Words and Illustrations by Kia Thomas
Photos courtesy of The City College Archives
In the public eye, City College’s dedication to social justice and philanthropy stood a close second to its academic prestige. Many remain unaware of its history of wartime involvement. Most of what can be discovered surround veteran recognition and obituaries of the College’s decorated soldiers. Less publicized are the Victory Ships named after the college, commissioned for use in World War II and the Vietnamese War. Cohen Library Archives has taken measures to preserve evidence of the ships and the history of City College in the battlefield.
On June 23, 1945 the C.C.N.Y. Victory was officially commissioned at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard. Representing the Alumni Association, I. Arnold Ross, wrote a letter to the Maritime Commission about naming a wartime vessel after City College. He, along with Earl P. Clark, grandniece of Townsend Harris, were present at the ship’s christening luncheon in Baltimore. The City College Alumnus reported, “…since most of [the Alumni] are in the Armed forces or essential government agencies few were able to be present.” Intended for cargo, the C.C.N.Y. Victory was repurposed as a troopship, used to transport soldiers during redeployment into the “Far East.”
There is very little information on the S.S. Townsend Harris, the first of the victory ships to be commissioned. Named after the College’s founder, it was launched at the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, two years before her sister in 1943. Harris was the first Japanese diplomat, responsible for negotiating The Treaty of Amity and Commerce which opened Japanese ports of trade to Americans and granted them immune to the jurisdiction of local law. This is ironic when one considers the tragedy of Hiroshima.
History professor Richard Van Nort spoke on the significance of American victory ships and how they played a part in bringing World War II to an end. He said, “These ships were not beautiful. They could be built anywhere between a month and three months. They were, however, sturdy and dependable, and they were a key element in winning the battle in the Atlantic.”
German submarines were extremely efficient in sinking ships attempting to enter Europe during the war. In response, Americans sent over convoys and/or victory ships. Since these ships were mass produced at accelerated rates, they were discarded and replaced easily. Van Nort said, “We built more ships than they could sink. They had good cargo capacity and they could carry almost anything.”
The building and commissioning of the ship was not a secret. Faculty and students worked together to raise funds for the ship’s library, and it was “embellished with various souvenirs of the College.” At the time, City College was heavily involved in the war effort. The campus was used as a center for wartime training during and prior to World War II. According to a 1942 address, the college had been home to the “largest voluntary collegiate ROTC unit in the country.” Basic training for combat had been established on campus since 1919 and produced “close to 1,000 commissioned officers.” Courses in military engineering, civil aeronautics, science and personnel management were held at the college’s School of Technology, authorized by the United States Office of Education. The college had even decided to “accelerate the spring semester,” shortening it six weeks so that students would be able to join the armed forces. By April 1942, “1,824 members of the staff, student body and alumni” were fighting in the war. Faculty made compromises in their curriculum to “place emphasis on instruction useful in the war emergency.”
President Harry N. Wright developed the Civilian Defense Council at City College, which consisted of faculty members and students. This council produced a myriad of wartime fundraising and education initiatives, serving the entire metropolitan area. The Council provided “instruction in methods of civilian protection… [which] led to the publication of the enthusiastically received ‘Handbook of Civilian Protection,’ issued by Whittlesey House.” These methods were utilized by police and fire departments and civilian defense programs across New York City. They “conducted a twice-weekly radio series over Station WNYC” to update citizens on war problems.
In 1958, The C.C.N.Y. Victory was decommissioned after 14 years of service and stored in the Maritime Commision’s Hudson River Reserve. It was recommissioned during the Vietnam War in 1966. Between these years, the ship was chartered from the government by private shipping companies and used to transport goods to the Mediterranean.
There is very little documentation on the ship’s activity or the college’s war efforts during the Vietnam war compared to World War II. By this time, the College’s attitude towards war had shifted dramatically. On June 18, 1966, John Palmer, Commissioner of Public Events, presented the CCNY Victory flag to Dr. Buell G. Gallagher, the then-president of the college. On October 6, 1966, the Maritime Administration presented a photograph of the C.C.N.Y. Victory to Dr. Gallagher in a special ceremony. The New York Times reported on the backlash to the event, writing “anti-war demonstrators replied by presenting to Dr. Gallagher a photograph of a Vietnamese woman carrying two wounded children entitled ‘Is Tis the CCNY Victory?’”
Jerry Moy, a City College ‘72 alumni, recalled a universal anti-war sentiment on campus during the Vietnamese war. Presenting a photograph from around 1970-1971, Moy said “This photo basically shows a group of students demonstrating against the war, simulating a shooting. That was always a lot of fun!”
Moy is archiving Athletic Department photos from the 60’s and 70’s. As a photographer, he participated in the anti-war efforts by documenting them. He said, “I walked the strange line of being a semi-jock. I was on the fencing team and I worked. I got involved with all these [demonstrations] and took the time to record [them].”
Despite City College’s deep and invested history in the war effort, many students were ignorant to the extent. Sensing the students’ disdain for American presence in Vietnamese waters, the College tried to gloss over their history of war training and involvement. Moy said, “The victory ships you’re talking about…nobody knew about them. The primary focus, at least in my perspective, [was] ‘Nixon’s screwing around with the world, let’s get him out of here.’ There were UN protests on campus about the war itself.”
Moy knew City College students that had been drafted for the Vietnam War, despite the hostile resistance on campus. He said, “Essentially you were assigned a number, so if your number was low, as the requirements came up, they would pick the lower number in the draft.”
Students and young people found creatives ways to circumvent the draft. Many relied on their status as students to avoiding fighting, while others depended on their practical skills. “You were chosen unless, of course, you had a student deferral, which I did, but a few of my friends did have low numbers and a few of them got drafted.” he said.
Moy reminisced, “My friend William was a [typing] whiz! He typed almost a hundred words a minute. So he said, ‘I’m about to be drafted, but I’ll join the National Guard instead. When they found out about his typing skills, they said ‘You are not leaving Manhattan. You are going to be in the Armory because we need you to type.’”
Up until the end of World War II, American soldiers were often the children of affluent families with ties to the government. Many government officials were veterans. These children were brought up to fight, attending Military Prep Schools and joining military forces as soon as possible. Van Nort said, “Unlike today, the upper classes of America were very involved in the war. The relationship between our military and aristocracy was deeply connected.”
“For example, one of the causalities of D-Day was General Roosevelt, the son of president Theodore Roosevelt. The Kennedy Brothers, Lyndon B Johnson, and Richard Nixon were veterans as well,” he said.
It’s possible that City College was able to become “the poor man’s Harvard” through its dedication to providing current events to New York, developing strategies for law enforcement, state government and the military, and preparing young men to fight in the war.
Perhaps the College’s decision to involve itself so deeply in World War II had to do with securing connections for the College. With friends in high places, the College could secure funding with greater ease, establish a name for itself in the country and rise to the affluence of Ivy League colleges while remaining accessible to the middle and low-class citizens of New York.
City College has yet to publicly acknowledge and reconcile this part of its history in relation to its high quantity of anti-war students – past and present. History cannot be changed, but it can inform us, and facing it can heal our collective wounds.