War Stories: Veterans as University Students, 1947

I found that the Army is a very fertile soil in the field of sociology, I think that students who are veterans enjoy a great deal of advantage over the non-veterans . . .. The veteran had traveled widely and met people from all walks of life and when he got his discharge, he had already completed a phase in the course of sociology (B.M.S., “The ‘In’ Group,” Hormann Box 9).

It was a dynamic period in 1947. All university students’ lives had been disrupted by the War. Those who had served in the Armed Forces transitioned from being in combat to building civilian lives for themselves. Those who had stayed at home had lived under martial law. For the students in the academic year 1946-47, it was finally time to begin or resume their college educations. For veterans, the G.I. Bill was a boon.

This post focuses on how veterans’ time in the service colored their experience as university students, and how their presence impacted the University of Hawai‘i campus during the early post-World War II years.  Nearly all the  excerpts are from papers written for introductory sociology classes in Spring 1947.

On May 16 it was reported that a total of 941 veterans were taking advantage of the ‘GI Benefits.’ These were distributed as follows: freshmen, 438; sophomores, 228; juniors, 148; seniors, 47; graduate students, 35; and unclassified, 45. It is estimated that next year we may expect about 1,300 veterans (Report of the President for 1945-46, pp. 23-4).

enrollment 46-47

The numbers continued to climb in 1947-48:

The increase in the student body this year was the second largest in the history of the University – 640 as against 981 in 1946-47. Nevertheless, it presented greater problems than heretofore with regard to classrooms and laboratories, for the limits of our plant capacity were more nearly approached. It was possible to handle this increase only by scheduling more classes in the afternoon and more laboratories in the morning (Report of the President of the University of Hawaii, Bulletin Number, 1, Volume xxvii, December 48, p. x).

The UH campus had always been ethnically diverse but now there was a significant number of older students who were especially serious about their education. In the 1947-48 President’s Report, veterans showed a decided preference for pre-professional majors, ones that were practical and would provide them careers with status: engineering, business, medicine, dentistry, and social work (p. 29).

Veterans in front, Ka Palapala 1947

Veterans take the front row, Ka Palapala 1947

For many students, the veterans stood out from the rest of the student population. For this traditional aged young woman, veterans were worldly, even sophisticated and a bit intimidating:

. . . when I entered this University, the situation has changed with the veterans returning to their classes. In every room, at every corner of a building, I see older men, and it has become impossible to avoid contacting them. There are some friendly veterans and I have learned a great deal from them, but I can not surrender myself completely to their friendliness because until I entered the University, I had been associating only with young people. The minds of these veterans are much more matured than ours; consequently people of our age and these vets see through different viewpoints. Whether the veterans are friendly to me or not, the difference in our age has been a barrier between us. Perhaps when I am over twenty years old and see things with a more matured mind, my prejudice may be replaced by a more tolerant attitude (A.K., “Friendship,” Hormann Box 6).

Students often commented on the strong sense of purpose of the veterans; some noted the adjustments veterans would have to make to civilian life:

The older group of college students, the veterans and the war workers, are too intent in the pursuit of their education. They look upon life much more seriously and maturely. Even the participants of wartime orgies find that their promiscuity and loose morals have left them with regrets and a keen sense of guilt; and with time to reason and rationalize in the peaceful surroundings of campus life, many see the wrongness of their ways (T.L., “Courtship and Dating in Hawaii, 1947,” Hormann Box 3).

Normally at their present age, the veterans would have been graduated from the University of Hawaii and well on their way in the process of courtship if not already tangled within the institution of marriage. . . .  It is highly improbable that a veteran can come out of the service as naïve as he was when inducted …  (K.W., “Courtship and Dating, 1947,” Hormann Box 3).

One veteran summed it up this way: “My life in the army had been too free and easy to be changed so suddenly” (J.M., “My Family Problem,” Hormann Box 5).

Another veteran took the assignment as an opportunity to find out what female students thought about veterans. For one thing, he wrote, they expected them to be more “rugged”:

A girl once remarked, “Sure, I’d rather talk to a vet . . . he’s much more interesting and had more experiences than the other guys . . . that’s why. . . . Is he really a vet? He’s in my Anthro class. But he’s so quiet and never talks to the girls . . . I didn’t know!” . . . In extreme cases, some girls believe and expect the veteran to be an out-and-out libertine (H.H.H., “Courtship and Dating, 1947,” Hormann Box 3).

This veteran summed up his experience while overseas and how veterans, once civilians again, would need to change their attitude toward women:

The Italian girls that would sleep with [a serviceman] for K rations or the French girls for a pack of cigarettes or the Chinese girls for six thousand dollars (Chinese money) or the Indian girls for one rupee are not found here. Nevertheless, the veteran has a tendency to think of women in terms of what he can get out of her as he had done overseas … (Ibid.).

Several veterans wrote about their time in Japan as members of the occupying forces. They were shocked by the disintegration of Japanese culture, one known for its ethos of consensus and sacrifice. They witnessed a thriving black market and strikes, mass unemployment, prostitution, and high rates of venereal disease. They described scenes of beggars and people rummaging through garbage cans for food. However, one author remarked, the shoeshine boys and girls did well, although their stories were all the same: homes bombed, big brothers and sisters killed, no one to support the family (S.S., no title, likely 1947, Hormann Box 5).

Even as they witnessed the devastation in Tokyo, in particular, these men took full advantage of the privileges they had as Americans:

Going on a date with an American soldier meant these things: She would ride in an uncrowded car on the train, because the soldiers had reserved cars on all trains . . . It also meant that she would be given good food, because the American was noted for his generosity . . . he would be allowed to take her to enlisted men’s parties . . . Best of all, her soldier friend was permitted to take her to the movies … (R.B.K., “Boy Meets Girl – In Occupied Japan,” Hormann Box 8).

The sociologist in me comes out every time I visit any of these places [in this case, a cabaret], and the first thing I do is to get into a conversation with one of the girls and ask her about her story. Most of the girls working at the cabarets appear to have gone through high school, and claim that they are there trying to pick up English. They are also out for all the money, candy, and cigarettes they can get. The girls actually receive surprisingly little for their work, but by playing favorites they can expect good tips. That is why so many working girls aspire to be dancers (H.K., “Postwar Invasion of Japan,” 1948, Hormann Box 8).

The War had removed these local boys from their plantation homes and urban areas and mixed them in with others they’d never known or knew only at a distance. They not only shifted their views of others but also their understanding of themselves as well.  Stationed at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion trained, local men lived and worked with Haole, a group most of them had had little or no experience with back home. Veterans wrote that before the War locals were seen as “inferior” to Haole, but in the service they met Haole from all classes, all regions. They also encountered Japanese-Americans – “kotonks” – who had been born and reared on the continent.

The mainlanders [kotonks] felt that theirs was a culture that was far more advanced than the Hawaiians [Niseis] and the Pidgin English was the mark of ignorance, while the Hawaiians found in the culture of the mainlanders some things that were repulsive to their carefree nature (H.S.C., “Collective Behavior and Personality Change,” Hormann Box 8).

Writers reported that those born on the continent were generally more ambitious and tended to compete for rank –

This resulted in a sense of reticence on the part of capable and potential leaders among the Hawaiians who waited to be recognized for their leadership by their actions rather than by their words, thereby placing them at a disadvantage to compete … (Ibid.).

“… I suddenly became aware of one thing I was seldom conscious of … my racial background … and in a sense [it] gave me a sense of inferiority.” This writer goes on to examine how inferiority would manifest itself:

There was a tendency on the part of some boys to hide the fact that they were of Japanese ancestry by telling the people [they were] just merely “Hawaiians.” I thought this was a very bad thing. There was no reason to be ashamed of our racial origin (H.K., “The Impact of War on Hawaii’s A.J.A.’s,” Hormann Box 9).

But being Japanese did matter:

The first thing [the man sitting next to me on the bus] asked me was whether I was from Hawaii. I said yes. Then he asked me if I was Chinese. I said no. Korean? No! Filipino. No! Japanese, I said. Well after that he just shut up. I knew when to beat it (T.S., “Effects of the War on Group Relationships,” likely 1947, Hormann Box 6).

These men had rarely had contact with African Americans in Hawai‘i and most seemed unaware of the extent of Jim Crow laws. These veterans often had grown up with an idealistic view of the US; that is, until they were stationed in the South and saw how African Americans were treated. As not-Black, not-White, local Japanese sometimes were brought up short by how they were perceived and treated, how they should behave.

Recounting a bus ride from Hattiesburg to Memphis, one writer and his friend, sitting in the back of the bus, were told by the driver to move to the front.

The driver also added that if we wanted to be treated like whites we must do and act like whites. In other words we must follow the set codes or rules of the South concerning the relationship between the white and the colored (R.S., “Accounts of My Experiences in the South,” Hormann Box 7).

Another writer had been in a segregated hospital. When he questioned why that would be since it was an Army hospital, he was told it was because the hospital was in the South. The mess hall was segregated as well, even for the German prisoners of war who were redirected to sit with the Whites rather than with the “colored men” (D.S., “The Negro-White Relationship in the South,” Hormann Box 7).

Veterans came home with new attitudes about the world, the US, and even Hawai‘i, “Paradise of the Pacific”:

But even this paradise has its evils. Racial prejudice, although not as rife, as rampant nor as violent as those in certain parts of the mainland, is nevertheless an inevitable part of Hawaii’s racial make-up. Although the Okinawan-Naichi relationship is not outstanding, being confined within the limits of the Japanese community itself, and not well known to the other ethnic groups, the existence of such a situation cannot be denied (M.K., “Hanging Beads vs. Cherry Blossoms: Okinawan-Naichi Relationship,” Hormann Box 7).

Veterans, even those of the Good War, struggled to readjust to a different Hawai‘i and an uncertain future. Some were estranged from their families; marriages made before or during the war floundered and many ended. Others had to cope with physicals wounds:

I came to college primarily to study but I came here also to get away from my family I did not too well understand. . . .   I was something of a specialty and wherever I roamed on campus meeting someone I know only by name was not frequent. If I were physically normal I would not have met and got acquainted with half as many students as I had come across. A few girls offered to read poetry, textbooks, and other reading material to make me feel good or whether they were sincere in their efforts but could not find time, I don’t know, as not one of them showed up. . . . Two haole girls, contrary to the mores of these islands, frequently stopped and asked me how I was progressing, how I made out on the last exams, and even asked me if I needed any more readers to help me in my studies (S.K., “The Life of a Blind Veteran,” post-war, Hormann Box 2a).

Training and combat had been the veterans’ sociological field experience.  Their war stories met the course assignment.

Please visit our companion website Local Citing where we feature several community studies form the RASRL Collection in the Mapping the Territory exhibit.

One thought on “War Stories: Veterans as University Students, 1947

  1. Pingback: Race and Gender in the Wartime Workplace | Thinking Locally

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