December 17, 2012

Archivist's Angle: NYU and the War Efforts in WWI and WWII

By Erin Shaw (GSAS ’14)

A hero who had seen military action in Bataan speaks to a group of NYU students about enlisting in the armed forces

Wartime in the United States has historically been a time of great solidarity; citizens on the home front come together to contribute to the overseas effort in ways that reflect our nation’s unity. New York University’s students and administration have a legacy of rising to meet the tireless demands of a country at war, especially during World War I and World War II.

In 1914 Americans watched with trepidation as World War I broke out across the Atlantic. Though many hoped that the United States would abstain from the increasingly bloody European conflict, newspaper accounts of the trench warfare galvanized a group of students, who in 1915 petitioned to establish military drills at NYU. At the same time, other students organized protests and anti-military societies.

A group of Red Cross ambulance volunteers during World War I

Even before President Wilson officially declared war, NYU created a Red Cross Committee to establish volunteer units for service in Red Cross Ambulance companies abroad. Chancellor Brown cabled Woodrow Wilson on February 5, 1917, informing him of “the readiness and desire of this institution to render all possible aid to the government of the United States at all times and particularly in the present crisis.” When war was declared on April 6, 1917, New York University was prepared to send hundreds of ambulance volunteers to France.

In March of 1918, New York University became part of a nationwide program called the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), an operation founded by the Committee on Education and Special Training of the War Department. The program was designed to train draftees in a variety of trades needed for the war effort, and was jointly administered by the military and the schools. Members received vocational training, becoming auto mechanics, blacksmiths, carpenters, chauffeurs, concrete workers, electricians, machinists, and radio operators. The vocational training could also be used once veterans had returned home.

The Armistice, however, interrupted the work of the SATC shortly after it began. After some debate over the continuation of the program, the SATC was demobilized in December of 1918.

Students receive war-oriented meteorological training from the College of Engineering

In the period following World War I, a new generation of students objected to compulsory military science courses for freshmen and sophomores. In 1933, NYU along with the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, and Columbia University, took the Oxford Pledge against military drills on campus. In December of 1941, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor temporarily suspended student antiwar activism. The country was again at war; the University responded accordingly.

During World War II, NYU was among the first universities chosen by the United States Army to train soldiers. The University was also one of only three colleges in the country qualified to offer instruction on meteorology. The Engineering, Science, and Management War Training Division of the College of Engineering offered training courses in meteorology and engineering to cadets sent to NYU by military authorities and government agencies. A World War II issue of the Violet proudly brags about NYU’s stalwart war efforts: “Each man who finishes this nine- to ten-month course emerges as a well-trained weatherman ready for service at camps and airfields anywhere.

By the end of the Second World War, more than 18,000 students had been trained in NYU’s engineering courses.

Following the war, NYU saw an influx of veterans registering as students. Some of these returning soldiers had had their university careers interrupted by the outbreak of war, while others, after the passage of the G.I. Bill, found themselves with access to an educational system that had been previously closed off to them. By 1945 NYU had the greatest number of student-veterans of any university in the country.

Today, NYU continues to provide resources and support to veterans. The University’s participation in the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program allows veterans to supplement their Post 9/11 GI Bill tuition benefits. Eligibility extends to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in all of NYU’s schools. Current and former military service members within the campus community can also join the Military Alliance Group. This non-partisan group was created to cultivate a respectful, responsive, and encouraging environment within the alumni community to support the unique experience and knowledge that veterans bring to NYU.