How Serving in World War II Spurred My Academic Ambition

A veteran who shunned college as a young man reflects on the path that led him to a distinguished career in sociology.

Jacob Myrick

This is the fourth installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life.

I graduated from high school six weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My parents—with whom my older brother and I had emigrated from Berlin five and a half years earlier—wanted me to enroll in Queens College, one of New York City’s tuition-free schools. But high school had been too much of a bore for me. Although I earned good grades, easily making the honor roll every term, I had no taste for more of the same. Being certain that sooner or later I would be subject to the military draft, I found work in a mechanical laboratory as a toolmaker’s apprentice.

Then, in April 1943, the army sent me its greetings—even before I became an American citizen and even though I was, technically, still an enemy alien. The army expedited my naturalization two months after I was inducted.

My first 18 months of military service were uninspiring. Donning the uniform did not fill me with pride, nor did the experience alter my perspective on life. What basic training had taught me was that the best way to get by was to stay out of sight. The army, more than the other branches of the military, was undergoing a massive expansion in a short time. Too many of its newly minted officers were apt to assert their military status by yelling commands and threatening any laggards instead of leading by example. This was particularly true of the infantry, in which I, along with thousands of others, landed when the army abruptly canceled the “specialized training” I was undergoing.

Courtesy of Glenna Lang

It wasn’t until I ended up in an unanticipated assignment that my reorientation—the gradual emergence of a new and powerful view on higher education—got its first boost.

After shipping to Europe as a soldier of the 78th infantry division—thankfully too late for the Normandy landing and the bitter fighting in the weeks after, but in time to face off against Germany’s last desperate offense, the Battle of the Bulge—I was unexpectedly called to division headquarters to be interviewed for possible reassignment to the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). The captain in command of the detachment had combed the division personnel files for German-speakers to fill slots deliberately left unfilled. As a native German speaker and refugee from Nazi persecution, I more than met his requirements. Following my transfer, I served as a “special agent” attached to my old regiment but most of the time at a safe distance from the front line where the actual fighting took place.

For me, the new assignment presented a real challenge, in part because I hadn’t received instruction on intelligence practices and such relevant subjects as the German order of battle. I had left Germany at age 12, and although I read and remembered a good deal about the country under Nazi rule, that knowledge was getting stale and did not extend to conditions during the war years. Fortunately, the relatively quiescent months before the Allied push across the Rhine allowed me to spend time interviewing locals of varying political persuasions—from committed Nazis to an ex-inmate of a concentration camp—in the edge of Germany we were occupying.

Once we crossed the Rhine and advanced into the German heartland, our mission became more focused. Though the German armed forces, except for isolated pockets of resistance, were clearly disintegrating, we were officially alerted to the likelihood of continued warfare. Accordingly, my detachment expanded its mission: all males—soldiers and others of military serviceable age, no matter where encountered or whether in uniform—were to be taken prisoner unless they had persuasive evidence of either having been exempted or discharged from military service. Anyone without such proof was considered a potential guerilla. A sweep of the countryside would yield scores of German “civilians,” among them soldiers who had simply shed their uniform or party activists suspected of organizing a resistance usually with cover stories that I had to break. Not only did I become very adept at this task, but it also gave me some great insights into postwar German mentalities—insights that would later inspire me to revisit my views on higher education.

* * *

A declaration of peace was signed on May 8, 1945. From here on, I worked very closely with Gerry Wilke, another ex-infantry man. The two of us shared a jeep in which we canvassed the territory our regiment occupied, keeping an eye on Nazis and advising the military government on who was politically trustworthy.

Wilke and his family had emigrated from Germany in the early 1920s, and he still spoke German with a genuine Saxon dialect. He was older and more mature than I, the father of two children; he was also a college graduate and a language teacher in an exclusive private academy. We had many serious discussions about Germany’s past and future. He urged me repeatedly to go to college after the military, especially because a new law entitled veterans, for every year of service, to up to $500 tuition plus a living allowance sufficient to cover most living expenses for as long as they remained students in good standing.

I was not quite ready to make such a decision when a new problem demanded attention: Intelligence Headquarters in Washington refused me clearance for CIC. Two appeals by the captain of this decision were overruled. There was no alternative to my being dumped at a replacement depot near Chateau Thierry in France. It was a real blow to me.

Only a military stockade could be more demoralizing than a replacement depot. Just about everyone was in transit, looking either forward to going home or anxiously awaiting a new assignment. We were kept busy with close-order drill and longer marches. Recreational facilities were just about nil. Then, a car accident landed me in an army hospital. My five weeks recovering there, which spanned the surrender of Japan, gave me ample time to contemplate my future. Not only did I maintain a curiosity about how Germany would develop politically—I also realized that speaking German opened job opportunities with military government that I would forgo if I returned to the U.S.

As soon as I was released from the hospital, I worked my way step-by-step from France back to Berlin, the capital of the four occupying powers. After some stumbling blocks and a job I despised, I found a position as a research analyst in the intelligence branch of the military government’s information-control division.

This job turned out to be extremely challenging, but that also made it a real blessing. I wrote drafts on a wide range of political topics, including the identification of potential political leaders not yet recognized, a catalog of the rumors circulating among the population, incidents indicative of how people felt about American troops, and the dominant mood among German youth. We gleaned information from reports compiled by field representatives stationed in roughly a dozen communities throughout the American occupation zone, supplemented with details from German newspapers—and, in my case, with insights based on contacts and conversation I had whenever I passed myself off as a German civilian.

All my work was reviewed and, if necessary, revised. Standards were high. I respected my superiors for their knowledge. Most of them had advanced degrees. I might not always have agreed with them but had to recognize that they knew things I had not even heard of. Work experiences indirectly related to my military service made me aware of the limits of an undirected self-education. I also turned to them for advice on what institutions and programs would best suit my interests.

That is how my war and post-war service induced me, in the fall of 1947, after an interlude of more than five years, to enroll in the University of Chicago as a freshman. I stayed for six years, left with a Ph.D., and ever since enjoyed a long academic career as a sociologist, first specializing in the military and then studying propaganda and the effect of television on politics.

World War II spurred my ambition by teaching me how to navigate the army. Those lessons led me to confront the society I had once known so well, and to study politics and people living in a time of upheaval.