87th Infantry Division
By Mitchell Kaidy
first published: The Golden Acorn News
"Take down your service flag mother,
Your son's in the A.S.T.P.
He'll never get hit by a bullet
While taking the square root of three"
Bantered playfully around college and university campuses across the nation during
World War II, that ditty suddenly caught in the throats of hundreds of thousands
of Army Specialized Training Program cadets in early 1944.
In a mimeographed letter dated February 22, signed "By Order of the Secretary
of War," the A.S.T.P. engineering students were informed that "The time has now
come for the majority of you to be assigned to other active duty."
That "other active duty" according to information buried deep in the letter, was
to be the Army ground forces. Although the disbandment of the A.S.T.P., along
with forecasts of a massive European invasion, had been rumored for months, the
reality proved to be something else.
If the Army General Classification Test was a reliable index, those summarily
de-selected were the Army's Best and Brightest soldiers. Having been screened
and appointed from among millions of GI's around the nation; having accepted reduction
to private, they had been assured that, at the end of three intensive years, they
would graduate with engineering degrees and be commissioned as second lieutenants
in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Now they faced the prospect not only of being reassigned as privates, but for
the vast majority, including those who had originally trained with service units,
assigned as combat infantrymen, artillerymen or to some front-line unit.
The February letter was on target on one point: "Your intelligence, training,
and high qualities of leadership are expected to raise the combat efficiency of
those (ground) units." That assessment, according to the book "Scholars in Foxholes",
would prove both prophetic and accurate.
But before entering combat they faced obstacles in training. Hard-bitten cadre
on the military bases received them with both skepticism and hostility. Derisive
catcalls that they were "golden boys" dogged them. They were on the spot, and
they had to prove themselves. It was surprising, but the A.S.T.P. cadets would
ultimately make their presence felt-mostly on the European battlefields.
In retrospect, it's apparent the A.S.T.P. was deceptively packaged and sold to
its participants. At a time when the Army faced the prospect of sorely depleting
its ranks by a massive invasion of Europe and subsequently invading the Japanese
home islands, the service retailed its come-ons to some of its elite GIs, who
had responded by forfeiting their rank and working hard to fulfill the Army's
True it is that in applying for higher education, most A.S.T.P.ers were chiefly
motivated by a desire to save their own hides. But in my experience, the program
was never, as some leading newspapers disparaged it, a "country club." At the
two A.S.T.P. colleges I attended, the University of Mississippi and Clemson College,
it was common to attend classes in the morning, crack the books for two or three
hours in the afternoon, then complete the day with physical training, inspection
and close-order drill with rifles. Furloughs and passes were rarely available,
and when they were available they were mostly to dusty nearby small towns.
As Louis Keefer's book "Scholars in Foxholes" makes clear, academically A.S.T.P.
Was judged to have been more rigorous than both West Point and Annapolis.
Not that the A.S.T.P. program was the only one impacted by the War Department's
sudden personnel epiphany. A month after the A.S.T.P. Was disbanded, hundreds
of thousands of Air Cadets were also shipped wholesale from college campuses to
the ground forces, including the sterling Curtis F. Shoup, who posthumously earned
the nation's highest decoration for valor with the 87th
Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge. Indeed, as
"Scholars in Foxholes" documented, the Belgian and Luxembourg battlefields became
littered with those who had luminously made the transition from campus to battlefield.
But when it was all over, the shining moment of the A.S.T.P. and Air Cadet programs
was largely shunned and overlooked, as demobilized GI's charged into the nation's
colleges and universities under the newly-minted GI Bill of Rights. Some A.S.T.P.
and Air Cadets would receive college credit, while others, because they never
completed their studies or because they switched majors after discharge, received
no academic credit from A.S.T.P.
Until Keefer's book, "Scholars in Foxholes" appeared in 1988 lifting the lid on
the A.S.T.P. Program, virtually the only attention it had received was in military
publications. Yet here was a program that uniquely tested its participants on
both the campus and battlefield. Here was a program-if a Hollywood director were
creative-that could luminously have been transferred to the screen. But to this
day, it remains undervalued and misunderstood.
Claiming to reflect the accomplishments of "The Greatest Generation," Tom Brokaw's
book utterly overlooked the significance of the A.S.T.P. and Air Cadets. To me,
that's like failing to observe that the atomic bomb was invented by nuclear scientists.
I'm convinced that the hundreds of thousands of those A.S.T.P./Air Cadet Best
and Brightest laid the basis for our postwar world. It was this group, more than
any other, which possessed the intelligence, skill, discipline and battlefield-forged
stamina to lay the groundwork and build both intellectual and practical basis
of postwar America.
Instead of understanding its accomplishments, books have been published condemning
the generation for being "Organization Men" who monotonously followed their leader.
Of course, they became "organization men." In their youth these elites had been
forged by the tightest hierarchy --the Army-- and the most excruciatingly demanding
training ground known to man - the battlefield.