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World War II Midshipmen's School a Piece of Northwestern History

February 3, 2009

VIDEO: The Rev. Robert Wilch graduated from the school in 1943 and looks back fondly on the time he spent training for the Navy on Northwestern's Chicago campus. Video by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In the 1940s, Northwestern University was home to more than 24,000 students who perhaps never cheered on the Wildcats at a football game, never experienced a late night at University Library and were not familiar with The Rock.

In fact, some never set foot in Evanston. Yet these students were part of one of the most historic programs ever implemented at this university: the V-7 United States Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School.

In the summer of 1940, with war raging in Europe and the likelihood of American involvement apparent, then-university president Franklyn Bliss Snyder made a commitment to national defense by accommodating a Naval training unit on the Chicago campus in newly built Abbott Hall. Through a contract with the federal government, Northwestern, along with Columbia University and Notre Dame, became one of the three schools to support a Midshipmen's School to train and produce Naval officers.

By September of that same year, all men aged 21 to 36 were required to register with local draft boards. For men already enrolled or planning on attending college, the V-12 Navy College Training Program, beginning in 1943, was an option that allowed them to stay in school and still participate in military service. On 131 campuses across the nation, including Northwestern's campus in Evanston, more than 125,000 men enlisted in this program with about 60,000 eventually becoming commissioned Navy and Marine Corps officers.

Most candidates completed officer training through a three-month course at one of the nation's three Midshipmen's Schools. By the time the war ended in 1945, nearly 25,000 men from around the country received training on Northwestern's Chicago campus.

Rev. Robert Wilch of Hartland, Wis., retired Bishop in the Lutheran Church of America who completed his officer training in 1943, has great fondness for the time he spent in Chicago.

"Midshipmen's School is a favorite memory for so many of us," says Wilch, 85, who coordinates the Northwestern Midshipmen's School alumni. "The people of Chicago were so hospitable. If we were in restaurants someone would often pick up our tab and people always wanted to introduce us to their daughters. It was really great."

With every new class enrolling in V-7, new teaching methods were implemented as more efficient models of Naval training developed. Studies, drills, exercises and inspections were aimed to trade civilian habits for those of the Navy and students quickly became accustomed to this "midshipman life."

Using Lake Michigan and facilities such as the Adler Planetarium, courses focused on navigation, seamanship and ordnance. The Northwestern University Library and its University Archives recently digitized footage of midshipmen participating in everyday drills and activities, providing a rare glimpse into the daily workings of this training program.

While most of the Naval instruction that took place through the Midshipmen's School concentrated on commissioning new ensigns, other training took place at Northwestern as well. In fact, a young John F. Kennedy attended a two-month accelerated program for commissioned officers, also held at Abbott Hall.

While the Midshipmen's School was the largest war-related program at Northwestern, other WWII-era Navy programs included a Naval aviation program, Navy medical and dental programs, a Navy radio school and a Naval training school for cooks and bakers.

"These Naval programs were very important to the war effort," says Wilch, who has five battle stars as a gunnery and torpedo officer. "We were building ships 10 times as fast as Germany, and we needed trained individuals to fill the fleets."

When the war ended in 1945, the Midshipmen's Schools closed after five years of Naval education. To many men, its closing symbolized a bittersweet farewell to an exciting, volatile and certainly unforgettable time in their lives.

"I attribute midshipman training to be a very important part of my development," says Wilch. "My experiences at Northwestern shaped me as a person."

However, Northwestern's strong Naval tradition did not start and end with the Midshipmen's School. In 1926, long before the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, one of the six original units of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) was established on campus. The NROTC continues to award scholarships to students who choose a modern midshipman life. Since its inception the Northwestern Battalion has commissioned more than 2,300 Navy and Marine Corp officers. Graduates of this program are fighting overseas today.

Yet with military service comes the unfortunate reality of lives lost -- especially in wartime. Since the Civil War, hundreds of Northwestern students and alumni have died while on active military duty. Etched on a plaque in the lobby of Alice Millar Chapel are all the known names of these brave students who have given their lives while serving the United States. Dedicated in November of 2007, it is Northwestern's official war memorial.

Other areas of campus also serve to remember fallen Wildcats. A boulder on the north end of campus holds a plaque honoring students who died in the Civil War and WWI. A plaque east of the University Library was placed here in memory of NROTC alumni who died in WWII. On a boulder south of Harris Hall, a plaque is dedicated to David Hansen, class of 1923, who died in WWI caring for a wounded friend. Finally, the banners in Alice Millar Chapel are named for alumnus William Heep, a Navy pilot who died during the war in Vietnam.

Northwestern University has an honorable heritage of military service. From the continued tradition of the NROTC to the Midshipmen's School of the 1940s, Northwestern's Naval education programs are important pieces of this University's rich history and the history of this country.

Click here to watch a documentary on Northwestern's current ROTC program.

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