The Army Specialized
Training Program In World War II
By Louis E. Keefer
(Author of "Scholars in Foxholes)
During World War II the
U.S. Army ran the single biggest college education program in the nation's
history. Now mostly forgotten except by the men who were in it, the Army
Specialized Training Program (ASTP) was, even for most of them, a short-lived
"blip" in their service careers. Relatively few had the opportunity for
more than one or two 3-month terms before the program was virtually terminated
less than a year after it started.
But during its short existence, counting its reserve component (ASTRP), the program sent more than 200,000 soldiers to some 227 colleges to take highly sped-up courses in various branches of engineering, medicine, dentistry, personnel psychology, and 34 different foreign languages. Massive arrivals of young ASTPers almost overnight changed many campuses into Army reservations.
The program-patterned after, but with improvements upon, WWI's "Student Army Training Corps" was recommended soon after Pearl Harbor, during the anxious days when it was feared the war might outlast the available number of college trained men ultimately needed to provide the technical know-how to win it. ASTP eligibility was based on brains and previous education: basically, any high school graduate with an AGCT score of 110 (later 120) qualified. Although some older men could qualify, providing they already had some college credits, most trainees were between 18 and 21 years old.
"Soldiers first, students second," as demanded by Col. Herman Beukema, highly-respected, long-time professor of history and government at West Point, who came down to the Pentagon to run the program, the ASTPers were under strict military discipline at all times; wore regulation uniforms; stood all normal formations; such as reveille; were subject to Saturday morning nspections; marched to classes and meals; had lights out at 10:30 PM; and generally behaved -- and misbehaved -- much as all other soldiers.
The standard work week was
59 hours of "supervised activity," including a mininum of 24 hours of classroom
and lab work, 24 hours of required study, 5 hours of rnilitary instruction,
and 6 hours of physical instruction. Col. Beukema told a Congressional
investigating committee in January 1944 that ASTP studies were more rigorous
than those at West Point or the Naval Academy.
Some ASTPers found such concentrated study exhilarating. Perhaps ASTP's most illustrious trainee, Henry A. Kissinger, from New York City later to become famous as the U.S. Secretary of State, studied engineering at LaFayette College. As his ASTP roommate tells the story, "he didn't just read books, he devoured them. He'd be slouching over a book and suddenly explode with an indignant, German-accented 'B---S---' blasting the author's reasoning. Then he'd tear it apart, explosive words prevailing, and make sense of it."
Despite ASTP's academic intensity, there was still time for many delightful campus social activities (especially those involving girls!). The theme song for many campus commandos -- sung to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" -- soon became the familiar:
have sons in the Army,
Some Mothers have sons on the Sea,
Take down your service flag, Mother,
Your son's in the ASTP
TS, TS, TS for the ASTP!
Despite a slow start, by Christmas 1943 some 140,000 men were on campuses clear across the nation. This proved the program's high point. Less than two months later, having since November denied rumors about the program's impending demise, the War Department on February 18, 1944, unexpectedly announced that 110,000 ASTPers would be returned to line duty by April 1. About 35,000 others in certain advanced courses would continue their classwork.
Most ASTPers accepted their new assignments, whatever they might be, with commendable humor, such as expressed in his diary , written by an ASTPer at CCNY (City College of New York):
to the A.S.T.P.
Why did this ever happen to me?
History, English, Chem. and Math.,
Not even time to take a bath.
They gave us assignments ten pages long,
We did the problems. They were always wrong!
But now throw your slide rule into the sea,
And march on to the P.O.E.
Most of the ousted ASTPers went into infantry, airborne, and armored divisions still in stateside training, but scheduled for shipment overseas before the end of 1944. Some 35 divisions got an average of about 1,500 men each (many of these divisions also received significant numbers of former Air Corps cadets dropped from that program about the same time). Other displaced ASTPers were assigned to other units in both combat and service forces.
If the ASTPers expected any special treatment in their new units, it didn't materialize. Despite great credentials, extremely few gained the chance to attend OCS, and practically none got noncom ratings until they reached combat zones, where heavy casualties created vacancies for them to fill.
If anything, the green ASTPers
were given an extremely hard time by the oldline regulars who considered
them a bunch of smart-ass college kids wanting to steal their stripes and
obviously needing to be taught what. the "real" Army was all about. The
ASTPers made it worse for themselves by sticking together like glue. As
one surprised company commander put it,
"what kind of soldiers deal out bridge hands during their ten-minute training breaks?"
Once in combat, however, such prejudice generally disappeared. Most ASTPers, Jewish or otherwise, turned out to be first-rate soldiers. That's the consensus of military historians like Charles B. MacDonald and Harold P. Leinbaugh (best known for their recent Time For Trumpets and Men of Company K, respectively), and many others who have commented favorably on the ASTPers' overall combat record.
After the war, four out of five surviving ASTPers retumed to college, and many subsequently became famous. In addition to diplomat Henry Kissinger, some of the better known include New York City Mayor Edward Koch, ex-Governor Arch Moore of West Virginia, the late Senator Frank Church, the late think-tanker Herman Kahn, TV newscaster Roger Mudd, sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun, author Gore Vidal, movie actor Mel Brooks, and four-star general James Harlinger, retired NORAD Commander-in-Chief.
As for the program itself, during its short life, ASTP was seen as somewhat controversial. Indeed, its lack of strong political support has been mentioned as among the reasons why the Army got away with curtailing the program so abruptly, without any public debate, and without a firestorm reaction from concerned parents.
Among other things, it was criticized by a few Congressman. (as well as by the Chicago Tribune) as being the means by which sons of wealthy families could safely be kept out of harm's way (an inane charge easily and quickly refuted by an angry Col. Beukema). And there was at least one Congressiona1 "probe" into what was soon proved the ridiculous indictment that some ASTPers were taught Communism as part of their Russian language courses.
History now treats the program more kindly, in retrospect awarding it excellent reputation, especially among university educators.
ASTP has been praised, for example, for allowing so many young men to experience a college environment for the first time, and thereby encouraging many to seek degrees after the war, and for making it possible for participating colleges to try sped-up schedules and new instructional techniques.
The program has also been called a "social experiment" that helped "democratize" American society by selecting its trainees based on their inherent ability rather than on their family's socio-economic status.
Now, more than four decades later, hardly any of today's soldiers have even heard of the Army Specialized Training Program. But to its many not-so-young-anymore "alumni" it's still well remembered as that special time when they were part students, part soldiers, and all the world was still ahead of them. Sometimes in the halls outside Division reunion meeting rooms, you'll overhear nostalgic discussions about the good old days when they did this or that on such-and-such a campus. Hubba, hubba, guys!
Louis E. Keefer is author of Scholars in Foxholes: A Study of the Army Specialized Training Program.
Contact McFarland & Co., Inc.,
Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640 for information.
Return to ASTU 3890