Indiana University Archives Exhibits

Preparing for War

The late 1930s were a time of great changes and developments at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.   On March 22, 1938 Herman B Wells officially became IU’s 11th President.  He would serve the university for the next 25 years in that capacity and is considered one of its most beloved and influential leaders.  From his first day at the helm of the university, President Wells wasted no time in working to mold IU into one of the top public universities in the country.  In his first year as acting President, he traveled over 33,000 miles by train and automobile to interview 190 perspective faculty members.  A total of 94 faculty would be recruited to IU over the next five years. 

The Physics Department benefitted substantially from President Wells efforts.  Not only did the department gain several top nuclear physicists, but the university also authorized the construction of one of the first cyclotrons in the United States.   Located in Swain Hall, the cyclotron took four years to build and was powered up for the first time in April 1941.  The cyclotron was essentially a 90 ton array of powerful magnets that accelerated hydrogen protons in a circular chamber and was the precursor to today’s incredibly advanced Large Hadron Collider (LHC) .  The IU cyclotron would play a small but crucial role in helping to advance top secret research being done at the University of Chicago for the Manhattan Project , which developed the first atomic bomb.  IU would also contribute several of its physicists to the Manhattan Project, two of whom, Lawrence Langer and Emil Konopinski, had direct and significant involvement. 

During those first couple of years prior to the breakout of World War II, IU was becoming a leader not only in the academic field but a premiere institution in the training of young men and women for the defense of the nation.  IU had maintained a strong ROTC program since 1918 and the First World War.  The program required that each physically fit male student to be involved in two years of military training.  Juniors and seniors who opted to take the advanced military courses, including spending part of their summer in camp, would receive commissions that would allow them to join the armed services with a rank of officer.  Commissions included positions such as infantry lieutenant and reserve officers in the Medical Corp.  A special class in radio operations was conducted at the university radio studios to prepare students who would be in the Signal Corp.  This was a particularly intensive program and only seniors who were to receive commissions in the Army at the end of the current school year or spoke at least one foreign language fluently could be admitted to the course.

The ROTC enrollment for the fall 1937 semester was 1,397, and by the fall of 1938 had risen to 1,705 with the inclusion of the newly formed Medical Administrative Corp.  The Medical Corp. was made up of university students between the ages of 18 and 45 who were enrolled in the medical and dental schools.  Collectively, these students were exempted from military service while they were in school, since they would be much more valuable to the military as medics, surgeons, and dentists.

As fall classes were starting in 1939 things were getting very serious over in Europe.  Germany had attacked Poland, and in response Britain and France declared war on Germany.  It did not take long for people in the states to start wondering how long it would take before America would get drawn into the conflict.  Having the foresight that there would be a need for many types of military resources beyond the ROTC should the United States be drawn into the war, IU added an extensive series of programs which were approved by the military authorities.  These included an expansion of the Medical Corp., an Enlisted Reserve program, a Quartermaster Corp., and a civilian pilot training project.   On October 16, 1940, 1,232 IU students between the ages of 21 - 36 were registered for the draft.

IU also began offering coursework in advanced military and international subjects.  Specific topics included courses such as that offered by Prof. J. A. Wright of the Dept. of Journalism on the topic of “codes and ciphers.”  This class became better known under a new name, crypto-analysis.  The State Police Recruit School, operated by the Institute of Criminal Law Administration was expanded to include courses on topics which today would be administered by the Department of Homeland Security.  These included areas such as espionage, sabotage, and subversive activities within the defense industries.  Then there was the National Youth Administration which offered a course in typing.  Typing skills were considered valuable in many areas of the military service.  The Business School made a point to invite people from the various financial industries to campus, such as bankers, realtors, insurance men, and others.  The purpose was to enlighten them as to how the defense program would influence their fields both individually and collectively.  The Institute of Criminal Law Administration held conferences on the topics of Industrial Plant Protection, as well as a Sheriff's conference on local and national defense.  The Institute, under the direction of Prof. James R. Robinson, also prepared a brief on national defense legislation, which attracted much attention.  The university also offered a series of lectures on American Democracy, which were only open to seniors and graduate students.   Other research being done, especially in the field of chemistry, was generally considered a matter of national security and could not be discussed publically.

At the Medical Center in Indianapolis research was being carried out on how to improve methods of treating wounds and burns, as well as exploring the full range of possibilities of sulfa-based drugs in curing infections.    The medical school significantly expanded its training in preparing students to become orderlies and ward helpers in order to reduce the pressures stemming from the shortages of fully trained nurses.  The School of Dentistry provided intensive coursework to train technicians for dental X-ray work.  It also offered an optional course in the testing of dental materials. 

On March 21, 1941, IU’s newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, ran a simple yet revealing survey made up of two questions.  The first question was, “Is the United States going to war?”  84% of male students and 82% of female students believed that entry into the conflict was inevitable.  The second question was, “If so, in how many months?”  The predictions ranged from one to 27 months.  The men were more pessimistic than the women, setting the date of U.S. entry into the war at Oct. 12, 1941.  The women's average came in at Nov. 7, 1941.  Collectively, the students’ estimations averaged out to October 27, 1941.  Sadly, they were not far off.

Preparing for War