During the Second World War, the United States Navy commissioned over 5,500 ships, created six Marine divisions, and built hundreds of naval shore bases from the Aleutians to Trinidad, from the Mediterranean to Australia. This staggering proliferation of ships, bases, and Marine units required millions of enlisted men and thousands of competent officers to command them. The Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland was unable to supply all the needed officers.
Meanwhile, America’s colleges and universities suffered huge enrollment drops as men who would have otherwise gone to college were either drafted or volunteered for service. Some colleges faced closure. Obviously, America’s halls of ivy needed students and America’s Navy needed college educated leaders, so was born the Navy’s V-12 program.
Through the V-12 program the federal government payed tuition to participating colleges and universities for college courses taught to qualified individuals — high school seniors who passed nationwide exams, naval enlisted personnel recommended by their commanding officers, and Navy and Marine Corps ROTC members. The men chosen for V-12 wore uniforms, underwent drills, took physical training and were paid $50 per month. Depending on past college courses, the men studied for three terms lasting four months each, followed by four months at a Naval Reserve midshipmens school; students desiring the Marine Corps moved on to boot camp and then to the three-month Officer Candidate Course at Quantico, Virginia. At the completion of all the training, participants received commissions as Navy ensigns or Marine Corps second lieutenants.
Beginning on 1 July 1943, 131 public and private colleges enrolled more than 100,000 men in the V-12 program. Among the program’s students were thousands of low-income applicants who could have never afforded a college education without the opportunity given them through the V-12 program. Samuel L. Gravely Jr. destined to be the first African-American commander of a U.S. Navy warship, and the first black to wear Admiral’s stars was one of these men. Gravely said the V-12 program gave him “the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with people I had never competed with before.”
The Navy’s V-12 program proved a great success for the Navy, the colleges, and the V-12 participants. Many former V-12 graduates returned after the war to complete their undergraduate and graduate degree programs. V-12 alumni went on to fame in varied fields, namely: Presidential cabinet members Robert F. Kennedy, Warren Cristopher, and Melvin Laird; Senators Howard Baker, James McClure, and the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan; newsmen Robert C. Pierpoint, Peter Hackes, and Lou Chioffi; football stars Angelo Bertelli and Elroy Hirsch; baseball stars Al Dark and Al Rosen; entertainers Jack Lemmon and Johnny Carson.