War and Remembrance

Six Stanford women from the Greatest Generation reflect on a campus changed by conflict.

July/August 2009

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War and Remembrance

Photo: Kathy Trafton

Even though there was war in Europe, the fall of 1941 was calm at Stanford. Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7.

Leslie Langnecker Luttgens had a class the next day with Japanese history professor Yamato Ichihashi, Class of 1907, MA ’08. “It was a small class—maybe 30 people. The next morning it swelled to 100.” Everyone wanted to hear from Ichihashi, who strove to alleviate Japanese-American misunderstanding through his scholarship. “He was a broken man,” recalled Luttgens. On May 26, 1942, he and his wife were forced to leave their campus home and sent to a Japanese internment camp. Today, it is striking to Luttgens that students didn’t discuss his detention.

Luttgens, ’43, was speaking at “When the World Changed: The Impact of WWII on Women at Stanford,” a panel discussion sponsored by the San Francisco Stanford Women’s Club in April. Six women who attended Stanford in the 1940s—Luttgens, Beth MacVicar Ashley, ’47, Marie Wagner Krenz, ’47, MA ’48, Jeanne Rogers Moffatt, ’50, Janet McClanahan Morris, ’44, and Merlon Albrecht Williamson, ’46—were led by moderator Kate Kelly, ’79, a reporter at KPIX-TV, through their memories of that powerful, transformative era.

Everyone was encouraged to do some kind of work related to the war effort.

Some of the women worked as nurse’s aides at Palo Alto Hospital. “We beginners all started out with the seniors,” Williamson said. The audience—mostly now senior citizens themselves—laughed. At the other end of the lifespan, there was the nursery. “When you go in, the baby may be wet,” Krenz recalled being told. “I thought, ‘Not for me!’” She took a post as the head of the bandage-rolling room.

Keeping local businesses humming was also considered a meaningful economic contribution. For example, some Stanford women set pins at the local bowling alley, before the days of automated pin setters.

Still others traveled to California’s coastal and central valleys to harvest tomatoes. “Someone had to gather those crops,” Morris said. They also learned to use big bamboo poles to knock off walnuts and almonds from high branches. The arrangement ended when some of the women’s parents expressed concern about poor living conditions in the fields.

The academic and social scenes changed dramatically.

With most of the male students overseas by 1943 and many of the faculty gone too, fewer classes were offered. Williamson, an international economics major, had to finish her degree mostly doing independent study projects, as almost no one remained in her field. “It affected me a lot,” she said.

After the United States entered the war, social life became largely restricted to campus. Gas coupons were not available for luxuries such as driving to San Francisco for dances. The dating pool consisted largely of soldier-students in the Army Specialized Training Program and servicemen on leave. These men had to escort their dates back to the women’s dorms by 1:30 a.m. on weekends. Latecomers faced a locked door, Morris recalled. “You had to ring the doorbell and face the house mother and face the women’s council.” She remembered one woman in her dorm facing the council on a second or third offense. “Weren’t you ever in love?” she pleaded with the board.

Blackouts and other reminders of challenge and sacrifice were ever-present. “When we were freshmen in Roble, I remember that we had air raid drills and we’d all go down to the basement of Roble and sit there,” said Williamson. Even on calmer evenings, talk sometimes turned to the war. “I can remember midnight discussions about ‘what if’ and ‘how come,’” said Williamson. “I have always been surprised by this—I don’t think any of us knew what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in Europe. I don’t think that was common knowledge.”

Women assumed significant campus leadership roles.

Morris was the first woman to serve as student body president, and Ashley was one of the wartime editors-in-chief of the Stanford Daily. That didn’t prevent the latter from being a little starstruck. “I am still so impressed to be in the presence of the first female student body president,” said Ashley, turning to acknowledge Morris.

Even after female students had handled these leadership posts with aplomb, the idea persisted that education for women was a frivolity. The attitude was, “You are just going to get married and have babies. Why take a job away from a man?” recalled Ashley, who is 82 years old and still writing for the Independent Journal in Marin.

“The lace curtains came down and the men came back.”

The line for registration in the fall of 1946 stretched from “History Corner all the way to Geology Corner. We were there all day long,” remembers Moffatt. “There were a tremendous, tremendous number of men,” added Williamson. “It was a joyous time.”

But the returning men were also changed. They were more worldly, more focused. “These men—they were men, not boys—they were very serious,” recalled Moffatt. “I thought the classes were very hard. They were talking about things I had never heard of.”

And some were married, but that wasn’t always obvious. After finding out that her beau had a wife, Moffatt wrote a song to the tune of “It Had to Be You.” With a smoky voice, she sang the lyrics she penned some 60 years earlier: “you’ve got a wife in L.A.—she’s far away.” The audience responded with thunderous applause. “Now that was worth the price of admission,” Moffatt said, laughing.

The subject of the war would come up unexpectedly. Ashley remembers one man, upon being questioned about not doing more to capture the Axe from Cal, explaining, “I shed my blood in Europe. I wasn’t going to spill it here.”

Krenz taught Spanish to some of the returning men. “I would stand on the platform and look at all these dreamy guys. Ten or 12 would come in for extra coaching. All the girls were so jealous.” Krenz confessed that she went easy on the veterans when grading exams. “I should have taken off half a point for every missing accent,” she shared in a confidential tone. “I filled them in.”

Christine Foster, of Saratoga, Calif., is a Stanford contributing writer.

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