View Full Version : The Most Contented GIs in Europe

10-10-02, 04:04 PM
As World War II drew to a close, American soldiers in Europe traded their weapons for textbooks and prepared for return to civilian life. <br />
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By Hervie Haufler <br />
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In the summer of 1945, I was one of...

10-10-02, 04:05 PM
Soon notices appeared on U.S. army bulletin boards throughout Europe inviting troops to apply for detached service at SAU or BAU. Each of the major command units in the European theater was assigned a quota proportionate to the unit's strength. No more than 10 percent of students could be commissioned officers. The only requirement for attending the schools was that applicants must have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Soldiers would be relieved of military duties while attending the universities.

Skeptics Become Enthusiastic

Nevertheless, both students and faculty approached each other warily. As Private Chester Anderson told a Yank magazine reporter, "Only three men in my outfit signed up because we were suspicious as hell." The enlisted men anticipated that "we would get pushed around just as much at a GI university as any other place in the army." As a result both schools opened short of the 4,000-student capacity--BAU enrolled 3,850 students, SAU had 3,641.

Instructors were also skeptical, having been warned that 80 percent of the GIs would goof off and only 10 percent would do serious work. Yet Dean Russell, who took leave as professor of education at the University of Chicago to become the academic head of BAU, wrote, "GIs applied themselves to their academic work with an enthusiasm that faculty members had seldom observed in civilian institutions." Few flunked out. Graduation totals were below enrollments (at BAU, 9,465 graduates out of 10,295 attending), but that resulted more from redeployments than poor performance.

Robert "Jack" Garver saw the university notice on his company bulletin board in Paris, where he was serving as a military police officer after recovering from a wound received during the Battle of the Bulge. While in the hospital Garver had revived his pre-war interest in art by painting murals on the walls of the recreation room. He saw BAU as an opportunity to take some drawing and painting classes to determine "if I had any abilities worth nurturing." Garver arrived in Biarritz on the last day of registration and found the art classes already filled except for one in modeling and sculpture and another in art appreciation. He registered for both, as well as Principles and Techniques of Acting. Garver found the time pressures far more intense than he had anticipated. This was particularly true for his drama course. Even though he was the only one in his class without previous professional acting experience, he won parts in two of the four plays produced during his term. He also learned about creating stage scenery from Gorelick and spent evenings in the cafés talking theater with Whorf and Alan Campbell, writer Dorothy Parker's husband. "I returned to Paris in October with an entirely different perspective," he remembers. "I didn't learn to be an artist at Biarritz, but I knew from my experience there that I wanted to be one."

Resort Turned University

My own experience occurred after I was assigned to the Signal Corps message center in Brussels, where boredom and a desire for sun and warmth prompted me to apply for BAU. After being accepted, I took the train south for the second semester, mid-October to mid-December.

I arrived doubtful that the army could create a viable university, but my cynicism was quickly routed. My trainload of GI students was met most efficiently by a row of soldiers in olive-drab trucks who whisked us off to our quarters. After settling into a small hotel, I went out for a walk through the town. I was overwhelmed by the completeness of the army's planning: the great seaside hotels that had housed Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were now teeming with Yanks. Freshly painted signs on the villas indicated the courses that would be taught there--journalism in the Villa les Courlis, arts at the Villa Rochefoucauld, education in the Villa la Titania. I passed by the GI-operated radio station that broadcast big band music, saw the gambling casino that Engley had helped transform into a library, and noticed the softball diamonds and football rectangles laid out on the town's outskirts. When I reported to Registration, I was amazed to find a thick catalogue that detailed 335 different study courses. I settled for two courses in writing and one in conversational French.

All Ranks, No Regs

Especially astounding for us GIs was that the school dispensed with most of the army's usual petty rules and annoyances, including saluting, dress codes, and close-order drills. All ranks mingled on equal terms in the classrooms. With GIs scattered in hotels all over Biarritz, even reveille and enforced calisthenics went by the board. Above all, the walls of racial discrimination were lowered. Even before Harry Truman issued his anti-segregation edict, black and white soldiers sat together in classrooms, ate together in mess halls, and played ball on the same teams. As one GI put it, "This is the way the army ought to be." The universities were made coeducational by a few attendees from the Women's Army Corps and the Army Nurse Corps as well as by a contingent of fledgling actresses to fill out the casts of the plays.

I gave up hopes of lolling in the sun and playing in the surf as soon as classes began. One of my courses was Albert Crews' in radio dramatic writing. Crews required us to write a half-hour radio drama every week--without the benefit of typewriters. He worked patiently with us until our limping scripts were strong enough to be enacted on the air by BAU Radio.

Still, the extracurricular activities were tempting. On weekends trucks carried us to overnight stays in Lourdes, Bordeaux, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and the Spanish border. Marlene Dietrich sang for us and, incredibly, made music by bowing a bent saw. She also lectured the drama students on acting. Oldarra, the Basque patriotic group, presented an evening of songs and dances, and we thought the plays directed by McClintic and Whorf first-rate performances.

Experiences Shape Careers

The GIs at Shrivenham had even better fringe benefits. On weekends trains carried soldiers to London, Bournemouth, and Oxford. Bus tours left for Salisbury, Windsor and Eton, Sulgrave Manor, Kenilworth and Coventry, Gloucester and Bath, Stonehenge and Avebury. Tickets were available for plays in Stratford-on-Avon, Swindon, and Oxford. The SAU Concert Orchestra and Choral Group performed in Oxford, Cheltenham, and Swindon as well as regularly on the post. On November 22 the SAU Male Chorus appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

I agreed with Engley and Garver that dos Passos was right when he said the attendees at BAU were "the most contented GIs in Europe." Our experiences there helped shape our postwar careers. Engley followed Dean Russell back to the University of Chicago, enrolled in the Graduate Library School, and became Yale's associate university librarian. Garver ended up graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). His art career has included more than a score of one-man shows and numerous major prizes, and he has also taught art, art history, and stage design and production. And while I didn't become a creator of radio dramas, I have made my living as a writer.

Rue De L'Université Américaine

It seemed too bad that the universities couldn't live on and on for fresh legions of GIs. But after V-J Day (August 15, 1945) the troopships were no longer heading for the Pacific Theater; they were ferrying us home across the Atlantic and the supply of students dwindled rapidly. SAU closed its doors after two terms, BAU after three. In all, a total of about 18,000 American soldiers, plus guests from 10 other countries, had attended the two schools between July 1945 and March 1946.

The grand hotels in Biarritz quickly scrubbed away the marks made by GI boots and prepared once again to welcome pleasure-seeking European swells. Yet the British were so impressed by what had taken place at Shrivenham that they decided to use SAU as the prototype for redoing their military training facilities. The commandant of British Army Schools, Colonel G.S. Fillingham, remarked, "It is amazing that the British must come to the Americans in England to learn how to set up a school." The British relocated the Military College of Science at Shrivenham to SAU and converted it into a technical staff college. Since 1984 a civilian school, Cranfield University, has supplemented the range of courses available. Shrivenham, at least, has survived as a learning center for the young. In Biarritz, however, the only reminder of the U.S. student occupation is a street sign that reads, "Rue de l' Université Americaine, 1945-1946."