Adventures to the Arctic and pressure in Paris
The summer of 1939 was one of travel for Bowdoin students and faculty alike. Onboard the exploration vessel Bowdoin with famed alumnus Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1897) were C. Eugene Woodward, Jr. '42 and William Deacon '43. Both had the opportunity to see the arctic explorer in action as they set sail from Boothbay Harbor on June 24, stopped in Labrador, where MacMillan had founded a school for Eskimos, dropped off supplies and then swung up towards Greenland. Across the chilly arctic sea the Bowdoin sailed, her bow cutting the dark blue water as it drifted towards unknown horizons. As the water pealed across the mighty vessel there was peace in the silent air. Nothing but the invisible breeze and the surfacing of whales broke the calm that was so peaceful and inspiring. The Bowdoin students helped the crew of 15, saw plenty of wildlife, and ate large amounts of cod and sea trout. Woodward, feeling adventurous or perhaps just sick of fish ventured to try seal liver, which he pronounced, "not bad" before the Bowdoin returned to port on September 9.
While these Bowdoin men were off in the wintry waters of Greenland, a lot had happened in the world and many Bowdoin community members were on hand to witness it. Professor of Romance Languages Charles H. Livingston was in France that summer, attempting to hire a new member for the French Department, while in London Professor of History, Nathaniel C. Kendrick was finishing up some research. On the other side of the globe a Bowdoin member of the Class of 1942, Joseph Sears Platt, saw first hand the effects of war that fateful summer. Sailing from San Francisco to the Philippines and then onwards to China, Platt landed in a war-torn country. The Japanese armed forces had been systematically destroying the Chinese countryside. Making his way to Shanghai Platt found the city overcrowded with penniless and hungry refugees who were willing to work for almost price. Desperation could be seen clearly on the faces of the men, women, and children who were caught in a war-zone. The Rape of Nanking had already occurred and the Japanese continued to hammer at the Chinese homeland, getting ever closer to a war with the Great Britain and the United States itself. From Shanghai Platt traveled to Ceylon then to Capetown and then back to Boston. On these ships that sailed the suddenly unsafe seas there were precautions taken against attack. Lifeboats were swung over the sides at all times as practice drills and blackouts kept the passengers on edge. Platt's round-the-world trip ended as he returned safely to the campus that fall.
There were two members of the Bowdoin community who were on hand to witness the actual outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. Everett Parker Pope '41, who had all but mastered the French language was looking forward to his year of studying abroad. Pope had been industrious and sought out a study-away program himself-the College having not aided in this endeavor as studying abroad was a rarity. Arriving in Europe by a French liner, Pope and members of this study away group made their way to Paris where, as the he remembered, "the fires had begun to burn." All along the streets of Paris there were recruiting posters and great patriotic themes. At night there were practice blackouts and drills, preparing for invasion. Along Paris' main avenues there were regiments of French soldiers parading with their crisp uniforms and proud flags fluttering in the wind. Many had been alive during the days of the Great War and yet they still marched forth with an air as if theirs was a civilization that could never be dealt the deadly blow.
On September 1, 1939, despite threats of a war with France and Great Britain, German troops crossed the border into Poland and began their Blitzkrieg. A day later Britain and France declared war on Germany. "At that point any possible conception that I would spend my junior year in Paris was gone," Pope remembered. Still, the Bowdoin junior felt no concern for his personal safety. He and the other members of his study away group were being taken care of by the United States Embassy. Relocated out of harms way, the American students waited for a neutral ship to transport them home, French vessels being too dangerous with Hitler's U-boats patrolling the Atlantic crossings. Pope and his comrades were sent to the town of Nantes, where they watched young men, not much older than they were, disembark and march towards the fighting. These were the legions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), crossing the Channel to help defend democracy and freedom. They had cheerful smiles and hidden demons. Fear and uncertainty were etched into their faces as they marched into this, a war they had not wanted. "They had no idea of their future," Pope remembered, "nor I of mine." From Nantes the group traveled to Bordeaux where classes attempted to keep going and keep the students busy. This, however, did not work well. Air raid sirens and black outs thrilled the youngsters who were in the midst of a mobilizing nation. Not long afterwards, their time to leave France arrived as the U.S.S. Manhattan docked at Bordeaux and welcomed its American citizens aboard. Among the members of the crew were Mormon missionaries, Rhodes Scholars from England, the U.S. track and field team, and the dance troupe the Rockettes. The seven-day return journey, Pope remembers as being uneventful.
Another member of the Bowdoin community was also stranded in Europe when war was declared. Katrina Nixon, daughter of the Dean of the College, who had been studying at the University of London had to wait several weeks before she was able to secure passage on the liner Washington. Even then the trip was hazardous. There were black outs every night and the anxious passengers prayed that they would not come across the path of a hunting U-boat. Rooms that were meant for one or two passengers were crowded with up to six and even the pool was used as sleeping quarters by some, including the famed actor and filmmaker Robert Montgomery. Katrina Nixon recalled how smoking was banned on the Washington at night but this rule was frequently broken by the author Thomas Mann and his wife! After an uneventful voyage the Washington was once again home and Katrina Nixon could return to campus where the 138th academic year was already in season.
At his opening Chapel to welcome the new Class of 1943-the unfortunate class who would have their college careers disrupted by the largest war in human history-Kenneth Sills spoke of history and responsibility:
As the College begins today, its annual tasks for the one hundred and thirty-eighth time you do not need to be told that for the world and for this country the days are as critical as in 1815, 1861, and 1914, years that marked the Napoleonic, Civil and World Wars. You will soon find that the war going on in Europe will affect you directly or indirectly every day of this term. the future is dark with threats, this is no time to be complacent or indifferent, least of all is it a time to think of the College in terms of a country club. It is, in a scriptural phrase, a time to be sober and to be vigilant; it is a time to avoid fear and hysteria; it is a time to shut one's ears to rumor and propaganda. And in the words I used to Bowdoin students departing from this quiet campus to take part in the World War in 1918, this is above all a time to guard the citadel of one's own soul and let no defeat occur there. to assert that our only duty is to keep America out of war is shortsighted and selfish. with all these preparations made for the coming year the warning signals are set and we can go about our tasks calmly and happily but never for a moment forgetting our brethren in other parts of the world who are being called upon every day to give up all that they hold dear because they seem to have been caught in a fatal situation from which there is no escape but through war and bitterness and strife. May God save us from such a fate, but save us too from being complacent and selfish and negligent.
These "brethren" that President Sills noted in his address included a certain Arthur Mills Stratton of the Class of 1935. A writer and traveler, Stratton served with the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps and aided French forces near the town of Rouhling in Lorraine beginning his services at the end of 1938. A member of Chi Psi and a former writer for the Quill and the Orient, Stratton was in the midst of writing in France when the blow finally fell on May 10, 1940. Following a period known to history as the Phoney War-in which no actual fighting was going on in Europe, a menacing sight appeared on the borders of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. One hundred and eighteen infantry divisions supported by sixteen armored or motorized divisions and over three thousand planes of the German army began their invasion of Western Europe. Altogether two and one half million soldiers were unleashed under command of the Führer. The governments of Belgium and Holland, having refused to cooperate with the Allies-declaring themselves staunch neutrals-were quickly overrun. German panzer divisions, neatly arranged in battle formation were used to run over obstacles and pave the way for the infantry. Used in concentrated units and supported by the fighting engines of the Luftwaffe, the German juggernaut was not easy to contain. Desperate fighting raged all over Western Europe as the Allies attempted to shore up their lines, protect their flanks and counterstrike. Nothing, however, seemed to halt the advancing tide that had been kept down for so long. In the Netherlands German paratroopers dropped from the skies and caused havoc as infantry advanced against the ill-fated Dutch defenders. When Allied troops responded to the rush of German troops in Belgium and the Dutch homelands they found that little was left. The Luftwaffe, patrolling the skies with no equal destroyed all that it could in the opening days of the offensive. Allied forces were no match and the British Expeditionary Force-perhaps even those whom Everett Pope had seen disembarking in Nantes-was forced into its legendary withdrawal from Dunkirk.
On June 5, 1940 a new Germany offensive against the French line on the Somme came with over one hundred fresh divisions. Here the panzer groups proved themselves again as they ran over Allied defensive positions, rounded up thousands of prisoners and conquered the lands they had gained once before in the First World War. Paris fell on June 14 and by the 25th the French had been defeated. Resistance would continue throughout the war but for now it was all that stood in the way of the Third Reich was the defiant stance of Great Britain and her bold prime minister, Winston Spencer Churchill.
Among the men who were now German prisoners of war was Bowdoin graduate Arthur Stratton, who had recently, had the honor of becoming the first American to receive the Croix de guerre from the French government in the Second World War. Placed in a prison camp for almost a month Stratton came across a German citizen who assured him that the Third Reich would rule the world and that the British Empire would fall soon enough. Hardened by these words and by what he had seen, Stratton spoke out about how the U.S. should step into the conflict, after he was released from prison camp and sent home. Returning to Maine, Stratton told his fellow Americans, "we are up against the black ages." "England guards our Atlantic coast and protects us," the Bowdoin graduated continued, "if England's navy falls, we have no way to protect South America, we would have no way of keeping Hitler from accomplishing his desires. For purely selfish reasons we should be actively in the war."
In Brunswick the spirit of house parties that winter was somewhat dampened by the knowledge that thousands were fighting and dying across the Atlantic and that the United States might soon be forced into the conflict, as she had been in the first global war. This was the same winter that Life magazine sent a photographer to chronicle Bowdoin's parties. Over two hundred photographs were taken, although only a handful were used in the actual magazine. The cover did, however, feature a Bowdoin junior by the name of Ernest Harold Pottle, Jr. with his date. The Orient noted that sales of Life soured in the community and joked that Pottle "has gotten several sweetly scented, wishy-washy fan letters, notes from long forgotten friends and innumerable criticisms of his inexpert horsemanship as shown by his rein-holding." Aside from this mid-academic year excitement on campus events followed their usual pattern. There were activities, parties, traditions to be fulfilled and elections. All this, however, seemed inconsequential to many. With one eye on their work and another on the situation in Europe the men of Bowdoin College finished the school year still feeling uneasy and uncertain about the future.