The Michigan Engineer News Center

World War II: The on-campus homefront

They left campus for the battlefield, stayed connected via V-Mail – and some would return to Willow Run Village.| Medium Read

On-Campus Training
Michigan Engineering participated in a University-wide World War II initiative to accelerate military research and education by preparing and instructing Naval officers for Construction Corps duty, training aircraft inspectors and pilots and engaging in research to improve the design and manufacture of military equipment.

U-M’s participation in the Engineering Science and Management War Training Program prepared more than 12,500 men and women for immediate service. 1,256 men were enrolled in the Army Specialized Training Program, 3,513 received training in the Navy V-12 Program and 6,885 civilians were graduated on an accelerated basis in regular degree programs.

And off to war they went.

EnlargeNaval Units lined up in a field
IMAGE:  Naval Units, Ferry Field. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

Willow Run Village: From bombers to bachelor’s degrees

After World War II ended, thousands of veterans who enrolled at the University of Michigan under the GI Bill created a housing crisis in Ann Arbor. Single dorms were turned into doubles, doubles were turned into triples, and a hastily constructed village of trailers sprung up near Hill and Packard. Still, it wasn’t enough. Finding housing for married veterans, who were coming to campus in large numbers for the first time, was especially troublesome.

U-M planners found a solution in Willow Run Village, a wartime housing project located 12 miles east of campus in Ypsilanti Township. Originally built to house workers at the massive Willow Run bomber plant, the complex had space to spare after bomber production ended. U-M agreed to lease the empty apartments, a bus service was set up to shuttle students to and from campus, and 1,200 veterans moved in.

The simple wooden row houses were anything but fancy – streets were dirt, walls were thin, and heat came from a coal stove in the living room. But at $14.50 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, the price was right, and veterans formed a close-knit community. Most of the units housed married veterans and their families, but a few single students lived there as well.

Willow Run Village was a self-contained community with its own supermarket, drugstore, churches, school, bowling alley, and just about everything else a young 1940s family might need. Modest though it was, it provided thousands of vets and their families with their first taste of civilian life after the war.

Originally owned by the United States government, Willow Run Village was sold to Ypsilanti Township in 1954. The homes were demolished, though a few of the original Willow Village streets remain, including MacArthur Boulevard and Stamford Road.

EnlargeBlack and white photo of people walking into building
IMAGE:  Willow Run Village. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

V-Mail: Letters from the Front

During World War II, U-M alumni stationed all over the world used a U.S. military system called V-Mail to stay in touch with family, friends, and the University. Every letter to and from the front was censored, then photographed and recorded on rolls of microfilm.

The film was delivered by plane to a post office or military post near its destination, then blown up to 60% of its original size, printed, and delivered to its final destination. V-Mail enabled the military to reduce 37 bags of letters to a single bag of microfilm, saving valuable space for the transport of military supplies.

Michigan-affiliated men and women stationed abroad sent hundreds of V-Mail letters to Michigan Alumnus, which published them in a special section of the magazine. A few of those (occasionally edited) letters are included here.

Miles away from any town
Four women help to build a Marine camp in New Zealand

New Zealand
July 20, 1944

Dear Editor:

I have been in New Zealand for a year now, but will be changing assignment soon.

The work here is fascinating. I doubt if a Red Cross girl has ever been able to tell you what she does, for we never do the same thing twice, and are called upon to do most anything.

Our mail finally caught up with us, after many days of “going without.” This lack of mail caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

When I first came, I was sent with three other girls to a Marine camp miles away from any town. It was our job to keep those boys entertained. We established a small Red Cross Hut which provided a lounge, canteen, writing desks and stage. Our largest project was a regimental talent show in which over three hundred men took part. The show was given in five different camps and we planned to take it all over the island, but the regiment was shipped out before that was possible.

After the Marines left I was reassigned to a leave area in a resort section. Here we met any men coming to town on the train or bus, got rooms for them, gave information as to where they could get recreation, gave three dances a week, ran a date bureau and organized native concerts for large groups. It was most interesting going into a strange town and working the whole thing out from the ground up.

All of the men that came to this resort area had been in combat and it was interesting to see the change in them after they had been on leave a week or more. When they came down to us they were nervous, thin and restless. After three or four days they loved the place and few wanted to go when their time was up. They were putting on weight, even in a week.

New Zealand is a beautiful little country. The people are pure English, but the country is greatly influenced by our country. It is English with its Bobbies, corporal punishment in schools, tea six times a day, no central heating, public bathrooms, dress, speech and money. It is American in its movies, political attitudes, and imported products. It likes America and American ways, and aims at copying us.

Marjorie S. Kendall. ’42

Enlargegroup of soldiers sitting on grass reading
IMAGE:  Soldiers studying. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

Our days of comfort are over
Notes from a pup tent in occupied France

A.S.N. 36436575
A.P.O. 403
c/o Postmaster
New York, New York


October 1944

Dear Professor Townsend:*

I was very glad to get your letter a few days ago, and find out that you and “the gang” at Michigan are getting on about as usual, in spite of restrictions that war necessitates. Your sails on Barton Pond sound very inviting. I certainly wish I could take advantage of your kind offer.

We’re in France now, and have been for some time. Although our “days of comfort” are over—we live in pup tents— most of us are glad to be here, helping more directly in the prosecution of the war.

Our mail finally caught up with us, after many days of “going without.” This lack of mail caused much weeping and gnashing of teeth. When the mail finally arrived, two of the fellows found out they were the proud fathers of baby boys! So you can see why they were anxious. Lack of mail is especially hard on the married men, some of whom write their wives more than once a day.

My impressions of France are mostly favorable. Considering the terrible strain and misery of the past five years, I think they have held up very well and retained at least some of their admirable sense of proportion and humor.

The great majority of the French people are very friendly to us. The attitude of the children is especially significant to me—they idolize the American soldiers. Of course, the candy has probably a lot to do with that, but children do reflect the attitude of their parents even when the parents, through a sense of dignity, tone down their own actions.

Don’t worry about me; I haven’t been in better health and spirits since January 13, 1944.

Good luck to you all. By the way, the post-war plans do sound exciting.

Best regards,
George Bachman, ’43e
* Used with the permission of Professor R.E. Townsend of the Engineering faculty

Heaven indeed for a soldier
Living large in a captured Nazi command post

A.P.O 230
℅ Postmaster
New York, New York

October 1944

Dear Mother and Father,*

What a war! After traversing France, Belgium and Holland in a more or less continuous journey since D-Day, I spent a month in the “Fatherland.” Suddenly, in the midst of the roughest battle since St. Lo, we were relieved and sent to this lovely country.

At the moment I am seated in my easy chair, at my private desk, in my private office. A nearby radiator is blasting out heat, and hot water is building up in the boiler for a hot bath, which I plan to presently enjoy in my private tub! I am smoking a Webster cigar and sipping a glass of Henry Goulet champagne. This is heaven indeed for a soldier; who was this Sherman who claimed “War is Hell”?

This place was formerly a command post for a high-ranking Heine; he left hurriedly and we are now eating his rations, burning his coal and First Lieutenant A. C. Dewey is sleeping in his bed. In the cellar this Kraut had enough cognac, champagne, Bordeaux, Benedictine and other beverages to supply my platoon for years, and never were enlisted men more surprised than mine yesterday when their daily ration arrived with a quart of five star cognac for each squad!

Today the faces of the hard-boiled sergeants are wreathed in smiles—a bottle of ’29 champagne was issued to each. The boys are in a daze at the electric lights, hot water, shops and even street-cars.

Don’t worry about me; I haven’t been in better health and spirits since January 13, 1944.

Allan (’37)

* This letter used here with the permission of Fred G. Dewey, ’02

Enlargegroup of soldiers sitting around radio listening to Michigan football game
IMAGE:  Listening to a University of Michigan football game. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

It’s Over in Europe
An American soldier stationed in Germany watches the Nazi Master Plan unravel

A.P.O. 449
New York, New York
May 13, 1945

Dear Editor:

We are finally ready to believe the official confirmation that hostilities have ceased in the European Theater of Operations. Yesterday, an order was issued that helmet liners could be worn in lieu of steel helmets. When that happens–it’s over.

Wars seem to end in a queer way. At least that was the impression I got. The men at the front who did the fighting should be the ones to celebrate the war’s end. Yet they didn’t. At first glance, there didn’t seem to be a bit of difference in them.

We read about the celebrations in Paris, New York, etc., but I saw none here. Men went right on as before—eating their K-rations, cleaning their weapons, sleeping, and wondering what came next; just as they always did whenever there was a break in the actual fighting.

We were skeptical when the first rumors started. Once convinced, however, there was a subtle change noticeable in men. To one who knew them, they were more relaxed, readier to laugh, and the strain in their eye was replaced by a dreamier “thinking-of-home” look. They went about their ordinary daily duties, same as always. There were no exhibitions of joy, but nevertheless, men who now knew the odds on their seeing home again were greatly improved, had an exultant feeling in their breast.

I have seen a lot of Germany since I last wrote to you. All of the land I saw, and had a chance to notice, I thought beautiful. Pine-covered hills with clear, swift-running brooks. Open, rolling valleys with seven or eight villages nestled about their contours. And then the green plains running away to low, distant, purple hills. Always a stream not far distant, cutting its winding way through the fields.

The captain winced and muttered, “My God. I hope they’ve already been liberated. I’m still black and blue from the last town.”

I have also seen evidences of the Nazi master plan. The main one being the great number of laborers imported from occupied countries and forced to work for their “masters,” the Germans. We liberated so many of these that one boy remarked, “No one works in Germany but the slave laborers.” Actually this was very nearly the case. There were absolutely no physically fit young men about, even on the farms. Their work was done by the laborers.

No wonder Germany was able to resist so long. No man need be spared to work. All could be soldiers and their work done by slaves. The master plan! The Aryans were born to rule; everyone else would be of no use except as slaves. They certainly had a good start along those lines. However, this plan is now a heap of ashes. How foolish to believe it ever could succeed.

And were those prisoners glad to be liberated! They had to slap us on the back, shake our hands and tear us to pieces generally. One day our company was in reserve. All we did was follow up the other companies in our battalion. As we approached one town we spotted some familiar figures on its outskirts. Prisoners! The captain winced and muttered, “My God. I hope they’ve already been liberated. I’m still black and blue from the last town.”

We’re getting a nice rest now with plenty of time to read, write and just relax. I’m feeling fine and now, of course, my hopes for seeing you soon are raised.

Sincerely yours,
*Pfc. Lawrence E. Girton, e’43-’44

EnlargeSoldiers walking through the Michigan - Ann Arbor campus
IMAGE:  Soldiers stroll through campus. Photo courtesy Bentley Historical Library.

A service that will long be remembered
A U-M professor’s daughter explores New Guinea in the Women’s Auxiliary Corp

New Guinea

January 7, 1945

Dear Mrs. Conger:

So far I have seen only a small portion of New Guinea, but it is a beautiful one. We are camped on the slope of a low ridge and look out over a little valley to other similar ridges beyond. Hills and valleys are rather open, covered with grass, now a freak summer green, which will soon grow waist-high or more now that the rains have begun.

Our camp is very comfortable, considering where we are, with more conveniences than any of us hoped to see in New Guinea. To be sure we sleep on cots, with no mattresses, have only cold water showers, and do all our own scrubbing, washing and ironing, but our time is so arranged that we get along very nicely.

In our office we have evenings and Sundays off, so there is ample time for as much social life as we wish. There are movies three nights a week here on the post. There are beaches where we can swim on Sundays. The best ones are on the little offshore islands, and it is part of the fun to go across by lugger or by lakatoi, a native sail canoe. The ones we use are made from two dugouts lashed together with a sort of plank deck. The large sail above them looks ungainly but the natives handle them skillfully.

Native villages are interesting to visit. We usually go to those along the coast. The houses stand on poles, often out over the water at high tide. They have pole floors, mat walls, and steep thatched roofs.

The men work around the camps and are a common sight trudging along the roads. Stone, dust or hot pavement are all alike to their horny feet. Their single garment is the lap-lap, a piece of cloth knotted around the waist, and anywhere from knee to ankle length. Bright colors are favored. On Sundays and holidays they wear flowers in their hair.

Food is generally good, but it becomes monotonous, particularly because of the lack of fresh meats and fruits. But we can get mangoes here now. We occasionally can get a stalk of bananas from a native, and now and then can procure a pineapple.

The Christmas Eve service was beautiful. It was held in the open near the shore. There were some really fine voices in the choir. The clouds broke about halfway through the service and moonlight flooded the bay. It was a service that will be long remembered.

This letter has grown to be much longer than I had intended. I close wishing you a Happy New Year.

Allis Hussey, 21/, M.S.F.’22, * A.M.’28
(Allis served in the Women’s Army Corps. Her father graduated from U-M Civil Engineering in 1889, and once headed the astronomy department at U-M)

Healing the wounds of battle
Iwo Jima comes back to life as the war winds down

Iwo Jima
Volcanic Island Group

August 12, 1945

Dear Editor:

Just imagine this little island covered with vegetation and trees last January, and then in February the invasion. After the dust of battle had settled there was nothing left but sand, rock, stumps of trees, and a rank, sweetish smell of dead bodies.

Nature has been wonderful in healing up the wounds of battle. The greatest change of all is the growth of vegetation. The grass, flowers, woods and even some trees are coming back to life and every place not covered by sand is showing signs of life. In fact we are now cutting some of the grass in our area. We have a bird on the island which looks like a robin except that its back feathers are darker.

We are having quite a few U.S.O. shows on the Island. The best one so far has been the Charles Ruggles – Mary Brian show. It was at our stage Thursday night, 2 August. After the show we invited the entire cast of seven to a party at our ward room where we wined, dined and danced them from 9:30 to 11:30. Will have some good pictures to show you when I get back. It was a great morale builder for all.

I have been seeing some of the wonders of radar lately and rest assured it is  wonderful and is doing a great job in protecting us and the flyers. Our work is going ahead at full speed because we do not have many months left to finish up and move on.

I am sorry I cannot tell you any war news, but Uncle Sam wants to do that job himself, so will close this brief message and wish you all the best of luck.

Sincerely yours,

Otis C. Isenbarger, ‘2If [awarded a civil engineering degree in 1921 Proceedings of the Board of Regents).

P. S. The latest war news is very good. Everything is quiet on this island. [Editor’s note: Japan surrendered just three days later.]

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To learn more, and for more letters:

This story was co-written by Gabe Cherry and Randy Milgrom. 

Naval Units lined up in a field
Black and white photo of people walking into building
group of soldiers sitting on grass reading
group of soldiers sitting around radio listening to Michigan football game
Soldiers walking through the Michigan - Ann Arbor campus
Portrait of Brad Whitehouse


Brad Whitehouse
Editor for Alumni Communications

Michigan Engineering
Communications & Marketing

(734) 647-7089

3214 SI-North

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