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In the summer of 1945, I was one of more than two-and-a-half million United States soldiers whose main task had ended with the victory in Europe. Once the shooting stopped, I was lucky to become part of an ambitious army project–the creation from scratch of two full-fledged, American-style universities on European soil. Incredibly, they were operating within weeks of V-E Day (May 8, 1945). The army’s reasoning was clear: if GIs couldn’t get to U.S. universities, then the army would bring them to us.

Long before the war ended, U.S. government officials had been thinking about soldiers’ education. In late 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to the post-war education program for American GIs in Europe that had been proposed by the army’s Information and Education Division. “Nothing will be more conducive to the maintenance of high morale in our troops than the knowledge that steps are being taken to give them education and training when the fighting is over,” the president wrote.

In September 1944 the War Department issued Readjustment Regulation 1-4, a move designed to provide academic, vocational, and orientation courses for every U.S. soldier serving in Europe when the war ended. The president gave General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the European Theater of Operations (ETO), responsibility for carrying out the operation.

Each university would enroll at least 4,000 students for two-month terms and offer a choice of eight major fields of study: agriculture, commerce, education, engineering, fine arts, journalism, liberal arts, and science. Each school would make more than 250 courses available. Faculty at each location would number 250 to 300, while necessary support services would require cadres of more than 1,000 troops.

Early in 1945, with victory in Europe in sight, search teams started to survey possible locations in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. The team sent to England settled on Shrivenham Barracks, a military post about 70 miles northwest of London. The British had used the barracks as a training school until the U.S. Army took it over in 1942. On the Continent, surveyors came up with what seemed at first a bizarre recommendation: take over the hotels, villas, casinos, and other buildings in Biarritz, a resort town on France’s southwestern coast, and convert them into a learning center.

In April Eisenhower appointed Brigadier General Claude M. Thiele to head the Shrivenham establishment and Brigadier General Samuel L. McCroskey to take charge in Biarritz. Thiele was a Cornell graduate in civil engineering who had fought in World War I and had risen through the ranks to become the commanding general of anti-aircraft forces in Europe. McCroskey’s wartime command had been the 55th Anti-Aircraft Battalion. The two generals were ordered to have their universities up and running within 60 days after V-E Day. They came close, with Shrivenham American University (SAU) opening its doors on August 1 and Biarritz American University (BAU) on August 20.

Those intervening weeks tested the energy and ingenuity of everyone involved. To help refurbish the old Shrivenham barracks, General Thiele had the good fortune of gaining command of 782 prisoners of war (many POWs did not leave Britain until the late 1940s), as soon as his crew built a stockade for them. Geneva Convention rules said the POWs couldn’t make the beds of students or clean up the quarters, but they did take on many other support roles. At BAU, General McCroskey found that the local people, many of them idled by the wartime lack of tourism, were willing to pitch in and help prepare and operate 40 hotels and nearly 100 villas.

The army initially looked within its ranks for instructors, seeking those with academic experience. Donald Engley is a good example. Before being drafted in 1941, Engley had graduated from Amherst, received a masters in library science from Columbia, and worked as an intern at the New York Public Library. He rose to the rank of captain in command of an anti-artillery battalion, landed on Utah Beach, and fought through Europe. After V-E Day, his unit ended up in Czechoslovakia for duty in prisoner-of-war camps and with displaced persons. On July 8, 1945, Engley received orders to report immediately to the Information and Education Division in Paris, where he found the major in charge of personnel. “Why am I here?” he asked. The major stared at him in disbelief. “Everybody in this headquarters is trying to get assigned to Biarritz,” he said, “and you walk in here and don’t even know about it. You’re to be the librarian.”

At Biarritz, Engley had to find a place for a library. He settled on the Casino Municipale. “With a huge chandeliered gaming room that could become the reading room, with good space in adjoining rooms for books and staff, and with windows that looked out over the beach,” he recalled, “it was very convertible to a library.”

It soon became evident that the army would have to seek additional instructors from American colleges and universities. On May 22, General Thiele and his aides arrived in Washington to confer with a group of academics and army officers. The committee decided that the two schools would need 332 civilian instructors. Committee members took over a room in the Pentagon and began making long-distance calls, not only to line up instructors but also to procure books and special equipment. With so many callers working in one room, people rushing in and out, and telephones constantly ringing, the group began to call itself the B.U.C. (Bureau of Utter Confusion). Nonetheless, they found their instructors, of whom 65 percent were deans, department heads, or full professors.

In addition, both centers found instructors outside the American university ranks. BAU, for example, recruited theatrical directors Guthrie McClintic and Richard Whorf and Academy Award-winning set designer Mordecai Gorelick to teach stagecraft. NBC scriptwriter Albert Crews taught radio dramatic writing. Visiting British scholars lectured at Shrivenham.

Finding books and supplies was another daunting task. According to novelist John dos Passos, who wrote an article about BAU for Time magazine, “A flabbergasted U.S. supply officer in Paris received an order: dispatch to Biarritz 25,000 copy books, 2,500 erasers, one dozen fresh frogs, 25 two-and-a-half-ton trucks, and two salamanders ‘sexually highly developed.’ ” Dos Passos interviewed Engley at the BAU library and wrote that with the roulette wheels stored away, the Casino had become “a hushed library supervised by a whispering ex-artillery man.”

The schools requisitioned their books through Washington, but transportation demands in the Pacific made shipments to Europe erratic. SAU obtained books from London and Oxford institutions while British civilians contributed thousands of volumes. At BAU, Engley became “a book prospector.” In nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz he discovered the remains of a library that had once served an English community in the town. The books had been stored in the mayor’s barn after the occupying Germans threw them out to make room for a dance hall. “As my driv-er and I wiped off the dust and other crud,” Engley recalls, “we found what you would expect: English history and literature–everything from Macaulay and Trevelyan to Jane Austen and Dickens–as well as religion and philosophy and a generous section of books about the Basque region.” Given the mayor’s blessing, “I was back the next day with a two-and-a-half-ton truck and library staff to load those four to five thousand books for our library at BAU.”

soon notices appeared on U.S. army bulletin boards throughout Europe inviting troops to apply for detached service at SAU or BAU. Each of the major command units in the European theater was assigned a quota proportionate to the unit’s strength. No more than 10 percent of students could be commissioned officers. The only requirement for attending the schools was that applicants must have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Soldiers would be relieved of military duties while attending the universities.

Nevertheless, both students and faculty approached each other warily. As Private Chester Anderson told a Yank magazine reporter, “Only three men in my outfit signed up because we were suspicious as hell.” The enlisted men anticipated that “we would get pushed around just as much at a GI university as any other place in the army.” As a result both schools opened short of the 4,000-student capacity–BAU enrolled 3,850 students, SAU had 3,641.

Instructors were also skeptical, having been warned that 80 percent of the GIs would goof off and only 10 percent would do serious work. Yet Dean Russell, who took leave as professor of education at the University of Chicago to become the academic head of BAU, wrote, “GIs applied themselves to their academic work with an enthusiasm that faculty members had seldom observed in civilian institutions.” Few flunked out. Graduation totals were below enrollments (at BAU, 9,465 graduates out of 10,295 attending), but that resulted more from redeployments than poor performance.

Robert “Jack” Garver saw the university notice on his company bulletin board in Paris, where he was serving as a military police officer after recovering from a wound received during the Battle of the Bulge. While in the hospital Garver had revived his pre-war interest in art by painting murals on the walls of the recreation room. He saw BAU as an opportunity to take some drawing and painting classes to determine “if I had any abilities worth nurturing.” Garver arrived in Biarritz on the last day of registration and found the art classes already filled except for one in modeling and sculpture and another in art appreciation. He registered for both, as well as Principles and Techniques of Acting. Garver found the time pressures far more intense than he had anticipated. This was particularly true for his drama course. Even though he was the only one in his class without previous professional acting experience, he won parts in two of the four plays produced during his term. He also learned about creating stage scenery from Gorelick and spent evenings in the cafés talking theater with Whorf and Alan Campbell, writer Dorothy Parker’s husband. “I returned to Paris in October with an entirely different perspective,” he remembers. “I didn’t learn to be an artist at Biarritz, but I knew from my experience there that I wanted to be one.”

My own experience occurred after I was assigned to the Signal Corps message center in Brussels, where boredom and a desire for sun and warmth prompted me to apply for BAU. After being accepted, I took the train south for the second semester, mid-October to mid-December.

I arrived doubtful that the army could create a viable university, but my cynicism was quickly routed. My trainload of GI students was met most efficiently by a row of soldiers in olive-drab trucks who whisked us off to our quarters. After settling into a small hotel, I went out for a walk through the town. I was overwhelmed by the completeness of the army’s planning: the great seaside hotels that had housed Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were now teeming with Yanks. Freshly painted signs on the villas indicated the courses that would be taught there–journalism in the Villa les Courlis, arts at the Villa Rochefoucauld, education in the Villa la Titania. I passed by the GI-operated radio station that broadcast big band music, saw the gambling casino that Engley had helped transform into a library, and noticed the softball diamonds and football rectangles laid out on the town’s outskirts. When I reported to Registration, I was amazed to find a thick catalogue that detailed 335 different study courses. I settled for two courses in writing and one in conversational French.

Especially astounding for us GIs was that the school dispensed with most of the army’s usual petty rules and annoyances, including saluting, dress codes, and close-order drills. All ranks mingled on equal terms in the classrooms. With GIs scattered in hotels all over Biarritz, even reveille and enforced calisthenics went by the board. Above all, the walls of racial discrimination were lowered. Even before Harry Truman issued his anti-segregation edict, black and white soldiers sat together in classrooms, ate together in mess halls, and played ball on the same teams. As one GI put it, “This is the way the army ought to be.” The universities were made coeducational by a few attendees from the Women’s Army Corps and the Army Nurse Corps as well as by a contingent of fledgling actresses to fill out the casts of the plays.

I gave up hopes of lolling in the sun and playing in the surf as soon as classes began. One of my courses was Albert Crews’ in radio dramatic writing. Crews required us to write a half-hour radio drama every week–without the benefit of typewriters. He worked patiently with us until our limping scripts were strong enough to be enacted on the air by BAU Radio.

Still, the extracurricular activities were tempting. On weekends trucks carried us to overnight stays in Lourdes, Bordeaux, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and the Spanish border. Marlene Dietrich sang for us and, incredibly, made music by bowing a bent saw. She also lectured the drama students on acting. Oldarra, the Basque patriotic group, presented an evening of songs and dances, and we thought the plays directed by McClintic and Whorf first-rate performances.

The GIs at Shrivenham had even better fringe benefits. On weekends trains carried soldiers to London, Bournemouth, and Oxford. Bus tours left for Salisbury, Windsor and Eton, Sulgrave Manor, Kenilworth and Coventry, Gloucester and Bath, Stonehenge and Avebury. Tickets were available for plays in Stratford-on-Avon, Swindon, and Oxford. The SAU Concert Orchestra and Choral Group performed in Oxford, Cheltenham, and Swindon as well as regularly on the post. On November 22 the SAU Male Chorus appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

I agreed with Engley and Garver that dos Passos was right when he said the attendees at BAU were “the most contented GIs in Europe.” Our experiences there helped shape our postwar careers. Engley followed Dean Russell back to the University of Chicago, enrolled in the Graduate Library School, and became Yale’s associate university librarian. Garver ended up graduating from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). His art career has included more than a score of one-man shows and numerous major prizes, and he has also taught art, art history, and stage design and production. And while I didn’t become a creator of radio dramas, I have made my living as a writer.

It seemed too bad that the universities couldn’t live on and on for fresh legions of GIs. But after V-J Day (August 15, 1945) the troopships were no longer heading for the Pacific Theater; they were ferrying us home across the Atlantic and the supply of students dwindled rapidly. SAU closed its doors after two terms, BAU after three. In all, a total of about 18,000 American soldiers, plus guests from 10 other countries, had attended the two schools between July 1945 and March 1946.

The grand hotels in Biarritz quickly scrubbed away the marks made by GI boots and prepared once again to welcome pleasure-seeking European swells. Yet the British were so impressed by what had taken place at Shrivenham that they decided to use SAU as the prototype for redoing their military training facilities. The commandant of British Army Schools, Colonel G.S. Fillingham, remarked, “It is amazing that the British must come to the Americans in England to learn how to set up a school.” The British relocated the Military College of Science at Shrivenham to SAU and converted it into a technical staff college. Since 1984 a civilian school, Cranfield University, has supplemented the range of courses available. Shrivenham, at least, has survived as a learning center for the young. In Biarritz, however, the only reminder of the U.S. student occupation is a street sign that reads, “Rue de l’ Université Americaine, 1945-1946.”

Hervie Haufler is retired from his own communications consulting firm and is a freelance writer in Grantham, New Hampshire.