Preparing for War: How the University of Utah Handled the Effects of World War II

By Lindsay Montague

The year was 1940 and World War II was into its second year. The United States had not declared war yet but on September 16 the US instituted the Service Act of 1940, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for the draft. This age requirement was lowered to 18 in 1942. Many young American men were impacted by the draft, including students in college or planning to go to college. The University of Utah saw the impact of this Act and also prepared to do its part in the war effort.

U Archives President Cowles

University of Utah President LeRoy E. Cowles. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

According to the book, University of Utah and World War II by LeRoy E. Cowles, president of the university from 1941 to 1946, there was a decrease in student enrollment for the 1941 fall semester. (p. 27) This was in contrast to the pattern of an increase in enrollment for the previous ten years. “There would certainly have been an increase in 1941 instead of a decrease, had it not been for the impending war,” Cowles wrote. (p. 27)

This was just the beginning, and the effects of the war grew. A few months into the semester came the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and then the US officially entered World War II. Three days later, The Utah Chronicle published a letter to students from President Cowles. “We are at war!” he wrote. “I know you will do your duty. University students are noted for their patriotism and their idealism. They have always been among the first to respond and among the most valiant when our country has needed them.”

U Archives B Fieldhouse Interior Fd 1 #002

University Field House. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

What follows for the university is exactly that. The Utah Chronicle was constantly reporting on the university’s efforts during the war. On February 26, 1942, the Chronicle reported that “President Cowles has appointed a committee in charge of initiating, supervising, and coordinating the efforts of the institution.” With cooperation from the Committee on Civilian Defense and Military Affairs, Cowles appointed sub-committees to oversee the projects of four phases of the campus defense program. The committee also released a pamphlet known as the “University Defense Communique” for students and faculty members. The projects reported on included: 1. Air Raid Precautions 2. Information Service 3. Cooperative Recreation Program 4. Civilian Morale Service. Not only did the war mean more programs for the university, but it also meant physical changes for the campus. In 1943 the University Fieldhouse was converted to Army Barracks which hosted 1,000 military men. (Cowles, p. 152)

Utahchronicleadimage (2)

“Time’s A-Wastin”: cartoon promoting the purchase of savings bonds. Published in The Utah Chronicle on February 12, 1942.

As previously stated, The Utah Chronicle was a great source to inform students about campus and war events. It was also a source for advertisements, and the publication of letters and accounts by students who were drafted, experienced a war event, or who participated in local civilian defense efforts. In one article titled “University Student Gets Taste of War,” published on February 19, 1942, student Ralph Chalker told his story about returning from Hawaii when war was declared. According to the article, “Fear of a Japanese attack was the first reaction of passengers,” considering that their ship was within 100 miles of the torpedoed Matson freighter. They returned safely and half a day early as the ship had increased its speed. Advertisements geared toward students would notify them about events on campus that boosted war morale or those of which the proceeds went toward the war. Both an article in The Utah Chronicle and an advertisement published on February 19 urged students to support the “War Relief Dance.” People were urged to “Be Patriotic!” as all the proceeds would go to support local war relief societies.

Many of the changes made to the University of Utah are still relevant today. According to an overview of the university during the years of the Great Depression and World War II, the war brought forth developments to student programs, the establishment of a summer quarter, courses in meteorology and photography, expansion of engineering and medical programs, and an increase to the participation of women in works on and off campus. When the war ended on September 2, 1945, faculty and students celebrated and the student population doubled.

In the last chapter of President Cowles’s book, University of Utah and World War II, he writes:

The University is facing forward, not backward. She has passed through tragic depressions, and two great and destructive wars. She has grown and expanded in spite of limited rations. She is just beginning her maturity as a real Alma Mater. For decades and for centuries to come, she will grow in power and prestige, and will radiate intelligence, and make better living a reality. (p. 227)

Lindsay Montague is a student at The University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication.


LeRoy E. Cowles, “To Students of the University of Utah,” Utah Chronicle, December 10, 1941, 4.

Billy DeBeck, “Times a Wastin’,” Utah Chronicle, February 12, 1942, 3.

University Student Gets Taste of War,” Utah Chronicle, February 19, 1942, 3.

“‘U’ Dance to Swell War Fund,” Utah Chronicle, February 19, 1942, 3.

Advertisement, ASUU War Relief Dance, Utah Chronicle, February 19, 1942, 2.

Morale Unit Appoints Sub Groups,” Utah Chronicle, February 26, 1942, 1.

LeRoy E. Cowles. University of Utah and World War II. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Press, 1948.

The Great Depression and World War II” and “Rapid Expansion, 1946-1964,” The University of Utah Sesquicentennial, 1850-2000.