For Immediate Release: 4/18/2011
PC to Honor WW II Student-Soldiers at Commencement
Providence, R.I.-- Long-ago members of the Providence College student body who ultimately sacrificed education for service in World War II will receive a rightful honor at the College's Ninety-Third Commencement Exercises on Sunday, May 15, 2011.
The College will award honorary bachelor's degrees to members of Unit #1188 of the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), who were enrolled as undergraduate students at the College in 1943, but who were called to service and never returned to complete their education.
An honorary bachelor of science degree will be formally conferred upon former ASTP member George Fisher of Palm Beach, Fla., who is representing his classmates. It will mark the first time the College has awarded an honorary degree at the bachelor's level.
The ASTP was a rigorous military training program instituted in 1943 by the U.S. Army at more than 120 American higher-education institutions. Since the draft age had been lowered to 18 that year--decimating student enrollment--these student-soldiers essentially secured the survival of many institutions, including Providence College. PC petitioned local and federal government officials for a contingent of ASTP students "due to the reduction of the draft age."
"This matter is all important to us," wrote College President Rev. John Dillon, O.P. '24, who had earlier proposed the establishment of an ROTC unit. "If we are not designated with a quota, we cannot survive."
The goal of the program was to train the best and brightest military recruits in the fields of engineering, mathematics, chemistry, history, geography, and English. They were promised a college education and an officer's commission. The U.S. Army planned to assign these highly-educated and skilled soldiers to the anticipated rebuilding of Europe.
At PC, the Dominican Friars adapted the curriculum and provided classroom instruction for the student-soldiers. Many also offered private tutoring that enabled students to keep pace with the demanding academic requirements. This extra help was warmly remembered by ASTP alumni who returned to the College for a memorial program in 1998. Leo Wurtzel (Palm Beach, Fla.) recalled that if a student was having trouble with a calculus problem, a Friar might sit up with him for hours at night offering help.
The nearly 400 soldiers utilized every College facility: they lived in the Aquinas Hall and Guzman Hall dormitories; attended classes in Harkins Hall; drilled on Hendricken Field; and exercised in the Harkins gymnasium.
War escalation halts ASTP
While ASTP students studied and drilled, the invasion of Europe was nearing. Casualties had been unexpectedly high, fathers were being reclassified, and without drawing upon the 150,000 soldiers in ASTP programs nationwide, 10 combat divisions faced demobilization. The compelling need for infantry fighters forced the Army to curtail the flourishing program.
The PC contingent suddenly was called upon to abandon their slide rules and physics textbooks and to join the war effort in March 1944. They were assigned to the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Yankee Division. None of them would return after the war to complete an undergraduate degree at Providence College. They became known as the "Lost Class of '44."
After training in Tennessee and South Carolina, the division landed at Omaha Beach three months after D-Day to join General George Patton's Third Army. Following intense combat in France, they faced the surprise German Ardennes Offensive--the Battle of the Bulge--where 80,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in a six-week period.
Together with the 4th Armor and the 80th Infantry, the Yankee Division's mission was to open a corridor to beleaguered Bastogne. After successfully completing the task, they then drove through the Siegfried Line, crossed the Rhine, and fought their way through Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
During 210 days of active combat, the 328th Regiment crossed the borders of six countries and engaged in four major campaigns. Thirty-seven members of the original Providence College ASTP unit were killed in action. Many had been promoted, and all had earned battlefield decorations, including Purple Hearts, Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, and combat infantry badges.
"Our men acquitted themselves brilliantly, often taking on leadership of units when needed," noted Jack Kolman (Brooklyn, N.Y.) in a 1998 interview. "We were good soldiers."
Heroes never forgotten at PC
A plaque in memory of the fallen ASTP members holds an honored place in the College's War Memorial Grotto. It was dedicated in 1998, with some 75 ASTP survivors returning to the College for a reunion.
The recommendation to honor the ASTP student-soldiers was presented to the College's Honorary Degree Committee as members were considering awards for the 2011 commencement. The suggestion--enthusiastically endorsed by the committee, with particular support from students--was not unlike the reception the ASTP men received nearly 70 years ago from the College and the city that share a common name.
Wurtzel recalled in 1998 how warmly the trainees were received by Providence residents. "We were treated like sons. That's the best way I can describe it," he said.