By Kevin Shannahan
It is October 1941. The Imperial Japanese fleet was to attack Pearl Harbor in a few months, drawing the United States into the war that had been waging for years.
The newly constructed Camp Polk housed thousands of soldiers who had participated in the massive Louisiana Maneuvers. This week’s Pieces of Our History takes its, admittedly minor, place in the annals of the era’s history.
While looking through the card catalog of NSU’s Cammie G. Henry Research Center’s University Archives, I came across a card that described correspondence “relating to accusations of rude treatment of soldiers from Camp Polk.” Any thought of what I came to research flew right out of my head as I delved into the world of Northwestern’s rather imbalanced social dynamics of 1941 and of a group of several young soldiers and female students who came up with an obvious, if unapproved, solution.
What followed is a rashomonesque series of events, the truth of which is unknowable 78 years later. The student body of then named Louisiana State Normal College was “approximately 65 per cent girls…” The U.S. Army, with tens of thousands of soldiers training throughout Northern Louisiana, was most assuredly not. Human nature being what it is, both the co-eds, as they were called then, and the soldiers were bound to notice this complimentary discrepancy. Nature does, after all, abhor a vacuum.
Standing in the way of youthful desire was a powerful counterweight, the Dean of Women and the Matrons of the girl’s dormitories. Combined with the social mores of the era and the rather restrictive rules the female students lived under, both the co-eds and the lonely boys in khaki faced a formidable challenge.
What follows is drawn from a series of letters between a group of soldiers who sent a letter to Collier’s Magazine, the magazine’s editor, and Dr. Joe Farrar, then president of Louisiana State Normal College. In their October 4 1941 letter to Collier’s Magazine, the G.I.s, a self described “group of well-mannered, well groomed enlisted men were extended a verbal invitation to attend a dance given by the students of the college.” Upon arrival, they were given a “warm welcome at the door” and observed “scores of girls who were cutting the few male dancers”, but were prohibited from dancing with any of them. The soldiers stated that the girls were “quite willing to dance with us; but were afraid of the penalty for infraction of the rule that ‘no girl attending the Louisiana State Normal College was to accompany or associate with any soldier.’ The penalty Mr. Editor,– is possible expulsion from the school.” The soldiers did a “short poll of the students” and found that “The trouble is not with the students but with a few elderly women holding executive posts at the college. The students also feel that this situation should be corrected.”
The G.I.’s letter was forwarded to Dr, Farrar by Gurney Williams, Collier’s Magazine’s Army Editor who was asking for his side of the story before considering publishing the soldiers’ letter in their weekly feature about life in the Army.
Dr. Farrar’s reply tells a different version of events, that, in addition to a bluntness no college president would use in these days of measured bureaucracy, also sheds an unintentional light on the society of the time. He stated the soldiers attempted to “crash a student dance.” They were invited to come in and sit by the Matron but were told that “civilians or soldiers were not permitted to participate in dances unless they came properly recommended” and that, if they had been invited, the invitation was “extended by someone without authority.”
Dr. Farrar goes on to state that “Our girls stay in dormitories on campus and in approved private homes in town. They are not permitted to have dates with either civilians or soldiers until such young men are approved by the head of the Department of Student Welfare and the Dean of Women. It is possible to gain such approval through letters of recommendation from the hometowns of the young men involved.”
He then noted that the campus had hosted large numbers of soldiers during the recent maneuvers and had hosted dances for the soldiers then. He has “every sympathy for the man in khaki but I have no sympathy for the man in khaki who believes that his uniform gives him the right to be un-American in his behavior or in his demands.” He ended by saying that he had served in the last war and hoped that Collier’s Magazine would not permit itself “to be used as a tool by a half dozen ill-mannered, disgruntled boys in uniform.”
Not all contact, social or otherwise, was prevented as this November 1941 photo of a pilot at the Natchitoches Airport whose camouflaged position was no doubt happily compromised by a group of co-eds who came over to “study aviation-and aviators” as the Current Sauce put it. Young love will find a way!