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The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

War Games: New Marching Orders

Alumni reflect on Harvard School’s military past and the administration’s Vietnam War era decision to remove the Junior ROTC curriculum and affiliation.
Harvard-Westlake Archives
Harvard School cadets pose with rifles during the 1923-1924 school year.

On a sun-drenched morning at the end of the 1960s, as war raged across the Pacific and Beatlemania spread stateside, the Studio City fire department received an unusual call. There had been a brush fire at the school — the result of a war game between high school boys at Harvard School. Each year, juniors and seniors at Harvard School participated in a day of war games with a red team and a blue team that went head to head in a military-style game of capture the flag, blank M1 rifles and all. John Roberts ’69 said fireworks caused the brush fire as the war games took on a new element of danger.

“Some guys went down to Tijuana, bought some firecrackers, hooked them up to a car battery and had a guy up in a tree with binoculars,” Roberts said. “Whenever the other team would come by, they would connect the wires and kaboom. It started a brush fire, so the firemen came down, and our guys don’t have anything in their guns, but [the guns] are going bang, bang, and the firemen are shooting water at [the students]. It was wild.”

Harvard School, founded as a military all-boys school by Grenville C. Emery in 1900, was designated as a Cadet School of the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in 1917, making it the first high school on the West Coast to receive this classification, according to Harvard-Westlake: A History.

The structure of the Junior ROTC program separated students into squads. Three squads made up a platoon, each of which was headed by a platoon leader. Two platoons formed a company, and the battalion, consisting of all the students at the school, was made up of four companies and was led by the battalion commander, who was chosen by the headmaster and the major stationed at the school.

Stepping onto the Harvard campus each morning, students, rather than checking in on the iHW app, stood in formation based on their position in the military structure. Davis Masten ’69, who was second in command of the brigade as First Battalion Commander during his time at the school, said he would rush to get into formation to avoid receiving a demerit.

“I lived close to campus, so I could hear the first bell, and if I ran really hard, I could sneak through the gate and come in through the senior parking lot and race because, depending on the morning, you would get demerits for not showing up on time, and you had to be in formation,” Masten said. “There would be a formation outside, and somebody would yell, and everybody would get to attention.”

Masten said students wore one of two uniforms. In the summer, students wore khakis, and in the winter, they wore green wool and a tie. Students always wore belt buckles that they had to shine, and, depending on their rank, carried swords at formal events. These swords served as a reminder that though the school was an educational institution, it had an additional purpose as a unit of the Junior ROTC. . Rick Kent ’69 said students were taught how to use semi-automatic M1 rifles as part of the program.

“There was a rifle range down past the senior parking lot which was the parking lot closest to Ventura,” Kent said. “I’d go shoot the 22 marksmanship. We put the targets out, and the two sergeants would sit out there and hand us out .22-caliber bullets to put in the rifles. We would get little medals for marksmanship.”

In addition to shooting practices, Roberts said students learned about military tactics and skills in classes once or twice a week, like map reading, camouflage and small unit tactics For students who enjoyed the military aspect of the school, Masten said there was a military honor guard that 10th through 12th grade students could participate in.

“This was a military group that competed in LA competitions,” Masten said. “It was people throwing their M1 rifles, spinning them in the air and going down on one knee and doing pageantry stuff.”

Though Harvard boys often learned about the military in a school environment, students got to see the Marines participate in war games during their senior trip to Camp Pendleton. Roberts said the field trip gave students a taste of what was happening across the Pacific.

“[Camp Pendleton] had a fake Vietnamese village set up, and [soldiers] were flying helicopters overhead and dropping leaflets,” Roberts said. “Tanks would come up. We sat on grandstands as boats came up with Navy frogmen, and they blew up an old rusted out husk of a tank that gets blown up every year.”

Rodger Erickson ’64 said the majority of his peers accepted the role of the Junior ROTC in their day to day life.

“We didn’t mind shining our shoes, [polishing] our belt buckles and stand[ing] rigid in formation every morning before classes,” Erickson said. “There were a lot of things that you [would] think that boys, in particular, just wouldn’t be interested in or rebel against, but for the most part, we all just kind of accepted it as part of what we had to do in order to be a part of the school.”

Erickson said he noticed a large change in students’ attitudes toward the military when he returned to teach at the school in 1968.

“I came back to teach English and [a class called] sacred studies,” Erickson said. “I assistant coached football, wrestling and the military. You could see the kids weren’t polishing their buckles, and their shoes weren’t shined. It was much more lackadaisical and casual, and I don’t think there was anybody who could have held it together with the Vietnam War becoming such a prominent issue in America.”

By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War had become one of the most divisive issues in American politics with anti-war protests breaking out at universities across the country. The school was not immune to the anti-Vietnam sentiments spreading throughout educational institutions, bringing to light flaws under the surface of the program. 1969 was the last year of the Junior ROTC program at Harvard school.

Masten was one of a group of students that prepared a paper that they presented to the Board of Trustees outlining the reasons the school should eliminate the military program. The paper said the ROTC program at the school had failed to fulfill its main objectives.

“None of the four purposes of ROTC are, at present, being fulfilled,” the paper said. “The program does nothing to develop resourcefulness and responsibility; the discipline is no more than a minimum forced group obedience, farcical when compared to its goals and when [contrasted] against other examples of discipline in the school. The respect of country fostered by ROTC is really no more than grudging and often resentful submission to authority. Finally, the curriculum and drill field training are entirely inconsistent with Harvard’s standards of learning and accomplishment. The effect is a program [that] is a burden, both to the school itself and to the students it serves.”

In contrast to Erickson’s remarks about students’ passive attitudes toward the military, this paper, written only five years after Erickson graduated, said the only way forward regarding the military at the school was to abolish it. The students’ proposal was successful.

“Military at Harvard has outgrown its usefulness,” the paper said. “It now hangs as a burden around the collective necks of the student body, faculty and administration. At present, it does little toward accomplishing its idealistic goals. Intensification can only result in the compromise of Harvard’s finer programs. The one possible solution beneficial to all concerned is the abandonment of the military itself. Time magazine reports that most of the finest schools in the country now exist without ROTC. Harvard, if it is to maintain and increase its standards of excellence, must soon follow their example.”

Kent said the war was polarizing and caused him to support the push to get rid of the military at the school.

“Most of my friends and I were against the war, and our families were against the war,” Kent said. “If you imagine what happened with masking and vaccination, how it got politicized, the military was that in spades back then. We were all going to be 18 soon after we graduated, so we could get drafted. It was real.”

Dana Alden ’69 said his disapproval of the war in Vietnam motivated him to protest the military at the school, shirking the dress code and growing out his hair. He was one of the only people in his graduating class who was never promoted in the military, ending his time at the school as a private.

“[The military] was not comfortable at that time because of the war in Vietnam,” Alden said. “The general sense in my mind was that it was not a war that was particularly well-justified. You have to remember that in our junior year, we lost Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, [and] we came into our senior year with riots going on in the country, both anti-war and poverty-based protests. I think some of us felt that the military at Harvard was too close to that or supporting that making me feel it just wasn’t a legitimate thing to have at this time.”

Today, the military has reached an important turning point. According to the Wall Street Journal, two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with reports of poor quality of life in the military, have resulted in falling recruitment numbers and expected failure to meet 2023 recruitment goals in many sectors of the military. The U.S. army expects that it will recruit around 50,000 new soldiers this year, ending short of their goal of 65,000 . The Navy expects to end up short of their goal of 38,000 recruits by about 10,000 as well.

Since 2001, the Junior ROTC program has grown to 1716 units nationwide, according to the U.S. Army Junior ROTC . Around 314,000 students go through the program yearly. Today, 55 years after the last Harvard military class’s first day of school, the Junior ROTC program at the school is a distant memory.

The Sentinel Bulletin, Harvard’s student newspaper, declared that 1969 was “the end of an era” with the eradication of the current form of the Junior ROTC program at the school and departure of formerHead of School Father Chalmers.

Kent, who was the editor of the yearbook in 1969 , which was called the Sentinel at the time, said he and the Yearbook staff decided to protest the military and the war in Vietnam in the pages of the Sentinel. On page 248, there is a picture of the members of the military honor society that is similar to the group pictures for other activities offered by the school. Facing the photo, on page 249, there is a picture of a skull. The skull stares down at the group of students being honored for their military achievements. Kent said the spread was meant to show the staff’s negative attitude towards Vietnam.

“What the war represented to us is needless death,” Kent said. “I’m sure Father Chalmers had a fit when he saw [the spread].”

The decision to get rid of the military at the school was complex. The bulletin sent out by the school to explain their choice said the school attempted to reform the program but was unsuccessful.

“During these last eight years, Harvard school, desiring to continue as a junior ROTC school, has tried in various ways to overcome the weaknesses inherent in this program,” the bulletin said. “We wrote an honors course for this program, but the instructors provided by the Army could not teach it. Then we went to the other extreme and tried to make it practical, but the obsolete rifle and such things rendered this impossible. Finally, we asked the Army authorities for permission to help them revise the Junior ROTC program by letting us to be a pilot school for experimentation, but they have refused or, at least, temporized.”

In the end, the bulletin said the school’s decision should not be interpreted as un-American.

“Those responsible for Harvard school recognize the elimination of junior ROTC at this particular time can be interpreted as meaning that the school is weakening its determination to stand for discipline and patriotism,” the bulletin said. “The school will prove by teaching and the setting of standards that this is not the correct interpretation.”

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