The symbolic heart and soul of Northwesterns Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps now sits in a glass case in the wardroom of the little NROTC building on Haven Street, a block from the main campus.
An old but still handsome sword, it was presented to Ensign Hal Christopher (Nav41) at his years commissioning ceremony for being the outstanding midshipman. Tragically the young man was on board the USS Nevada during the attack on Pearl Harbor that December and did not survive, but one day afterward, Christophers roommate retrieved the blade from the half-flooded ship. For more than half a century it was in the roommates possession, but a year ago he agreed to have the sword returned to Northwestern.
As valued a symbol as the sword is, though, it is Christophers dedication and that of the other 2,300 Navy and Marine Corps officers produced over the 75 years of Northwesterns NROTC history that characterizes the unit. Some of the University's midshipmen ascended to high ranks (including admiral); many enjoyed distinguished civilian careers; and others died defending their country.
The tradition of duty continues. In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks, Capt. Jeffrey Keho, current commanding officer of the unit, reports that "our midshipmen are a bit more focused and aware of their purpose after this tragedy.
To be sure, there is much in the NROTC's Department of Naval Science that has changed over the years, but across the decades midshipmen past and present express the same sentiments: The physical and mental challenges are tough but rewarding, while the respect for tradition, the sense of responsibility, the commitment to country and, perhaps most of all, the esprit de corps are never forgotten.
"The things that we do bring people together unlike anything Ive ever seen, says Lt. Brian Collie, associate professor of naval science at the University and a former NROTC student himself at Villanova University. "The friendships you develop are with you for a lifetime."
In the movie An Officer and a Gentleman, the protagonist, enrolled in Naval Officer Candidate School, learns the value of camaraderie and in a pivotal scene helps a woman trainee clamber up a wall on an obstacle course. Ensign Erika Sutherland (WCAS, Nav01), now in flight training in Pensacola, Fla., had almost the same experience one summer on a base in California with her fellow midshipmen.
"I just could never climb that wall, but other people helped talk me over it," she says. "It was eerily similar to the movie. When you have a common goal, its amazing how quickly everyone comes together."
Over the years, the Navys hefty scholarships and stipends and the travel opportunities are powerful inducements for students to consider the unit. "The scholarship is the reason most people join ROTC, but its not the reason they stay," says Sutherland. "Theres eventually a sense that the bigger picture matters."
In NROTC's early days, there were no scholarships, but Bill Smedley (McC, Nav38, G40), a professor emeritus of chemistry from the U.S. Naval Academy, notes that the battalion in the late 1930s had a healthy enrollment of about 60. "It was our duty to serve," says Smedley, who continues to admire his NROTC peers. "I was so impressed by the ability of so many of my classmates in ROTC."
Partly because of the financial support, which commenced after World War II, the Navy and the Marine Corps have prevailed at Northwestern over other branches of the military, which did not cover educational costs. During World War I the Army had an officer training unit on campus, which became an ROTC battalion after the Armistice. However, President Walter Dill Scott (WCAS1895) fretted that Northwestern could not sustain two ROTC units, and he was right. The Army left in 1930, and a similar effort by the Air Force to gain a toehold in the 1950s also failed.
When Congress passed legislation that created the naval unit at the University, Northwestern was one of six charter NROTC hosts. Until World War II it was a true reserve unit in that no active duty was required upon commission. But by the late 1930s, even though pacifist sentiment on campus was strong, many believed overseas involvement was inevitable. One was Richard Schlecht (EB, Nav38).
"I went back to the family business for a year or so, but I saw the war coming," he says, so he volunteered for duty in September 1940. After the Japanese sank Schlechts first ship, he was transferred to the USS Nields, a destroyer that saw a lot of action. Schlecht eventually became the executive officer, who is second in command.
He was one of the fortunate survivors of the war. In December 1981 a plaque was dedicated in a quiet grove by University Library to the 23 Northwestern NROTC officers who gave their lives. "When we graduated from Northwestern with our commissions, why, we just didn't know what we were getting into," said Rear Adm. Chester "Chip" Taylor (WCAS, Nav35) at the ceremony.
After World War II the Navy continued to need officers and turned to NROTC. Class sizes in the unit at this time averaged around 30, and in addition to the Pentagon's policy of active recruitment, the numbers stayed high because of interest from students. "In those days you had the draft, dont forget," says Robert Abele (EB, Nav57). "Being in ROTC sounded a whole lot better than slogging through mud fields somewhere. ... In all honesty I went into it with no real intention of making the Navy a career."
But Abele surprised himself, staying on to become executive officer for Naval Supply Systems Command and eventually overseeing all Navy supply activities around the world. He retired as a rear admiral.
Richard Leopold, professor emeritus of history and a foreign policy expert who came to Northwestern in 1948, remembers the postwar period as a peaceful time for NROTC on campus even though in the national and international arenas, it was indeed a jittery time, what with the Nuclear Age, the Korean conflict and the Cold War in general. Leopold, a wartime naval officer himself and always a staunch ally of the unit, remembers the Thursday drills on Deering Meadow possessing something of a July 4th atmosphere, as mothers with baby carriages strolled by to watch the proceedings.
Yet that's not to say there was total conformity and tranquility in the ranks. Jim Eckelberger (EB, Nav60), now a CEO of a high-tech firm in California who retired from the Navy in 1991 as a rear admiral, recalls that a young gung-ho Navy captain became commanding officer during the 1959-60 academic year and suggested that Eckelbergers class live together in the same residence. "I remember the whole senior class told him that if we had wanted to do that, wed have gone to the Naval Academy," he says, laughing. "That wasnt how we looked at our lives. We wanted the full college experience."
A far more serious issue, however, lay ahead. As the Vietnam conflict intensified after 1965, so did the demands from many students and certain faculty members to either throw the Department of Naval Science off campus entirely or at least not to offer academic credit for the courses it offered.
Like many campuses across the country the University was rocked by antiwar protests. From May 1969 through May 1970 the Northwestern chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and many unaffiliated students engaged in sustained anti-ROTC actions. A few times the units office in the basement of Lunt Hall was ̉trashed and windows in Lunt, Swift Hall and a Quonset hut behind Lunt were broken.
Heckling made the close-order drills on the meadow impossible. "At first nobody bothered us, but as it all heated up, the crowds started to gather," says John McCarron (J, Nav70, GJ73), now a vice president with the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago. "They would try to put flowers in our rifles, just like they had seen in the press and on television." He also remembers antiwar students pounding on the doors during classes and even one instance in which a Navy instructor began burning records to keep them out of the protesters hands.
To be sure, this wasnt the first opposition to NROTC. Smedley recalls occasional heckling from the campus pacifists during drills in the late 1930s, but the midshipmen ignored it. "It was a flea on an elephant as far as we were concerned," he says.
This time, however, the issue did not go away, and in May 1969 the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences voted to withhold academic recognition for NROTC courses. (Today full credit is given for all unit classes, excluding a Tuesday lab, but the department remains unaffiliated with the college.)
Leopold for one was dismayed by the demonstrations, and although he had academic respect for many anti-ROTC professors, he wanted to set the record straight. "I took the position that I have continued to believe in all along," Leopold says now. "I am for a voluntary program. Why should we deny students the opportunity to pursue a military career if that's what they want?"
So he addressed his colleagues, pointing out that some of the ablest students at Northwestern had been midshipmen. Twice in the 1950s a unit member served as president of the student body, and three times during that period a midshipman had been editor of the Daily Northwestern. "The great majority of the liberal arts faculty had no detailed knowledge of the program or the students who had been in it," Leopold says.
He made an impact. "It was a moving speech," says Charles Moskos, a professor of sociology who specializes in the military. "Dick is as much responsible for saving the program as anyone."
In an ironic turn, Steven Lubet (WCAS70), now a Northwestern professor of law but then a student in the forefront of the campus protests, is in essential agreement with Leopold.
"It was important for the antiwar movement to have local issues to create opportunities for people to express their opposition to the war," he says. "That made ROTC at Northwestern and on other campuses an obvious focal point of antiwar activity.
"In retrospect, in the longer term, [I believe] its important for military officers to have a liberal education," he adds. "So if you ask me today, I would say ROTC absolutely has a place on campus."
Although Leopold never held an official position with the unit, many of its members remember him fondly. "He was the man," says Marine Lt. Col. Stephen Ganyard (WCAS, Nav80), a rising star who commanded an F/A-18 squadron of 190 men and women before recently becoming a Marine Corps Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "He not only had the greatest impact on me but on all the ROTC students as well."
In general the late 1970s were quiet partly because the department had moved to the football field area, where it stayed for seven years, but also no doubt because of the de-escalation of the war and the elimination of the draft. "Most people were pretty cool about things, except for an occasional snowball thrown our way," says former midshipman Colin Donovan (WCAS, Nav74).
But one major change did come about at this point coeducation. The first woman in the unit on full scholarship, retired Capt. Carol Zink (WCAS, Nav77), ruefully recalls drilling in her civvies until November in her first year because the gender-appropriate uniforms hadn't arrived. For awhile she and the others even wore mens outfits, but eventually the Navy caught up to the times. With one notable exception. "My class adviser called me in and said, You are a waste of a scholarship that should have gone to a man. I hope you flunk. Women dont belong in my Navy," Zink relates. "It had the opposite effect on me. I resolved to show him that I belonged there. During my senior year I was battalion commander, the first female battalion commander in the country."
Zink, who quickly adds that except for this man she never had another "attitude" problem with the teaching staff or the midshipmen, might have another claim to fame. She is half of what may be the only mother-daughter NROTC team. Kathryn Chou, her firstborn, is a junior in the unit.
Not only has Chou never felt any discrimination whatsoever, she switched career tracks this academic year to the Marines, considered the most traditional of the service branches, and hopes to pursue flight training, which is one of the toughest specialties. "Theres so much pride in the Marine Corps," she explains. "The lowliest private to the highest-ranking general loves the corps. I think I would regret passing up the challenge."
For many reasons, however, more and more undergraduates are passing up the challenge of being a Navy or Marine officer. Enrollment has dropped dramatically in recent years, according to associate provost John Margolis, who also serves as president of the National Association of NROTC Colleges and Universities. "Northwestern remains strongly committed to its affiliation with the program, but the numbers are frankly worrisome," he says.
This senior years crop of seven is the lowest ever, but Keho notes that the decline partly occurred because Defense Department decisions in the 1990s created a surplus of junior officers. In addition, many new units were established elsewhere in the 1980s to keep up with the Reagan military buildup and as a cost-saving measure. Covering tuition at a state-supported institution is much cheaper than paying for a Northwestern education. Taken together, these factors translate into fewer scholarships for the unit on campus.
Moskos, echoing Leopold from an earlier day, decries the trend. "These are the kind of officers, coming from elite schools, that the military needs. Theyre much better educated in the liberal arts than Academy graduates. The majority of Annapolis graduates are engineers. And even if most [of Northwesterns midshipmen] dont stay in the service after their four-year commitment, it still produces future leaders for America," he says. "The Department of Defense is doing what the antiwar movement couldnt do; its trying to chase NROTC off campus."
On the other hand, the 1970s saw a drop in numbers, and the unit survived. Keho, who is new to Northwestern, wanted the post. ("Commanding an NROTC unit is an opportunity for us old guys to leave our mark on the Navy for the next 30 years or so.") At the University, he points out, the retention rate after freshman year students can drop out with no penalty is far higher than average. And like Moskos, he is convinced that Northwestern produces good officers.
Margolis agrees the attitude within the unit is still good. "They continue to be highly motivated, dedicated to service to the nation and, even with diminished numbers, maintain very high morale," he says.
At last springs commissioning ceremony, Ensign Sutherlands father, who is an officer teaching at the Air Force Academy, administered the oath to her (any uniformed officer may do so). "It was a huge moment for me," she says. "My first salute came from our yeoman. It really hit home what it meant to be an officer. My job is one of such responsibility."
The first time he donned his dress blues, Lt. Col. Ganyard remembers thinking that it was "the beginning of a journey." One of its high points came one day in 1982 on a dusty Texas airbase when his wife and father pinned on his Navy wings of gold.
And at the far end of the career spectrum stands Admiral Abele. "If I had to make the decision all over again [about joining NROTC], I wouldn't think 30 nanoseconds about it," he says.
Robert S. Freed is associate editor of Northwestern magazine.