1943 and 2004: Views of two wars

September 2004 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
As we ponder the eventual exit of our armed forces from Iraq, it perhaps is useful to consider how the civil engineering community faced another war.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

As we ponder the eventual exit of our armed forces from Iraq, it perhaps is useful to consider how the civil engineering community faced another war. During World War II, which was not as controversial as the present war, all of our nation's resources were straining to overcome an international threat to everything for which our country stands. Published accounts indicate that engineers' interests were focused sharply on the war effort.

I am the proud owner of a publication, New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers—Volume 5, 1943-1944, which is a compilation of the activities of local chapters during that period. The NJSPE book contains information that is quite different from that to which local chapters today are accustomed. For example, the Annual Report of some of the Essex County Chapter meetings lists the following: January: An FBI agent spoke on the topic of "war activity" of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (We would have difficulty getting an FBI agent to discuss such a subject today.) February: A U.S. Marine Corps officer spoke on his experiences at Guadacanal.

March: An Engineering News Record editor spoke on significant developments in engineering construction brought about by the war.

May: A colonel in the Corps of Engineers spoke on bombs and their effect; a senior engineer discussed protective lighting, dimouts, and blackouts; and a third engineer described protective concealment and camouflage.

September: A fighter pilot spoke about the P-40 airplanes of the 57th Fighter Group and their experiences in the Middle East.

October: Bell Labs' director of publicity discussed electronics and the scientific method.

The Essex Chapter wasn't the only one that was proud to emphasize the engineering aspects of the war in which some of its members were engaged in the 1940s. The Hudson County Chapter in April hosted the president of the State Licensing Board who spoke on post-war planning. In September, the program was "Fuel: A Bottleneck in the War." (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) In November 1943, the Mercer Chapter discussed salary and fee schedules. Definite recommendations were made to the state society regarding this subject. As noted on more than one occasion in this space, today such a meeting topic is a definite no-no. The trust busters would be immediately on the tail of any engineering organization which would dare to hold a meeting on that forbidden subject.

The South Jersey Chapter, comprising several counties, quaintly reported on its September meeting: "Professor Phillip Kissam of Princeton University, who is also a vice president of our state society, presented a thrilling demonstration on photogrammetry. He is the outstanding authority in the east on this subject." (It sounds like an interesting subject, but was the demonstration really "thrilling?") The Passaic County Chapter listed the following program subjects: "Where Do We Go From Here?" "Electronic Purification" (I don't know what that was about), "Early American Historical Events," "The Industrial High Schools of Paterson," and "Contributions of Oil Refining to the War Effort." There were other programs listed, but I hope you get my point in writing about things which happened at a parallel time in history when we were involved in a war.

Another interesting highlight of the bound record of the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers in 1943 was the stories about three of the state engineering colleges—Rutgers University, Princeton University, and Stevens Institute of Technology.

At Rutgers (my alma mater) they reported that "having trained over 180 chemists and engineers in special wartime plastics engineering, the Rutgers war training program has just announced it will extend its instruction in this important field—and .. engineering and radio courses vital to New Jersey's war production in 1944 are also offered in the new term of classes which includes advanced tool design, theory, and application of electron tubes, and introduction to UHF techniques." Princeton's war effort was summarized by the brief paragraph: "The engineering school at Princeton is chiefly engaged in wartime activities." (Note that Albert Einstein was there at the time, probably involved in aiding in the development of the atomic bomb.) "The entire school is operating on a four-term basis ... this arrangement was established to coincide with the Army Specialized Training Program." Stevens Institute was striving "to help meet the expanding and diversified demands of Foundry Engineering due not only to the war but to the use of new metals and modernized methods of manufacturing." As I write this in July 2004, the ultimate outcome in the Middle East is unclear. Our nation's resources—technological and otherwise—are not strained to their limits as they were in the 1940s. Nevertheless, engineers are playing an important role in the Iraq mission.  Check out the Corps of Engineers' accomplishments, for example, on their website at www.hq.usace.army.mil/cepa/iraq/iraq.htm.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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