V-12 unit on St. Thomas grounds.
Inspection of the Navy V-12 unit on the St. Thomas grounds, 1944.

Tales from the Archives: St. Thomas During World War II

In the lead up to the fall semester of 1943, the then College of St. Thomas found itself grappling with a crisis. With only around 80 students enrolled, the institution faced dire financial circumstances. Most of its all-male student body had either volunteered for service or were part of reserve corps called up for duty. To navigate the financial strain, Monsignor James Moynihan, the president of the college, secured a contract with the Navy to train officer candidates through the V-12 program.

With less than two-week notice, the first contingent of 258 sailors arrived at St. Thomas on July 1, 1943. In that short period of time, the college underwent a huge transformation. Ireland Hall was commandeered to house the V-12 trainees and became the base for the many of their activities. The college scrambled to find housing of the St. Thomas Military Academy (STMA) resident students who normally lived on the third floor of Ireland Hall and would be returning in the fall. With the permission of Archbishop John Gregory Murray, the STMA students shifted their housing to Loras Hall on The Saint Paul Seminary campus for the duration of the war.

Existing college courses were quickly revamped with new syllabi crafted to align with the Navy's standardized curriculum. To ensure their continued employment, certain faculty members were asked to teach subjects outside their expertise. For instance, Franz Mueller, an economics professor and refugee from Nazi Germany, found himself teaching American Naval History to sailors. The academic calendar also underwent significant adjustments to accommodate three sessions of classes per year. Each trimester spanned 16 weeks, beginning around July 1, Nov. 1, and March 1, with no more than two weeks of vacation between the sessions.

Naval regulations initially prohibited V-12 athletic teams from formally joining intercollegiate athletic conferences. But that did not stop the formation of teams or competition with other colleges. The 1944 basketball team made up almost exclusively of V-12 players won 12 of 14 games against other schools in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and became the unofficial league champions. In the fall, the football team, also made up primarily of Navy men, took the 1944 State Conference title with seven straight victories.

The Aquin student newspaper continued to be published but on a more limited schedule. The publication served as a vital link between the college community and its approximately 3,000 alumni and former students serving in the military. The newspaper was filled with news gathered from letters sent to family members and college staff or gleaned from visits by service members to the campus. Each issue brought stories of bravery and tragedy from around the world and documented the profound impact of the war on the St. Thomas community.

Aquin newspaper from July 14, 1944.
Front page of the Aquin newspaper, July 14, 1944.

On June 6, 2024, the world marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings along the Normandy coast during World War II. A St. Thomas Distinguished Alumnus award recipient, Gerald Heaney, who attended the college from 1935-37, fought on D-Day and in several other major battles, before coming back to the U.S. and working as a lawyer and then federal judge in Duluth. Heaney spent more than 40 years on the bench, and oversaw cases that formed the integration of public schools.

Gerald Heaney
Gerald Heaney as judge and as young soldier. (8th Circuit Library) He was named a St. Thomas Distinguished Alumnus.

One of Heaney’s former law clerks, Abigail Crouse, the current general counsel at the University of St. Thomas, remembers that Heaney “was committed to justice in all that he did. The stories he shared of his time with the Army Rangers in World War II, including his recollection of landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, were sad, inspiring and incredible,” she said. “I will always remember the judge’s story of being on a landing craft headed toward Omaha Beach, but his boat could not reach the shore because of the obstacles placed by the Germans. When the door went down on the front of the landing craft, the captain exited and was shot. The first lieutenant also tried to exit out the front and was shot. Judge Heaney was left in charge and ordered men to exit over the side of the boat. They were wearing heavy packs, and the water was deep. The judge and others were lucky to survive. His quick critical thinking and wise actions, and those of so many other soldiers that day, helped lead to an Allied victory.”

Heaney, a brave Tommie, was awarded a Silver Star for heroism.