University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Letters Home from the Navy

On July 1, 1943, with friend Zerney Barnes from Lakeland, I reported for active duty at the U.S. Navy V-12 Unit, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida. We had volunteered in the Navy with the understanding that we would be assigned to pre-medical studies in this enlightened officer training program. There was a hitch, a SNAFU we called it, which would appear much later.


July 5, 1943

Dear Folks: For my first letter home from the Navy, I thought you might enjoy our daily schedule, according to “Navy Time:”

Reveille: 0625

Setting Up Drill: 0640

Formation: 0730

Breakfast: 0755

Classes: 0900

Lunch: 1215

Classes: 1335

Drill: 1630

Dinner: 1800

Liberty: 1900-2200 (“liberty” is study time for us)

And in between these deadlines we do a million and one other things: we march in formation to and from each activity except classes, we make our bunks and clean our quarters, sneak down to the Slop Shop (Nausea Nest) for a malt, and engage the coeds in intense conversation. Our routine otherwise is similar to any naval base or vessel at anchor. We have a master-at-arms and deckmates and roommates (all assigned to V-12 from the Atlantic fleet), and Navy phraseology is de rigueur: deck = floor; ship = building; gangway = steps; port = window; topside = upstairs; below = downstairs; bulkhead = wall; to swab = to mop.

The campus atmosphere is awesomely military: marching feet, drums and bugles, sharp commands, loud unison singing and chants, and formations by rank and file everywhere, all the time. Boy, how we love it! There are some 300 of us Navy V-12, 500 Army Air cadets, mainly navigators, and 150 Naval Air cadets. I suspect that unseemly Navy-isms will become increasingly difficult, but on the whole we feel very fortunate. We don’t have nearly as many non-coms and officers to jump for as do some bases, and our master-at-arms, so far, is reasonable and fair.

We have multiple vaccinations in store: typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhus. We ran three miles and went swimming in a pouring rain after our first tetanus-typhoid shot yesterday! I could hardly get out of the sack this morning.

The Medical Aptitude Test

November 5

Today we took the Medical Aptitude Test given under the auspices of the AMA. First, we were allowed 30 minutes to study a long article on tumors, containing many symptoms, signs, and diagnoses. Then we were tested on that material and expected to know it word for word. There were six other test parts: 1. Reading a difficult article on vitamins and the treatment of malnutrition 2. True/false questions on general knowledge in chemistry, math, literature, and current events (by the way, when did the Japanese take Kitka Island?) 3. A set of twelve practical medical issues requiring ability to construct and solve equations. 4. A vocabulary test; a breeze. 5. Logic; for example: Pasteur is to rabies as Reed is to x ? (yellow fever). 6. Some difficult reasoning bits and pieces.

The MAT clearly measures medical aptitude but I hate it that I’ll never know my score. My psych. teacher who monitored us promised that after a decent time she would smile at me if I did OK. It’s surely the most important test I’ve ever taken. Any medical school I apply to will have my scores in detail. I was not in the best physical or mental shape for the test, but I seem never to be for an exam. At any rate, I’m glad it’s over!

Tonight everyone’s at the football game. I stay on board to study math and French and to take care of a sore throat.


January 25, 1944

Well, folks, our Navy V-12 officer training program is apparently now mired in national politics. It seems that congressmen on the Military Affairs Committee have suddenly ”discovered” 200,000 “able-bodied” men well trained for combat but “stuck off in the colleges of America” (that’s us). They have passed a resolution to take us out of those college repositories and send us promptly into battle. Maybe Dad should add his voice to the flow of correspondence to Washington encouraging that this critical program for the long-term needs of the military be maintained. Unless he, too, feels that the short-term needs of the war must come first.

March 15

Honestly, I can say I’ve never worked before in my life until now; 49 hours in quant. lab. and 22 in comparative anatomy in the last 10 days. And I get behind in theory because of the heavy lab. work. Though I’ve loved it so far, my academic schedule is now getting awfully burdensome.

At this point, my results on a chloride determination are wildly off, so I’m scared to hand them in, and I start on my iron sample tomorrow. Besides, I, and everyone, have the runs from our awful food, and on top of it all, I got my first demerits Saturday because I haven’t taken time to get a regulation haircut. Everyone in our unit must have a G.I. cut by Saturday — or else.

A Nightmare Inspection

March 21

Well, folks, Saturday was a nightmare. They inspected our ship, Stohn dorm, first, which they’ve never done before, and no one was ready. I was actually in shorts when the inspection team entered the adjoining wing. Everyone was going crazy. I stepped rapidly into a pair of pants that had been neatly folded on my bunk. They had been splattered with acid in chem. lab. and laundered and folded without my seeing their state. In fact, they were full of tiny holes and almost in shreds at the cuffs. I got them on in time but didn’t look down or notice them till I saw Barnes’s eyes go round as he looked over at me, already standing at attention. Farrior was still swabbing the head when they entered our room. He ran in, threw his towel between dressers and stood at the funniest attention you’ve ever seen, trying to cover up.

Chief Schlicter, hardly able to control himself from laughing asked, “Who shot you, Blackburn?” I tried to explain that my pants were clean but had been ruined by acid. Farrior started giggling just as the team left the room; then we all started, and we were so scared that the giggles got worse. It must have sounded awful to those serious officer-disciplinarians, but there was nothing we could do about it. I was crying from laughter. If Exec Officer Raborn had been in the inspection party there’s no telling what might have happened.

We don’t yet know our penalties.

April 3

In chem. lab. yesterday my separator funnel sprung a leak and three and a half days of work and all my equipment went up in flames. You’re just out of luck when things like that happen because you can’t get back in the lab. to make it up.

You should hear the new academic requirements from the Navy. If we get an F in any given course we get restricted to the ship on weekends, except to go to church. Forty-six percent of the base complement was restricted following release of six-week grade reports last week. I was pleased not to be among them.

The Temptation of Research

April 6

I am becoming more and more interested in research and hope that I’ll have time to take up a research project this summer. There are specific detailed projects for Zoo. students, that, incidentally, give two credits and would be a thrill to do. There’s even a chance to get them published.

After-Hours Troubles

I must close for taps but may just have time to tell you of the mess I got into last week: Hjort, my chem. prof, put out an order that no one should work in chem. lab. after 23:00 hours on weeknights. Well, it seems he thinks he runs the whole school. At any rate, I was in comparative anatomy lab. at midnight last weekend when the night watchman brought in Hjort’s order. I refused to leave because it wasn’t chem. lab., and because it was Saturday.

He turned in my name and Hjort called me in, in a rage, acting very childish. He made a fool of himself before I could tell him that I wasn’t in his old chem. lab. at all. He turned me in to the Exec. anyway. When my Zoo. prof. heard about it, he went over to chemistry and gave Hjort heck for trying to boss his department. He then went to the CO and got my situation fixed with the Navy.

Well, there go my chem. grades? Love

April 19

I am enjoying volumetric analysis more than gravimetric, and am getting better lab. results. For the first time here I’m caught up and even enjoying some leisure activities.

A very interesting case of paranoia exploded with a classmate in our religion class this week. Everyone was terribly shocked and upset by her outburst. I took full notes of it as it was happening and plan to use them (with her name omitted) for my psych. project. Of course, there’s the risk of her centering her persecutions on me! If I can learn her life history I should have a good case. I’m expecting she’ll become grandiose in a matter of days.


At the school’s request our unhappy paranoiac colleague is going home to see a psychiatrist in New York City. In consequence, I’ll write my paper on cardiac neurosis.

My phosphate determinations are in the last stages. They are just like those done in the Mulberry phosphate mine labs except more precise than theirs have to be. I spent Saturday night in comparative anatomy lab. dissecting the respiratory system of the dogfish, salamander, and catfish and thereby lost 9/10ths of my squeamishness. Now all I need is to watch some human operations and I’ll be ready for med school.

I wish I had my MD so that I could be more authoritative in my medical advice for you guys. But please remind Dad that senile degeneration normally begins around his age, 48, and that age 50 to 60 is the “telling” time.

In contrast to his son’s present course toward lapses in recent memory, Dad was totally compos menti till the day he died at almost 90.

First Dive

June 5

The Mu Beta Sigma marine biology trip is just returned from the Keys, from which I brought back a painful sunburn that couldn’t be helped. We were some 30 miles down the coast and two miles at sea, anchored over a beautiful coral reef in a 40-foot sailboat with auxiliary motor, 10 boys and 10 girls of us, plus a magazine photographer. After posing for photos with dive gear we took turns suiting up and exploring the reef or else manning the air pump on deck.

Diving is such a thrill. In the heavy gear I’d start to step from one rock to the next and end up in a deep hole with grass and fishes all around, getting my hands cut up on the coral because it’s so hard to judge distances. I finally worked my way down the coral formation to the sandy bottom where, walking about, I saw a huge Florida lobster, a sea turtle, a small shark, and a couple of barracuda that kinda gave me a fright.

One feels so alone down there. And so dependent on the whooshing lifeline.

June 9  Three Days After D-Day

Dear Folks:

Well, isn’t the news both great and terrible? At least a dozen guys in our unit last term were in on the Normandy invasion.

We got our dog-tags today and it looks like we’ll be shoving off soon. We expect to be sent for four weeks to boot camp and four weeks to pharmacist’s mate training and then to sea duty or shore stations. That’s the word today anyway.

I was too blind to see the chart at our physical today. Love, H. Jr.

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