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Remembering the Days — The campus during wartime

Remembering the Days - episode 65

Since its founding in 1801, the University of South Carolina, its students and alumni have been profoundly affected by wars, most notably the Civil War, World War I, WWII and the Vietnam War. As Memorial Day draws near, it is a fitting time to remember.


It’s been nearly 220 years since the University of South Carolina welcomed its first students to campus, and in those two centuries the university has persevered through and been shaped by several cataclysmic wars.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at the Carolina campus during times of war, specifically the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. Each conflict exacted a toll on the institution, its students and alumni. As Memorial Day draws near, it’s a fitting time to remember.

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 divided this country north and south and killed more than 600,000 soldiers. It took years, some say decades, for the American South to recover. Twenty-one graduates of South Carolina College, the precursor of today’s University of South Carolina, signed South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession in 1860, the first of several such resolutions adopted by Southern states who formed the Confederacy and fought against the Union.

More than 100 of the 143 students of South Carolina College’s all-male student body headed to Charleston in early April 1861 when the first shots of the war were fired at nearby Fort Sumter.

Though the corps of cadets returned to Columbia just three weeks later, the writing was on the wall. The entire student body would volunteer for service in the Confederate Army, and South Carolina College was effectively closed for the majority of the war.

In the summer of 1862, the Confederate Army began using six of the college’s buildings — Rutledge, DeSaussure, Harper, Elliott, Legare and Pinckney — as a makeshift hospital for about 500 patients, most of them wounded soldiers. Not long after February 1865 when General Sherman’s army swept through Columbia, Union troops took possession of the Carolina campus. In 1866, the campus reopened, albeit with very few students.

As you might imagine, the campus buildings had been harshly treated during the Civil War, which necessitated major repairs for which there was little money. As the state of South Carolina slowly recovered from the devastation of the war, funding for the university was precarious. More than 40 years elapsed after the war before any new construction took place on the Carolina campus.

A little more than 50 years after the Civil War, the United States declared war on the German Empire and Austria-Hungary in World War I, and the University of South Carolina felt the effects. Nearly 110 students withdrew from the university in the spring of 1917 to enlist. By the following spring, fewer than 275 students remained on campus. Nine members of the faculty were on active duty, four more were engaged in various forms of work related to the war and several more professors took leave of absence in the summer and fall of 1918 to serve. By late summer 1918, the university was in dire straits, what with so many students serving in the military.

While women had been admitted to Carolina since the mid-1890s, the university had not exactly welcomed them with open arms ­— that is until World War I ravaged student enrollment. In light of that development, the university administration and the professors had a change of heart. They realized that female enrollment could help keep the university going. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the wings of DeSaussure College became the first women’s dorm on campus in 1918.

Altogether, 28 University of South Carolina alumni died during World War I and the Mexican border dispute of the same era. Their names can be found on a large bronze plaque at the entrance of the South Caroliniana Library on the Horseshoe.

A little more than 20 years after World War I, the world was at war again, and this conflict — World War II — would have a far greater impact on the University of South Carolina.

Just as it had during World War I, enrollment plummeted at Carolina when the United States declared war on Japan and Germany after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though female enrollment had risen quite a bit, it would probably not have been enough to keep the university’s doors open.

What rescued the university during the second world war was the vital need for trained soldiers. USC became the locale for four different U.S. Naval training programs.

Harry Lesesne: “The biggest program was this V-12 program that the Navy ran, which was essentially an extension of the Naval Academy. Students were enrolled in the university — they were college students, and they were taking classes alongside civilians. But they were active duty, essentially midshipmen, at the university. While they, those students were able to participate in student life and student athletics, they were also active duty and were preparing to go to war.”

That’s Harry Lesesne, who earned his Ph.D. in history at USC and wrote a book about the modern history of the university. He says the university quickly changed its way of doing business in response to America’s mobilization of troops. Perhaps the biggest change on campus was the frantic pace of the war-time academic schedule. All campus vacations and normal holidays were suspended with the lone exception of Christmas Day. The primary focus for students was simple: Study hard, earn your degree fast so you can join the war effort.

Harry Lesesne: “It was certainly, pardon the pun, an all hands on deck kind of response the university mobilized, just like all of society did in America and in the war era.

“It was a three semesters a year schedule. There was no summer term, so to speak. It was just, you know, they just rolled from one semester into the next. I think you could finish a degree in two or two and a half years if you stayed a full time student.”

The U.S. Navy’s need for speed was the driving force behind the accelerated academic calendar. Throughout the war, the Navy needed aviators and midshipmen — lots of them — and they needed them fast.

A total of 1,944 men were trained at USC in the various naval programs during World War II, and it’s estimated that nearly 5,500 alumni of the university served in the military in the war years between 1940 and 1946. One hundred forty USC alumni were killed or listed as missing in action during the war.

The so-called Baby Boom that followed immediately after World War II would have profound effects on the university beginning in the early 1960s when the first wave of those babies reached college age. Like many other public universities in that era, USC underwent an enrollment and building boom that transformed the campus entirely. In addition to that astronomical growth came yet another military draft with the dawn of the Vietnam War.

More than 56,000 American soldiers would die in that war, which was fought from 1963 to 1975. The specter of the draft hung over every male student.

Marshall Swanson: "It was definitely hanging over our heads because it was on the news every night."

That’s Marshall Swanson who came to USC in 1966 as a freshman.

“Every night they'd had frontline reports from the war. The correspondents were out on the front lines with the troops, you know, and sometimes they'd have some very graphic coverage of some of the firefights and pictures of them stacking up bodies, you know, after battles and things like that. So it was very much on our radar. And of course, back then we had student deferments because we were fortunate enough to be able to go to college. Those student deferments, looking back on it was really not very fair for the other students who came from families who couldn't afford to go to college because they were subjected to the draft and they were being drafted and sent to the war when those of us who were in college were basically exempt  as long as we maintained our college enrollment status. If anything happened to that, if we left college for any reason at all, then we were subjected to the draft. And so that was sort of hanging over us.”

Marshall got sick just as he began his freshman year at Carolina, then struggled in his studies. He was placed on academic probation after his second semester in the spring of 1967. With his student deferment gone, Marshall knew he would very likely be drafted and sent to Vietnam in a combat role. So he volunteered for service in the Army.

Marshall Swanson: “I had signed up for three years, and if you did that, they would give you your choice of what kind of occupational specialty you wanted it to be in. And I did that deliberately to try to avoid being in the infantry or the armor or the artillery.” 

Marshall was initially assigned to a clerical role in Army intelligence at the Pentagon — a grinding job that he didn’t enjoy. When he requested a transfer, the Army obliged and sent him straight to Vietnam where he continued serving in an intelligence unit. By the time his three years of duty were over, he was back in the States with money in his pocket and a G.I. Bill to pay for college. In Marshall’s second time around at USC — the fall of 1970 — he was ready.

Marshall Swanson: "I came back down here and there was an adviser working for the dean in the dean's office. I can't remember his name, but he said — he met with me when I came back in as a student. And he said, ‘Marshall, you ready to go back to work here and buckle down and get your degree?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Marshall’s second start at USC began just a few months after a tumultuous spring semester on campus when students rioted and temporarily took over the Russell House Student Union building and the Osborne Administration Building. Here’s Harry Lesesne.

Harry Lesesne: “People I think are surprised to hear how much strife there was at the University of South Carolina. It's not one of those names that rolls off the tongue when you're talking about the student protest movement of the '60s and early '70s. But it was significant and real, and there was real danger that of significant violence that was only narrowly averted. And I don't know that anybody really realizes how close the university came to having a disaster.”

If you’re interested in learning more about that time of campus unrest at USC, check out the episode called “Month of May, 1970.” While those student protests over the Vietnam War and other points of contention came to a head in May 1970, things cooled off at USC soon afterwards. The end of the military draft in the early 1970s played a big part in that.

As we’ve noted in previous episodes, the 1960s were a tumultuous time in American society, and the unpopular Vietnam War was often the focus of student protests and public outcry. That era transformed the University of South Carolina from the inside out as the university administration adopted a much more proactive approach to helping students succeed in their academic endeavors.

Speaking of academic endeavors, Marshall Swanson, after returning from service in Vietnam, finished his degree in journalism with flying colors. After a 40-year career in state government and at the university where he worked as a writer, he retired in 2013.

Well that’s all for this episode about the Carolina campus during wartime. Just in time for the traditional wedding season, our last episode of the spring will take a lighthearted look at alumni who got married in the Rutledge Chapel on the Horseshoe. That’s next time on Remembering the Days. Thanks for listening, and forever to thee.