More than 15,000 Columbians served in the armed forces during World War II. As many as 450 are reported to have died. Among the first was Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh, who earned an MS in engineering at the University in 1917, and who received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism as the captain of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Beginning in 1942, Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus served as a training center for the Navy. It used twelve Columbia-owned buildings to house a Midshipmen’s School that trained more than 20,000 officer candidates during the next four years for duty in the fleet. In addition, Columbia was a site for the Navy’s V-12 programs, which trained doctors and dentists for military service. A third program, the Military Government School, was established under the direction of Professor Schuyler Wallace of the Department of Government to train a cadre of Naval officers to handle the administration of occupied territories. These contributions to the war effort gave the military a strong presence on the Columbia campus, a presence that was recorded in many ways, including in the artwork of the students who illustrated the yearbooks during the war years.
As in World War I, the College of Physicians and Surgeons created a hospital in Europe to minister to the wounded, following U.S. troops first to England and later to France, sometimes operating in hospitals behind the lines and at other times in tents nearer the front. In addition, in 1942, the College organized the Second General Hospital on the Washington Heights campus to treat soldiers and sailors who were sent home due to the severity of their wounds. Staffed with 65 doctors and 120 nurses, the facility remained in operation until June 1945.
Columbians also supported the war effort through their research. For example, the Manhattan Project was started at the University in 1940, and members of the faculty made contributions to the improvement of the detection capacity of radar.
At the end of the conflict, many veterans enrolled in the University with support from the G.I. Bill of Rights. Other veterans resumed academic careers as members of the faculty or joined the administrative ranks of the University.