Annapolis On the Lake

When George Milne got the news on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he was in bed, "like every other midshipman after a night on the town."

Milne, now living in suburban Chicago, and the 700 future ensigns of the fifth class at Northwestern’s Abbott and Tower Halls had been expecting an outbreak of war, but the almost total devastation of the Pacific fleet still hit hard. "Our mission was made clear to us by the attack on Pearl Harbor," he says, adding that, despite the losses, a gunnery sergeant assured the midshipmen that it would all be over in two weeks.

Nearly four years later Milne was with the flotilla in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the agreement to end hostilities with the Japanese, "and I knew more than ever why we had been at Tower and Abbott Halls."

Altogether some 26,000 college-age men during World War II received accelerated training at Northwestern in a program officially called the U.S. Navy Midshipmen’s Training School, or V-7 in military shorthand. V-7, which began in September 1940 and continued to the end of the war, was set up on the Chicago campus and at just two other U.S. locations to supply desperately needed junior-level officers. At Northwestern men who were in 25 classes of four months’ duration — the famous term "90-day wonder" is a bit inaccurate — were commissioned under the command of Capt. B.B. Wygant, a task-master who nonetheless held the respect and affection of his young charges.

The midshipmen converged on Abbott and nearby Tower, which is now part of Loyola University, from colleges and universities across the country. Most had enlisted earlier in what was labeled the V-12 program, which was similar to Naval ROTC. In fact V-12 merged with most NROTC units during the war (such was the case on Northwestern’s Evanston campus).

Since the late 1980s many Chicago campus V-7 midshipmen and their wives have held annual reunions. Over the Labor Day weekend about 130 of them returned to Abbott and Tower Halls for the first time. Although gray and even white were the predominant hair colors, most of these former officers were still trim and carried themselves well.

The assemblage included two retired admirals, Mac Showers of suburban Washington, D.C., who was in the fourth class of midshipmen, and Gene LaRocque, also from Washington, who was in the 11th. Former U.S. Sen. Robert Morgan (D-N.C.), who graduated in the final class and attributes much of his later success in life to lessons learned from Wygant, was also present.

Other notable 90-day wonders included Dennis Wilkinson, former commanding officer of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine; Ward Reynoldson, former chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court; and Thomas Heggen, author of Mr. Roberts.

Northwestern lore holds that future President John F. Kennedy was also in the program. However, the evidence indicates that he was in Chicago for no more than two months in a different program for already commissioned officers receiving final orientation before shipping out.

One day after the Pearl Harbor attack, University President Franklyn Bliss Snyder telegraphed the White House to offer Northwestern’s entire resources for the war effort. Eventually the government established several programs on both campuses in addition to V-7.

Among the larger ones were a radio technician school for enlisted Navy personnel; various Army, Navy and Marine reserve programs; a Navy flight school; a training center for the Army Signal Corps; and Army and Navy medical and dental training programs.

But the midshipmen school, a beehive of activity, dwarfed them all. In an incredibly brief period midshipmen were force-fed heavy doses of navigation, seamanship, ordnance and gunnery, and some engineering. In the beginning they were posted to a variety of billets, including surface warships, submarines and aircraft. Showers received a plum assignment as an analyst in the successful effort to crack the Japanese code followed by a stint as an assistant intelligence officer on Adm. Chester Nimitz’s staff.

As the war went on, though, many of the midshipmen were earmarked for an extremely high-risk assignment — small, slow amphibious landing crafts that made easy targets — probably in anticipation of an invasion of Japan. "Maybe they thought we were more expendable than the Academy guys," jokes Bob Wilch, a retired Lutheran bishop from Wisconsin who was in the 17th class and is chief organizer of the reunions.

While they were on the Northwestern campus, many of the midshipmen began a lifelong love affair with the city of Chicago, which welcomed the young men warmly. Theater tickets were theirs for the asking, the USO was just down the street at the Drake Hotel and local residents frequently provided hospitality and home-cooked meals.

"People would pick us up when we were downtown and haul us back because they knew we had to return by 9 p.m.," recalls North Carolina’s Jim Boyes — who was in the 22nd class — still with some wonder in his voice.

Bruce Boney, also from North Carolina and a graduate of the same class, has another good reason to remember the city. One Saturday night Wygant emphatically "invited" Boney and some other midshipmen to attend a debutante ball at the Lakeshore Athletic Club. It was there that Boney met a young woman named Grace. After a two-year courtship interrupted by a less than pleasant interlude on a landing craft based in New Guinea, Boney married Grace, and they’ve been together ever since. Debutante balls, however, were the exception. These men, in their early 20s but forced to grow up fast, knew this was not a time for fun and games.

"Our nation was threatened by two capable enemies who were determined to defeat us," Showers says. "Both of them boasted they would dictate peace terms from the White House. I felt that my intelligence work was very significant, and I still believe it was.

"But everybody who was in the Navy was contributing equally," he adds, "the people who were on the ships, the pilots who were flying the planes, the staff officers. No matter where you were assigned, you were part of a team that was working with one objective in mind."

Did he and his Abbott and Tower Hall mates ever discuss the possibility that some of them might not come back alive?

No, he answers, they were too busy getting ready to win a war.

- R.S.F.