning their school day. For special occasions, the students would be called upon to march. “On V-J day, we marched down Colorado Boulevard,” Jessen recalls. “I was the flag bearer.”

The V-12 students were not permitted off campus during the week, but they had “liberty” on weekends. Seniors and those who worked as tutors were allowed to leave on Friday nights, while others remained on campus until noon on Saturdays. “We called it ‘going ashore,’” Jessen says.

Jessen and his V-12 classmates left Caltech in early 1946. Many, including Jessen, were discharged to the Naval Reserve later that year and then recalled to serve in the Korean War. “We gave back two years of time for all of the good things the Navy had done for us earlier,” Jessen says, referring to their education at Caltech.

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