Yale and World War II — reflections from members of the class of ’48
For Bill D’Antonio ’48 B.A., Yale was a familiar presence long before he began his studies here. He’d attended Hillhouse High School in New Haven, where he was a member of the Italian fraternity, and his father was Yale’s postmaster. When he was accepted, he remained living at home where he could save money — and have access to his father’s car on weekends, a boon to his college social life, he says. A year into his education, D’Antonio was drafted into the Navy.
Classmate Joe St. Georges ’48 B.A. had already enlisted in the Air Corps straight from high school. His 18th birthday, high school graduation, and D-Day — when Allied forces made landfall in Normandy and began the battle that would eventually bring an end to WWII — were just days apart. When St. Georges was released from service in 1944 on a medical discharge, he was granted an admissions interview at Yale. “I was 150% in favor of the war. We all were,” St. Georges says. “There were 14-year-olds claiming to be 18 just to get in.”
Recently, St. Georges and D’Antonio reminisced about the war years, and the way it colored every aspect of their Yale experience, at a table in the Omni Hotel in New Haven. St. George’s wheelchair bears a Yale logo, and a pattern of Ys and ‘48s festooned his tie. D’Antonio wore a class of 1948 Yale baseball hat. They gathered with around 50 classmates and spouses to celebrate their 70th reunion.
In the months leading up to D-Day, student enrollment was low and a sense of uncertainty permeated the campus. Army and Navy trainees were housed in the residential colleges, and undergraduates knew they could be called to serve at any moment. The most famous big band musician of the time – Glenn Miller — led the 418th Army Air Forces Band on campus, and broadcast his radio show, “I Sustain the Wings,” a recruitment effort for the Air Corps, from Woolsey Hall.
When the war ended in September 1945, Yale had to suddenly adjust to a massive influx of students, a record 8,000 including 5,000 servicemembers, many of them with wives and kids in tow. Across campus, Quonset huts — metal military structures — were erected to house families and Payne Whitney Gymnasium was turned into a temporary barracks. Lecture halls teemed with up to 700 students – men in ties, button-downs, and jackets, many of them older veterans — listening, enraptured, to professors like F.S.C. Northrup, who taught “Logic and the Science of the Humanities” and, says D’Antonio, “explained Einstein’s theory of relativity in one lecture.” Northrup, D’Antonio recalls, frequently received standing ovations. There was also Raymond “Jungle Jim” Kennedy, a sociology professor specializing in Southeast Asia who D’Antonio says “stirred the waters” and used “salty” language.
“I had never heard of sociology before,” St. Georges adds. “But once I had Jungle Jim, anything he taught I took. I finally majored in sociology and have found it extremely valuable for my career in business.”
Kennedy was murdered in 1960 along with a Time Life photographer when his Jeep was ambushed in Java. D’Antonio, also a sociology major, found his attention pulled to Latin America. He worked in the Spanish Department — where, he says, he had access to a lounge space perfect for hosting parties — and eventually moved to the Mexican border where he studied ethnic divisions and upward mobility.
Forty-first U.S. President George H.W. Bush ’48 B.A. was among their classmates. Known as “Poppy” during his Yale days, Bush was captain of the baseball team during what has been called its most memorable period. Following his military service (H.W. Bush was a pilot, and lieutenant who served in WWII), he married Barbara Pierce and they shared an apartment on Hillhouse Ave. Their son, 43rd President George W. Bush, was born in New Haven on July 6, 1946.
Antonio and St. Georges didn’t know George H.W. Bush during their Yale years, but have met him since at various reunions and Yale events.
“For all of us Yale has made a tremendous difference,” St. Georges says. “I was older when I attended, and I felt I had to be somebody.”
Antonio says what continues to connect him to the school is “the professors, the education, the art school, the architecture.”
Both have children that attended Yale, and they have watched as the university has evolved across the generations — beginning, of course, when the college first admitted women in 1969, the year St. Georges’ son Philip attended. “It was a strange time,” he recalls. “They were sure the FBI was tapping the phone lines in Pierson College.” A year later, Black Panther Alex Rackley was tortured and killed in New Haven, and protestors swarmed the New Haven Green for the May Day rally.
In addition to walking through Woolsey Hall and the Beinecke, the 70th reunion included tours of the new residential colleges and Yale School of Management. “Yale is a very different place,” St. Georges muses. The 1948 yearbook captured, in part, some of the changes to come. It reads: “We, as a class, have been the initiators of a new Yale. The university has expanded to unbelievable proportions in offering its advantages and opportunities to a greater cross-section of men than had previously existed.”
Via the GI Bill, the Yale class of 1948 had managed to accommodate students of various ages and backgrounds, including many international students. “The only conceivable effect,” the yearbook notes, “was for Yale to become a democratically conscious university.”