We’re just Joe College in khaki. More Boy Scouts than soldiers are we. So take down your service flag Mother, your son’s in the ASTP!

*A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Drexel Magazine

America’s entry into the Second World War led to the rapid expansion of its Armed Forces. The rush of young men into the military emptied the nation’s universities and colleges. In the first year of the war college enrollments dropped from 1,000,000 to 600,000.[1]  College administrators worried that they would have to close their doors for the duration of the war, and senior government officials began to fear that if the war lasted more than four or five years the military would find itself in need of soldiers with technical training that the Army could not adequately provide.

The creation of the Army Specialized Training Program (“ASTP”) was intended to take the most intellectually capable soldiers from the Army and train them at the nation’s colleges in subjects with military applications like engineering, medicine, and foreign languages. The program would serve the dual purposes of creating thousands of highly trained specialists for the Army and providing a boon to struggling institutions of higher education, like the Drexel Institute of Technology.

The Army, however, was never very committed to the idea of providing higher education to soldiers, regardless of their academic abilities, when it was fighting an unrelenting global war. While there may have been a benefit in training specialized training, the real need was for combat troops – and there was already a shortage of those. On the eve of the ASTP’s introduction, the commander of the Army’s Ground Forces, General Lesley McNair bemoaned that “with 300,000 men short . . . we are asked to send men to college!”[2] The ground forces also felt the manpower shortage most acutely because its share of quality recruits was constantly whittled away by the demands of the Army Air Forces and Army Service Forces, who siphoned off many of those who had the highest scores on the Army General Classification Test (AGCT).[3]  McNair’s protests were overruled, in part because the War Department had already approved the establishment of the program, but his concerns proved to be prophetic.

The 3318th A.S.T.U.

On July 13, 1943, the 3318th A.S.T.U. (Army Specialized Training Unit) was established at the Drexel Institute of Technology.[4]  By the end of the month there were approximately 400 cadets on campus, and that number would swell to 727 by October.[5]  They were warmly greeted by school president George P. Rea who hoped that they would  “have a full share in our college life and make their own valuable contribution to it”, but Rea’s sentiments were counterbalanced by those of the unit’s commander, Colonel Ernest C. Goding, who reminded the cadets of their primary purpose: “Your main mission is to study and to study long and hard” and that “[t]he standards of Drexel are very high. . . I urge you to exert your utmost energy so that you will get the most out of the course both for yourself and your government.”[6]

Two Drexel ASTP cadets take part in the tradition of rubbing the toe of The Water Boy for good luck on examinations.

All the cadets assigned to Drexel were in training programs for engineering. Under the ASTP, the engineering curriculum was broken into basic and advanced phases. The basic phase, meant to be equivalent to the first one and a half years of college, consisted of three twelve-week terms of “general engineering” that were composed of classes in English, history, geography, geology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering drawing. The advanced phase was intended to provide coursework normally found in the second half of the college sophomore year and develop the skills of the trainee to a point “commensurate with the Army’s needs.” The duration of the advanced phase was dependent on the specialty selected by (or assigned to) the cadet: mechanical (four terms), civil (three terms), and chemical (four terms).[7]

The necessity of teaching such vast amounts of material in such little time meant that the daily routine for the cadets at Drexel was intense. According to James F. Sterner, a cadet from Wilmington who had completed his freshman year at the University of Delaware before joining the Army, the program at Drexel was excellent, but “100% business.”[8]

Drexel ASTP cadets in their quarters at the Hotel Philadelphian.

There was a grueling 59-hour weekly schedule made up of 24 hours of class and laboratory, 24 hours of study, 6 hours of physical education, and 5 hours of military training and drill.[9]  The cadets were billeted on the second and third floors of the Hotel Philadelphian at 39th and Chestnut Streets (now the Chestnut Hall Apartments) and ate their meals in the hotel’s ballroom turned mess hall.[10] York native Philip E. Rohrbach detailed the daily routine of the Drexel cadets:

We would get up at 0600 hours and go down for breakfast by 0630 hours[.] We would always be dressed in our class A uniforms. At 0730 hours we would form in a column of threes outside the hotel and march down Chestnut Street to Drexel. . . It made no difference what the weather was like, we would march down to the school in the morning for 0800 hour classes. At 1130 hours we would march back for lunch at 1200 hours and march back to school for 1330 hours class. At 1630 hours we would march back to the hotel for dinner at 1730 hours. After dinner we would hit the books until whatever time we got finished our homework assignments.[11]

Each weeknight there were strictly enforced study hours from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. and bed check was 11:00 p.m.[12]

A cartoon from the August 27, 1943 issue of The Triangle.

Given the hectic pace of study, it is hardly surprising that many cadets struggled to keep up. Only weeks after Drexel welcomed its first cadets to campus, dozens had flunked out of the program.[13]  Cadets voiced their frustration in The Triangle, criticizing the ASTP program and the seemingly unattainable standards that Drexel appeared to be setting. One cadet joked, “When someone invents a machine in which you put a man, with a year and a half of high school math, in a chair, turn on a switch, and bring forth a young Einstein, then, and only then, will Drexel be able to uphold the standards it has set.”[14]  The Drexel cadets may have had a point. Programs at other schools, and in other subjects, were not as rigorous. Alexander Hadden, an ASTP cadet studying French at University of Illinois described his program as a joke, with rampant cheating that contributed to an atmosphere “so ridiculous that almost no one took it seriously.”[15] If the Drexel cadets expected sympathy, they certainly did not receive it from other Drexel engineering students. An anonymous student responded to the cadets’ gripes in The Triangle by reminding them of Drexel’s reputation, and pointing out that it was common for all engineering students to struggle:

Drexel’s standards are high! This is an engineering school, not a “country club.” . . . At Drexel an average of one-third of the original entering class of engineers graduates. . . We who have studied to pass in the face of these high standards, who have been in many cases worked hard to pay for what you get for free, who pride ourselves that some day we will be graduates of a school producing good engineers don’t want the standards lowered. . . Drexel has an obligation to its thousands of graduates—past, present, and future—to maintain its standards and reputation.[16]

While there were efforts to meld the ASTP cadets with the student body by hosting dances and concerts, wartime issues of The Triangle abound with examples of sparring between the civilian students and the ASTP-ers. While there were some romances, the simple fact was that the cadets had very little time to socialize, and the brutal cadence of the program led to more and more of them flunking out.[17]

Rumors and Reality

As 1944 began, persistent rumors circulated about the future of the ASTP program.[18] With American forces committed to battlefronts all over the globe, the withholding of intelligent and fit soldiers on college campuses became even less tenable.

The cadets themselves were keenly aware of how little they appeared to be contributing to the war. Cadets joked that ASTP stood for “All Safe ‘Til Peace” and the unofficial “ASTP Anthem” included the following stanzas:

Take down your service flag Mother,
Your son’s in the ASTP
He won’t get hurt by a slide rule
So gold star never need be.

We’re just Joe College in khaki
More Boy Scouts than soldiers are we
So take down your service flag Mother,
Your son’s in the ASTP. [19]

Even the daily march to campus could be a reminder of how war seemed to be passing the cadets by. Cadet James Nichols recalled they were sometimes heckled as they marched down Chestnut Street with “My son is in the South Pacific. How come you get to live in a hotel and go [to] school?” or “My boy was shot in Africa. He’s in the hospital. Why aren’t you fighting?”[20]

American units fighting in Italy were suffering tremendous casualties, the invasion of France looming, and even though Congress approved the drafting of fathers, the Army was short some 200,000 men. Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on February 10, 1944, laying out in stark terms the challenge and its potential remedy:

I am aware of your strong feeling regarding the [ASTP]. However, I wish you to know that in my opinion we are no longer justified in holding 140,000 men in this training when it represents the only source from which we can obtain the required personnel, especially with a certain degree or intelligence and training, except by disbanding already organized combat units. . . our need for these basically trained men is immediate and imperative. [emphasis original] [21]

Stimson had no choice but to drastically reduce the ASTP or risk seriously inhibiting the Army’s ability to effectively fight the war. On February 18, 1944, the Army announced that the ASTP would be reduced from 145,000 to only 35,000 men.[22]

“The dear days at college are over”

Even before the reduction of the ASTP was announced there were attempts to assuage the concerns of the cadets. An article in the Army’s Infantry Journal reminded them, “You can be certain that you would never have been picked out of several million men and sent to school for the better part of a year unless there was a coming need of trained and educated men of your caliber” and that at the end of their training “every soldier in the ASTP will be ready for greater war responsibilities.”[23]  Indeed some ASTP-ers considered themselves as a “substantial cut above the average G.I.”[24]  However they would soon learn those “greater war responsibilities” would require neither their above average intelligence nor specialized training.

The announcement that the ASTP would be shut down at Drexel was met with mixed emotions. In the preceding months Philip Rohrbach had watched as half of his class washed out and he believed “I would have flunked out at the end of term if it had lasted.”[25]  Allan Howerton, was less apathetic, “That we were full of resentment was an understatement. We were mad as hell and powerless to do anything about it.”[26]  The consensus was that the ASTP-ers had gotten a “raw deal.”[27]   One former cadet put the feelings of many to verse:

Say good-bye to the slide rules and textbooks,
Say good-bye to the coeds and class.
And take one last spree
As you finish term III,
For you’re going right out on your – ear!
It will make little difference to study,
You’re just like the rest of the dupes,
For win, lose or draw,
You’ll be eating it raw,
And you’re heading right back for the troops!

The dear days at college are over,
The profs and the T-squares are gone,
So cry in your beers,
You poor engineers,
You’ll be digging a ditch from here on! [28]

“You’re here for the duration. . .”

The Drexel cadets left Philadelphia on March 29, 1944 and began a 60-hour train ride South. On April 1, 1944, the train pulled into Camp Claiborne, and was welcomed by a military band.  The gesture fell flat with the former ASTP-ers, “to a man, the collegiate GI’s did not believe this to be a happy occasion.”[29]  One cadet quipped, “better if they played a funeral march as far as I’m concerned.”[30]

James Sterner was optimistic, at first. Camp Claiborne was an engineer training center and he thought the Drexel cadets would be transferred to engineering units.[31]  When an officer announced “‘You are now members of the 84th Infantry Division’ we couldn’t believe it. We were the bottom of the food chain.” Sterner turned to his Drexel buddy Donald Stauffer, “Surely, the Army is playing an April Fool’s joke on us.”[32]  To make matters worse, the 396 cadets were mainly assigned to the companies in the division’s infantry regiments, very few were assigned to more prestigious and safer duties in its supporting units.[33]

Louis E. Keefer, a former ASTP-er turned infantryman who wrote the definitive history of the program, summarized the fate of the cadets, “The bottom line was that the program had been curtailed so abruptly that classification specialists had little opportunity to match trainee records against receiving unit vacancies to determine logical assignments. . . [E]very smart trainee knew the Army was treating him as just another warm body.” [34]  During the war serving as a rifleman in an American infantry division was exceptionally dangerous.  It was the riflemen, more than any other group, that assumed the greatest responsibility for taking the fight to the enemy. Riflemen suffered the greatest number of casualties although they made up a proportionally small part of the Army.  For example, in an infantry division of approximately 15,000 men, only 11% were riflemen, but according to a survey of units fighting in Italy they accounted for 38% of those killed and wounded.[35]

To Allan Howerton, his new home and comrades were a marked contrast from the ASTP at Drexel:

Meek-faced young men gazed across the chow table into the sunburned faces of men hardened by months of tough training in the sand hills of Texas and the scruffy woods of Central Louisiana. Most of them felt green, out of place at first, believing themselves misfits. Barracks and pup tents were a great contrast to hotels or college dormitories. M-1 rifles were heavy compared to slide rules, and twenty-five mile marches were not like strolls around the campus with a pretty co-ed.[36]

The anger felt by the former ASTP-ers was likely matched by the resentment of the sometimes older, and usually less-educated, soldiers in the units they joined.[37]  The sergeants and corporals delighted in assigning the “wise-ass college boys” to menial duties and generally making them aware of their lowly station.  The welcome Howerton and his Drexel comrades received from the first sergeant of his new company was likely typical and in Howerton’s words, “summarized our condition succinctly”:

‘Men. . . you may have noticed that the ASTP boys we’ve been hearing about have come. They’re the new guys you see here. The ones who look like they haven’t seen the sun this year. . . You ASTP boys will have five weeks of special training. No books. You’ll learn to crawl in the mud under fuckin’ bullets, scale goddamn walls, and kill fuckin’ Germans and Japs. . . Them [sic] that don’t get a round up their h’ass during training will be assigned to K Company.  You’re here for the duration . . .’[38]

The infusion of the ASTP-ers had the immediate effect of not only bringing them up to numerical strength, but also increasing their overall combat effectiveness. In some units, ex-ASTP-ers even held impromptu classes in “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic” for their sometimes barely literate, comrades.[39]

The insignia of the ASTP (left), the lamp of knowledge superimposed with a sword, sometimes referred to as “the pisspot and reamer” and “the lamp of flaming ignorance” and the 84th Infantry Division (right) the “Railsplitters.”

Through the accelerated training program and necessity, the friction between the “whiz kids” and the “old men” was overcome.[40] Now a full-fledged infantryman, Allan Howerton reflected as the 84th Infantry Division prepared to ship to Europe in September 1944:

It had not been a happy time and was as close to hell as most of us had ever been. Yet amid all the grousing and the frustrations, large and small, a transformation had occurred. We had come to Claiborne as students. We were leaving as soldiers. . . although we were loath to admit it, our forced merger with the old guys had made us better men.[41]

“You college guys piss and bleed just like everybody else”

As confident as the Drexel cadets may have been after their crash course in infantry tactics, no amount of training or intellectual prowess could guarantee their safety or survival. Allan Howerton’s platoon sergeant warned him before the 84th Division left Camp Claiborne “you college guys piss and bleed just like everybody else, don’t forget it.”[42]

The 84th Division entered combat on the German frontier near Geilenkirchen in late November and suffered heavy casualties, with killed and wounded including former Drexel cadets. Only days after arriving on the frontlines, Private First Class Charles Randall Jr. of Waterloo, Iowa, who had joined the division from Drexel, was killed. Just three days after his 20th birthday.[43]  Around the same time another Drexel cadet, Private First Class Philip Rohrbach, was wounded in the head by a German grenade and taken prisoner. When he was released after five months of captivity, he only weighed 99 pounds.[44]

As the 84th Division fought across Europe, the Drexel ASTP-ers demonstrated that they could be excellent combat soldiers. Harold L. Howdieshell, a Drexel ASTP alum, was awarded the Bronze Star medal for capturing 17 Germans in February 1945 and earned an officer’s commission.[45]  On March 1, 1945, Lieutenant Howdieshell’s company was pinned down as it attacked enemy positions near Berg, Germany. In front of the rest of his unit, Howdieshell spotted a German machine gun, and after pushing two of his men to safer positions, began throwing grenades at the enemy. While preparing to throw his fifth grenade Howdieshell was shot and killed instantly.[46]

Although there are no statistics on the overall performance of former ASTP cadets in combat, Allan Howerton, himself having earned a promotion to sergeant, reviewed his own company’s records after the war and found that when compared to the soldiers who they joined at Camp Claiborne fewer of the ASTP men had been killed, they were less likely to have been evacuated for minor medical ailments, and they were better disciplined.[47]  There is additional evidence that the former ASTP cadets made excellent soldiers in their new units. For example, the 102nd Infantry Division received approximately 2,700 ASTP cadets, and almost 100 of them earned officer commissions due to their exemplary performance in battle.[48]


From a military perspective, the ASTP failed to produce its desired results. It deprived the Army of a source of valuable manpower at a time when it desperately needed to expand and maintain its fighting units, and then unceremoniously dumped tens of thousands of its best and brightest soldiers into the most dangerous positions possible.

The Army was a victim of not just its own poor planning, but the demands imposed on it by the developments on the battlefields. Ultimately, any responsibilities owed to the ASTP-ers were secondary to those of the Army, and the nation, if victory was to be achieved.

However, the legacy of the ASTP is not purely one of failure. The ASTP is credited with some post-war changes to college education, namely, a general speeding up of course instruction, a greater emphasis on technological and mechanical training, and the “all conversational” technique of teaching foreign languages.[49] Many former ASTP-ers returned to college after the war and used the G.I. Bill to fund their education. James Sterner believed that the ASTP had made him a much better student and credited his time at Drexel as the reason he was able to gain admission to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after the war.[50]

For historians of the Second World War perhaps the greatest benefit has been the number of memoirs written by former ASTP-ers. Veterans of the ASTP program appear to have written proportionally more than maybe any other demographically identifiable group. Whether due to their higher IQs or some other factor, former ASTP-ers have provided a wealth of well-written perspectives of frontline combat in the final year of the Second World War that are invaluable to historians.


[1] R. R. Palmer, Bell Irvin Wiley, and William R. Keast, The Procurement and Training of Ground Combat Troops, (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2003), 28-29; Louis E. Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes: The Story of the Army Specialized Training Program in World War II, (Reston, VA: COTU Publishing, 1999), 8.

[2] Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes, 14.

[3] Ibid., 29-31.

[4] "Service Unit Revised," The Drexel Triangle, July 17, 1943.

[5] “Army Students at Drexel,” The Drexel Tech Alumnus, September 1943; “New Cadet Term Begun After Leave," The Drexel Triangle, October 15, 1943. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1943-10-15.pdf.

[6] “Greetings," The Drexel Triangle, The Drexel Triangle, July 17, 1943.

[7] Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes, 21-22.

[8] James F. Sterner, interview by author, Philadelphia, PA, December 17, 2021.

[9] “Army Students at Drexel,” The Drexel Tech Alumnus, September 1943.

[10] James Nichols, An Amateur Soldier, (Columbia, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 46; "News of Local Service Men," Seymour Citizen, July 1, 1943, Newspapers.com.

[11] Philip E. Rohrbach, World War II as Experienced by PFC Philip Eugene Rohrbach, (N.p.: n.p.), 21.

[12] Rohrbach, World War II, 20.

[13] “A Change for the Better," The Drexel Triangle, August 27, 1943. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1943-08-27.pdf.

[14] “Drexel’s Standards Too High?” The Drexel Triangle, August 13, 1943. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1943-08-13.pdf.

[15] Alexander H. Hadden, Not Me!: The World War II Memoir of a Reluctant Rifleman, (Bennington, Vt: Merriam Press, 2012), 26.

[16] “A Change for the Better," The Drexel Triangle, January 14, 1944. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1944-01-14.pdf.

[17] James F. Sterner interview; Rohrbach, World War II, 26.

[18]  “The Goldbrick in the ASTP," The Drexel Triangle, January 14, 1944. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1944-01-14.pdf.

[19] Lloyd Kornblatt, interview by Sandra Stewart Holyoak and Shaun Illingworth (Rutgers Oral History Archives), New Brunswick, NJ, July 31, 2003;  “Out Your Barracks Bag," The Drexel Triangle, October 15, 1943. October 15, 1943. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1943-10-15.pdf.

[20] Nichols, An Amateur Soldier, 47.

[21] Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes, 127-28.

[22] Ibid., 129-30.

[23] “ASTP,” Infantry Journal, January 1944.

[24] Hadden, Not Me, 46.

[25] Rohrbach, World War II, 27.

[26] Allan Wilford Howerton, Dear Captain, et al.: The Agonies and the Ecstasies of War and Memory, (Philadelphia, Pa.: Xlibris Corp, 2000), 31.

[27] "Business as Usual - - Yet." The Drexel Triangle, March 3, 1944. Accessed January 1, 2022. https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1944-03-03.pdf.

[28] Pvt. George Hart, "FROM AST TO APO." Yank: The Army Weekly, March 31, 1944. Accessed January 1, 2022. https://www.unz.com/print/Yank-1944mar31-00021/.

[29] “ASTP Ended Recall Troops” The Drexel Triangle, April 14, 1944. Accessed March 31, 2022. https://services.library.drexel.edu/static_files/triangle/Drexel-Triangle_1944-04-14.pdf; Donald A. Edwards, A Private's Diary, (Big Rapids, MI: D.A. Edwards, 1994), 2.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The National World War II Museum, “Louisiana Spotlight: Camp Claiborne," The National World War II Museum, June 9, 2020. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/louisiana-camp-claiborne; James F. Sterner interview.

[32] James F. Sterner interview.

[33] Edwards, A Private’s Diary, 3.

[34] Louis E. Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes, 172.

[35] John Ellis, The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II, (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), 161.

[36] Howerton, Dear Captain, 29.

[37] Richard P. Matthews, Good Soldiers: The History of the 353rd Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division, 1942-1945, (Portland, Ore.: 353rd Regimental History Project, 2004), 105.

[38] Howerton, Dear Captain, 30-31.

[39] Charles L. Fulton, My Draftee Life, (Baltimore, MD: PublishAmerica, 2005), 21-22.

[40] Matthews, Good Soldiers, 105.

[41] Howerton, Dear Captain, 57.

[42] Howerton, Dear Captain, 328.

[43] “Pfc. Charles Randall, Jr., Died Nov. 20.” The Courier, December 7, 1944, Newspapers.com

[44] Rohrbach, World War II, 173.

[45] “Stars in Stripes” The Journal Herald, March 5, 1945, Newspapers.com; “Bulldogs FHS WWII Veterans,” Fairview ’66. Accessed March 31, 2022, https://fairview66.org/3/miscellaneous14.htm.

[46] Perry S. Wolff, A History of the 334th Infantry, 84th Division, (Mannheim, Ger.: Mannheimer grossdruckerei, 1945), 154-55.

[47] Howerton, Dear Captain, 483-84.

[48] Peter Mansoor, The GI Offensive in Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945, (Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 43.

[49] Keefer, Scholars in Foxholes, 241.

[50] James F. Sterner interview.