How Serving in World War II Spurred My Academic Ambition

Kurt Lang:

I graduated from high school six weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My parents—with whom my older brother and I had emigrated from Berlin five and a half years earlier—wanted me to enroll in Queens College, one of New York City’s tuition-free schools. But high school had been too much of a bore for me. Although I earned good grades, easily making the honor roll every term, I had no taste for more of the same. Being certain that sooner or later I would be subject to the military draft, I found work in a mechanical laboratory as a toolmaker’s apprentice.

Then, in April 1943, the army sent me its greetings—even before I became an American citizen and even though I was, technically, still an enemy alien. The army expedited my naturalization two months after I was inducted.

My first 18 months of military service were uninspiring. Donning the uniform did not fill me with pride, nor did the experience alter my perspective on life. What basic training had taught me was that the best way to get by was to stay out of sight. The army, more than the other branches of the military, was undergoing a massive expansion in a short time. Too many of its newly minted officers were apt to assert their military status by yelling commands and threatening any laggards instead of leading by example. This was particularly true of the infantry, in which I, along with thousands of others, landed when the army abruptly canceled the “specialized training” I was undergoing.