There was a brief lull in the fighting in the Fall of 1944. Senior German Army officers were at a war game, training for what they would do if the Americans attacked through the Hurtgen Forest. They were halfway through the exercise when they were notified that the Americans had entered the Hurtgen in force. They grabbed their game plans and ordered reinforcements into the Hurtgen.
It made little sense. It had been expected that the Americans would just screen the Hurtgen and attack elsewhere. The Hurtgen forest was a nightmare of steep hills and dense forests with only a couple of small roads and a number of old firebreaks. All of the American advantages would be negated—air support, artillery, armor, mechanized units, communications and supply. And the Germans had been preparing field fortifications.
Indeed, the Americans were quickly bogged down in what would prove to be the longest battle in the history of the United States Army. Elements of 10 different divisions would suffer heavy casualties in the dark shattered woods, at first in the rain, later in snow.
On one overgrown trail, possession kept changing from one side to the other. Eventually the medical stations were no longer evacuated and German and American doctors and medics just ran one station together.
A company commander might know the names of every one of his 180 men in a unit that had been together for a long time before entering action, but in the Hurtgen, casualties were so high and so many replacements cycled through that squad leaders often did not know the names of the men that they were leading (this also occurred at Okinawa).
Many of the replacement draft infantry thrown into the inferno at the Hurtgen had, until that time, been soldiers assigned to colleges as students. In spite of the Army having had them trained as engineers or interpreters, they were sent into the line as riflemen—privates—though some had worn as many as five stripes before being sent to college. They were the men of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).
In early 1942, colleges across the United States were in shock. Most of their 20-year-old students and older who had not already enlisted had been drafted or were about to be. To make it worse, the Army was pushing for new selective-service regulations that would drop the draft age to 18. Some colleges were looking at having to shut down for the duration of the war.
At the same time, the Army was short of officers and technical specialists. Whether as a sympathetic gesture to the colleges or simply because they didn’t bother to think it through, the Army decided to send 150,000 young soldiers to college for up to two years of accelerated courses.
Aside from those in medical, dental, electronics, and veterinary programs, most would be in engineering, foreign language, and basic psychology courses. As much as four years of schooling would be crammed into 20-24 months. The soldiers would be stationed as units on many college campuses around the country. They would be in uniform and would have military training in addition to their accelerated courses. They would not be part of any ROTC course that the college might offer.
The Army decided to test its soldiers. To qualify, the soldier had to be at least a high-school graduate and score 10 points higher than what was required for OCS. They got enough to qualify. Getting them to agree to go to college would prove to be a problem.
Some soldiers wanted no part of college; others felt that they had volunteered, or been conscripted, to serve their country overseas, not to be college students. Some were afraid that they might “miss the adventure” and the war would be over before they completed their courses. And there was another problem. Not to put too fine a point on it, but many soldiers did not trust the Army.
There had been an earlier education program run by the Army. Lads under draft age had been enlisted in the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps. They were sent to trade schools to learn specialties such as electronics and welding. But when the draft age dropped to 18, the Army just scooped most of them up and forwarded them to infantry training and combat divisions.
The Army pushed to get men into the ASTP. Men were promised that they would go to OCS after training or to positions appropriate to their courses (e.g., foreign language students as translators). Others had their “arms twisted” one way or another. Many just found themselves with written orders to report to a specific ASTP campus.
Charles R. Dicus was a lad from Walla Walla, Washington. Born in 1922, he went to Spokane to enlist in the Army in early May, 1942. He told the recruiter that he wanted to join a tank unit, go overseas, and fight. The Army, in its wisdom, did not sign him up as an active-duty soldier, but put him in the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps.
Because he was a bright lad and handy with tools, the Army decided that he should be trained in electronics and radio repair. He was sent to school in Chehalis, Washington, and later in Seattle and Sacramento. For a time, he was not receiving any pay, as the Army claimed that he wasn’t in. Civil Service had no record of him and the AERC claimed that he was not in school.
Either because of how far along he was in his training, or because of the mess with his records, Charles was not called to active duty until the spring of 1943, when he was inducted at Fort Lewis, Washington.
He was assigned to the Signal Corps and ordered to Signal Corps Basic Training at Camp Kohler, California. The experience was miserable, in part because the men were fed less than half of what the Army dictated. Trainees got 1/2 a small cereal box for breakfast each morning (serious plausible rumors of black market deals re: their mess hall).
As Charles completed his training, the Army announced that it had 1000 qualified radio techs available at Camp Kohler, but they were only taking 50—the rest would be assigned other duties. Charles was trained as a truck driver. He was told that he would be shipping out to join a combat command overseas just any day.
Suddenly, on September 2, 1943, Charles wrote home on Stanford University stationary. He had been assigned to the ASTP. His high scores had come to the attention of command. He wanted no part of the program. The officer at Kohler who tried to convince him to go told him that if he didn’t, he would be shipped overseas within days. Charles told him that was exactly what he wanted. He had had a belly full of going to school for the Army. The officer confined him to his barracks for the week before he was shipped off to Stanford.
Charles would study radar repair under British scientists assigned to teach the subject, in addition to the rest of his course load. At least the food was superb. (It was at most ASTP campuses except Berkley, who hired out the military students’ meals to an inferior-quality catering firm.)
The soldiers were assigned to buildings reserved for them. The lucky ones had two-person dorm rooms. Others wound up in a bunk bed in a hall set up for as many as 30 people. The student/soldiers wore uniforms and marched to classes. They had roll calls and drills. They had very little contact with the officers in charge of their groups at each campus. A small number of those assigned to ASTP were Asian-American, and an even smaller number were black soldiers. The program was not intended for women.
The ASTP students were forbidden from participation in intercollegiate sports, though they could belong to intramural teams and belong to the college band and so on (some did, though most were too overworked). Unless a soldier got bounced out of the college, there was little actual discipline to keep them in line. The most effective was pulling their “A”-class liberty cards (In effect, permanent and good for a certain region. They also specified that they could miss Saturday-night bed checks).
Some colleges went out of their way to welcome the soldiers. A few barely tolerated them as a revenue source. Instructors were something of a problem, as some younger ones had enlisted or been drafted. Others had gone into military research or were employed aiding war production. As a result, some colleges had to bring professors out of retirement. Some professors had not worked with undergraduates in many years. In some cases, it worked out. In others, from day one, the lessons were way over the heads of even students with some college experience.
Even under the best circumstances, the workload was too much for many of the soldiers. Between their accelerated courses, massive homework assignments, essay requirements, and military training—close order drill, unit calisthenics, and military-science courses—the students had a heavier load than cadets at the service academies.
It was not just the workload. Sleep was a real problem, especially when there were a bunch of soldiers bunked together. Lacking a real chain of command, some played cards into the wee hours or listened to radios. This aided neither study nor sleep. Charles had enough. Note the lines he wrote in one of his letters home:
I have begged two officers to throw me out of this lousy set up, but they say the only way out is to flunk out. I am going to get out and I don’t mean maybe. I only do as much studying as I happen to feel like—which isn’t very much. So far, I have coasted through on what I already knew. In the first four weeks, I made B in History, A in Geog; C in chemistry; C in math.
The way this outfit is run, a fellow could not study or learn anything if he really wanted to. For instance, we fall out in company formation and have roll call at 1845. We then march up to study halls and have roll call in the separate study halls. We have two ten minute breaks, one at 20:00 and one at 21:00 with a roll call after each break. We march back to company area and have roll call at 2210. Lights go out at 22:30, and bed check is at 23:30.
Charles finally got orders releasing him from the program. He would not be going to an armored unit, but back to the Signal Corps where all of his extensive technical training would be ignored and he would drive a truck. But he was lucky. Far luckier than many who remained in the program.
The ASTP was in trouble. It always was, though only the Army brass had been aware of it. The program was a red-headed stepchild with many enemies among the Army brass and precious few friends. Chief of Staff George Marshall was too busy running the war, and had little involvement.
The Army brass had gone along with the program to prevent the colleges from uniting and going to Congress and the administration to protest the draft age being reduced to 18.
There were some public-relations difficulties. Some politicians who didn’t have a significant number of constituent’s sons in the program added virulent attacks on the ASTP as part of their electioneering. They claimed that the program was a “…gambit designed to keep the sons of the rich and powerful out of combat…who would just loaf and play while the sons of honest working men perished on the field of battle.”
Only a tiny handful of the program participants had rich parents or political connections. Most wealthy parents with political connections who intervened got their sons deferred or direct commissions in non-combat branches.
As to loafing, the Army required that their classes continue even during holidays (except Christmas day). The civilian instructors were not “chuffed.” Ignored was the fact that a large percentage of the students had been forced into the program.
It was a cheap political shot. Another politician claimed that troops in the field were “…on the brink of mutiny…” over the students not being immediately sent overseas. In fact, exhaustive opinion sampling of soldiers overseas had almost nothing to say about the program. They were, however, upset about far too many politically engineered draft exemptions, and livid over labor unions going on strike (illegal during the war, but they happened nonetheless).
Heads of colleges in the U.S. had significant sway with the president and senior cabinet officers. When the ASTP program was initiated, the colleges demanded that the government not pull any of the idiocy that took place in WWI—controlling study material such as when they demanded the end of instruction of “enemy” languages.
Throughout the life of the program, there was only one instance of such a conflict. A politico raised hell because one of the Russian-language instructors was giving a full load of Communist propaganda with his instruction. The college bounced him, but the politico went after the replacement (who was actually quite benign). The college stood by the replacement. Another brief tempest in a teapot occurred regarding “Reds” influencing the students in a few papers. It was a small thing, but it was another bit of “bad press” that the program did not need.
During WWII, parents hung service banners in their window. They had a blue star for every son serving and a gold star for a son killed in combat. Most homes showed banners with blue stars, but more gold ones appeared every day.
A large number of ditties about the ASTP lads not deserving a blue star came out. Ironically, some of those ditties were lobbed by Air Cadets who were also in college. Ominously, the Army did little to protect the image of the program.
All of this might not have mattered, except the casualty rate continued to climb, especially in Italy. There, casualty numbers had been far higher than predicted. There was going to be a shortage of replacements.
At the beginning of the war, Congress had been too liberal with exemptions from selective service. The Army wanted these revisited, but Congress wouldn’t have it. To keep divisions in the field, there were only two choices: merge some units or find 200,000 replacements somewhere else. The 150,000 students in the ASTP program were “somewhere else.”
After the dust settled, the former members of the program agreed that the Army had no choice. It had “invested money that it did not have” when it created a poorly thought-out program. Just how poorly would soon become apparent. But poor idea or not, it had to go. It was what the Army did next that was inexcusable.
The Army positioned itself to get rid of a program that it never wanted. It suddenly became very non-committal in its talks with the universities, implying no growth or minor reductions one moment, and maybe increases in another. The “lack of assurance” quickly spread to some of the members of the program. Some decided that it was better to abandon ship before the water reached the main deck. A number of students applied for transfers of any kind—many to the Air Cadet program.
In spite of the political slander, very few of the ASTP lads had rich parents with powerful political connections. One who did was the future famed novelist Gore Vidal. An Exeter graduate, he had been assigned to the ASTP at Virginia Military Institute (ASTP, not part of their cadet program). He was made student battalion commander, but while recuperating from appendicitis, got wind of the rumors. He deliberately flunked out and used his family connections to get into the Air Force, then transferred to the Transportation Corps in the Aleutians. His comment in later years: “As you know, our original group was nicely slaughtered. I have never regretted my own ability to survive.”
One strong supporter of the program was the Secretary of War Henry Stimson. He had been in Congress when the British Kitchener Battalions were massacred. He believed in the program. But when the Chief of Ground Forces in the U.S., General Leslie McNair, got General Marshall to go to Stimson and indicate that the Army was on the edge of manpower “bankruptcy,” Stimson had no option but to agree to the disbanding of the ASTP. (Ironically, not long after the program was disbanded, the Army got the removal of a great many of the exemptions for men under age 26.)
This was going to be ugly, and in an action unworthy of a great army, the order was cut at exactly 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon—Congress adjourned then and would not be back until Monday—that effective immediately, 110,000 soldiers would be sent for processing as replacement drafts. The disbanding did not require Congressional approval, but they might well have wanted to debate it, prevent it, or at least guarantee some honest dealing regarding the students. Many of the students were on trains by Sunday afternoon.
Senator Robert Taft was in the Willard hotel in Washington on Saturday morning and approached a lt. colonel that he knew to be involved in such matters, and demanded to know why the sudden order took place on a Friday night. At least this one officer from Army H.Q. had the honesty to give a straight answer: “Senator, so you wouldn’t have any way of stopping it over the weekend.”
Those very near the end of their terms would be given a brief time to finish. Those in advanced medical, dental, and veterinary programs would be left in place. Those in the earlier steps of those programs would immediately become replacement draftees.
When the Air Force in later years wanted to punish Northrop for not merging with (under Air Force threats) another firm, they not only cancelled the program, they ordered the prototypes destroyed. Similarly, some in the Pentagon were not content with simply disbanding the ASTP. It had to be a complete failure.
Members of Congress, parents, some heads of colleges, and much of the media descended upon the Army. They were all fed pablum (and in some cases, flat-out lies), told that the overseas commands eagerly awaited these men, who, based on their intelligence and training, would be assigned to their “designated spaces.”
None of this was true. When that became clear later on, one bit of fallout was that the universities would never trust the military again—something that would cause problems in the 1960s.
The first thing that the ex-students learned was that there were no openings at OCS. Between the approval of the program and its delayed implementation, the Army no longer had a shortage of officers, but a glut.
The Army tried to cover its tracks. It claimed that none of the men had ever been promised that upon completion of ASTP that they would be sent to OCS—the spokesmen who said that were lying through their teeth. Not only had countless promises been made to the soldiers at many levels, but General Marshall himself had, in a public speech months before, announced that many of the graduates would go to OCS and the remainder would be assigned as highly trained specialists.
An order came down from someone in General McNair’s office to collect and destroy any publications, flyers, posters, or anything else making reference to ASTP regarding OCS. (The military would take the same approach regarding promises of medical care for men enlisting and reenlisting in the 1960s.)
In spite of all of the assurances, there was no effort made by the Army to make proper use of the men. Almost all of them would wind up replacement draft riflemen. “Designated spaces” did not exist. The NCO ranks in the units were all filled in before the ASTP lads arrived.
Most would serve as privates. A fair number had to give up the stripes that they had already earned when they volunteered for (or were shanghaied into) the program. Some had as many as five stripes—gone. In October of 1944, Eisenhower issued an order that all men in the ETO in actual combat (other than disciplinary cases) would serve at least in the rank of PFC. Many of the ASTP lads were already buried as privates when that order was given.
There was, in fact, no urgent rush to get these soldiers into the hopper. The program was killed in February of 1944, and many of these men would not be placed in theater “repple-depples” until September.
The men accepted that they were going to be replacements, but were staggered by how the Army refused to make proper use of them. People with medical studies would be riflemen—not even used as replacements for combat medics who were taking heavy casualties. Men with engineering training would be riflemen—not used as replacements for the combat engineers who always took heavy casualties.
In a move that was either the height of stupidity or simply a matter of pouring salt on destroyed ground, the Army sent large numbers of European-language students to the Pacific Theater, and Asian-language specialists to the European Theater. It seems that the Army was determined not to profit in any way from the experiment.
General White at H.Q. tried to get the Army to make rational use of these men. He was greeted with icy silence; this train would run on time. A prosecutor, looking at the Army’s “assurances” to Congress and others, and their utter non-compliance with those assurances, might think those responsible guilty of “depraved indifference” as to the best interests of the republic.
Later, the Army cancelled the education of thousands of Air Cadets in the colleges and used them as replacement draft riflemen along with former AA gunners.
The ASTP still had a reserve program. Seventeen-year-olds just out of high school took exams. A high score, and they could join either the ASTP or the Navy V-12 program.
Given the Army’s disreputable history with student soldiers, very few chose the ASTP reserve program. The Army wanted 20,000 entrants but only got 5,000. The Navy had carefully planned its officer needs for a rapidly increasing fleet. They never gutted their program and graduates were commissioned as promised.
A relative handful of ASTP lads had earlier been taken from their universities and assigned to various part of the Manhattan Project—bright “helpers” as it were. Those who were later returned to regular duties carried cards forbidding their ever being transferred to where there was the slightest danger of being captured.
In the ETO, many of the ASTP alumni would be shoved into the Hurtgen Forest disaster, most before the Battle of the Bulge.
In the Pacific Theater, some would be used as replacement draftees. Others would have the mixed blessing of serving in new divisions. Some stateside divisions had been formed during the war only to be repeatedly gutted as many of their best men and NCOs were sent overseas as replacements.
Many of the remaining NCOs were not top quality. When they found out that a minimum of at least 500 ASTP lads would be assigned to each of their divisions, many viewed them as a “threat in the wings” to take their stripes, and acted accordingly. Ignorant of their history, the NCOs decided that they were just a bunch of spoiled college boys. One way of dealing with that was to use them exclusively for KP and every dirty detail.
In some units, it sorted itself out. In others, the ASTP alumni were forced to act as a unit within a unit, which is never good. Sometimes the situation only resolved itself after the unit was in combat. In the Pacific, for both the new divisions and the replacement drafts, that meant the Philippines and Okinawa.
Meanwhile, after a number of transfers, Charles Dicus was sent to Hawaii and found a home with the 101st Communications Battalion. He served under no-nonsense officers who valued their men and took good care of them.
Charles went into combat with his unit in the Philippines and later at Okinawa. He was awarded a Purple Heart in each campaign.
Among those who participated in the ASTP program:
Heywood Hale Broun, sports commentator
- Mel Brooks, movie actor
- Frank Church, U.S. Senator
- Bob Dole, U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader
- Herman Kahn, futurist and theorist
- Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, Nobel Prize winner
- Ed Koch, U.S. Congressman, New York City Mayor
- Arch Moore, former Governor of West Virginia
- Jerry Rosholt, author and historian
- Gore Vidal, novelist and politician
- Kurt Vonnegut, author
Relatively few people under 90 even know that the ASTP ever existed, or what became of it. After the war, only the survivors and the families of the casualties cared.
But almost all of those who survived, while they never forgave the high brass, were good soldiers who often wrote proud history. Many, as the units turned over their strength many times, became NCOs. Some were given battlefield commissions. Most have a pride for the divisions in which they served, and a fair number headed up division associations in later years.
Charles went many years without talking much about the war. He worked in construction for some years before working for the National Park Service until retirement. In 2006, he went to a Veterans Day function, perhaps to tell others about his buddies.
A short time back, I was contacted by one of his daughters—a woman with whom I used to work. She has followed my writings for many years. Her sister had assembled and transcribed her father’s letters from the war. Cheryl thought that I might be interested.
I am one of a relative handful of people that is aware of this program’s existence. I determined to research it further and incorporate her father’s experience and observations. He and the other lads deserve no less.
Charles R. Dicus passed away on August 29, 2014.