Seung-Jae (David) Oh stared across God Quad at the Golden Dome glowing in the night sky and thought of the green light on the other side of the Long Island Sound in the classic American novel The Great Gatsby. Both beacons represented something wondrous but unattainable.
So, like many Notre Dame students before him, Oh lit a candle at the Grotto and prayed that he would be back. This wasn’t a symbolic wish — he had signed up for the military in 2009, a time the country was at war.
Oh’s family moved to the U.S. from South Korea when he was in 11th grade, and Notre Dame was his dream school. But during his first year on campus, he realized he was running out of money and couldn’t turn to the government for a loan because he was technically an international student. Just in time, he learned that the U.S. military was recruiting foreign students as interpreters and cultural advisers. The program offered citizenship and G.I. Bill benefits that could pay his tuition.
Oh said his four years of service in the Air Force changed his perspective considerably. When he returned to the classroom, he changed his major from architecture to history.
“Military service earned me the right to call this country my own,” he said. “Those four years were an education of a different kind, and as a result I have found meaning and purpose in service as a career.”
Notre Dame has a long history with military training and a clear respect for the military academies, evident in traditional rivalry games like the one Nov. 12 against Army at the Alamodome. Some of the stories are woven into Notre Dame lore, from Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., blessing the troops before the Battle of Gettysburg to Naval officer training on campus during World War II. Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., made the motto the title of his autobiography: God, Country, Notre Dame.
But some of the stories are personal histories like Oh’s. Both approaches speak of a complex relationship with the military that is unusually tight for a Catholic school deeply involved in issues of peace and justice. The affinity may be a sense of shared values, as both institutions emphasize honor, ethics, teamwork and dedication to achieve a greater good.
Notre Dame has been teaching students how to be soldiers since the administration organized student military groups into the Continental Cadets in 1859. The trainees marched across campus in uniforms styled like those of the American Revolution.
During the Civil War, University founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., labored to ensure that Holy Cross clerics weren’t conscripted into active fighting. Still, many in the order acted as chaplains for the Union Army, and many Notre Dame students took up arms for the Union, but some for the Confederacy as well. After Gen. William T. Sherman’s wife, Ellen — a devout Catholic — moved the family to South Bend during the war and his children attended Notre Dame and St. Mary’ College, the victorious general gave the commencement address in 1865. His family papers reside in the University Archives.
The iconic Notre Dame moment from the Civil War belongs to Father Corby, who would later become the University president memorialized in a statue in front of Corby Hall. As chaplain to the Union Army’s Irish Brigade from New York, he ministered to a unit famed for its bravery and its casualties. The soldiers arrived at camp on the second day of the battle following a 13-mile march, depleted in number and spirit. Father Corby gave absolution to the troops from atop a large rock as they prepared to charge into Confederate artillery fire that had already started.
“My eye covered thousands of officers and men,” he later wrote in his Memoirs of a Chaplain Life. “I noticed that all, Catholic and non-Catholic, officers and private soldiers, showed a profound respect, wishing to receive at this fatal crisis every benefit of divine grace . . . [My] general absolution was intended for all . . . not only for the brigade, but for all, North and South, who were susceptible to it and who were about to appear before their Judge.”
Other stories are less well-known, but no less heroic. Notre Dame graduate Orville Chamberlain won the Medal of Honor for his actions at Chickamauga, Georgia. His entrenched unit faced lines of Confederates five times their strength and were running out of ammunition. Chamberlain volunteered to run to another unit to get more bullets while “exposed to galling fire,” according to his medal citation. He crawled and sprinted through open territory, filled his pockets and haversacks full of ammunition, and returned to his unit over the same route. His hat was shot off and his clothing riddled with holes, but he somehow escaped serious injury.
Father Corby revived military training in 1880 to provide students with a source of recreation, exercise and discipline. Wearing gray uniforms, the Notre Dame cadets were called Hoynes Light Guards after the professor in charge of the unit, “Colonel” William J. Hoynes. Trainees received academic credit, and the course became required for most students by 1917. They practiced marksmanship at a firing range between Corby Hall and Old College.
President Rev. John Cavanaugh, C.S.C., was furious when the government judged their training subpar and rejected their bid to join the precursor to today’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Some 700 students were finally sworn into the program in late 1918 only to be demobilized months later with the war’s end. Still, more than 2,200 Notre Dame students and alumni served in the armed forces during World War I.
Rev. Matthew Walsh, C.S.C., and Rev. Charles O’Donnell, C.S.C., continued the tradition of Notre Dame presidents who previously served as war chaplains. Father O’Donnell’s “doughboy” helmet is now a light fixture hanging in the War Memorial entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where the motto Father Hesburgh used is inscribed over the names of fallen Notre Dame men.
When Notre Dame began its annual tradition of playing Navy in football, it was Father Walsh who explained why in the 1927 game program.
“Notre Dame, Army, and Navy make an ideal group for a football triangle,” he wrote. “Their students live on campus, they draw their student body from all parts of the country.”
“The outcome of our games with the Navy and with the Army is not so important as that the best feeling of sport and good-fellowship always prevail. We are indeed happy to have Navy on our schedule: we trust it will continue so long and so amiably as to become a part of our best loved traditions.”
That relationship did grow, and within two decades may have saved Notre Dame when the University morphed into a virtual military base during World War II. The war was becoming a naval battle in the Pacific, and droves of the young men at Notre Dame left school to join the cause. Enrollment loss was so dire that even Coach Frank Leahy left for the Navy on the heels of winning a national championship.
At the same time, the Naval Academy was trying to ramp up war preparation at a pace rarely seen in human history, and they were in great need of facilities and space to train officers. O’Donnell reached out to Admiral Chester Nimitz at the Navy, and a V-7 program that trained about 12,000 naval officers was established on campus. There were so many swimming classes in the lakes that civilians were restricted to two hours of swim per day. The Navy kept Notre Dame afloat, and Father Hesburgh promised to keep the Naval Academy on the football schedule for as long as it wants.
In 1946, Notre Dame awarded Nimitz an honorary degree. At the ceremony, the admiral spoke of his gratitude:
“Father O'Donnell, you sent forth to me, as to other naval commands on every ocean and continent, men who had become imbued with more than the mechanical knowledge of warfare.”
Father Hesburgh, who made no secret of his desire to serve as a battleship chaplain, joked that he nearly got his wish after the war when he became chaplain to the returning veterans. Many were married, so dorms weren’t appropriate. Vetville, built in 1946 near where the Hesburgh Library now sits, housed 117 families in three-apartment units built as prisoner-of-war barracks. The village was also known as “Fertile Acres” because it averaged 100 births a year in the postwar baby boom.
Chuck Lennon, the longtime director of the Alumni Association, moved to Vetville when his wife, Joan, was expecting their first child in 1961. Even though he had been too young for the war, married students were allowed to move in as the veterans dwindled. Lennon described life there as poor but communal — their two-bedroom apartment cost $33 a month. A single space heater provided scant warmth, and people cut holes in the thin walls to share the unit’s telephone.
“It was a great time in our lives,” he said. “The hardships were OK because the camaraderie and social events made it worthwhile. There were lots of kids but everyone pitched in to raise them. There was no social pressure of having more or less than others. And Father Ted remembered each person’s name and unit, even years later.”
Lennon signed the paperwork as the last mayor of Vetville, confirming the University had torn down the barracks in 1962 to replace them with the brick buildings of University Village.
Notre Dame’s history with the military has reflected national sentiment, waxing and waning with the latest war. It was among the first dozen universities to host all three ROTC branches of the military in the 1950s and peaked at about 1,600 students in uniform in the late 1960s. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, those numbers plunged to about a quarter the strength when public sentiment against the war and military spiked in the mid-1970s.
While student activists did attempt to burn down the ROTC building in the 1960s and a student painted an anti-war slogan on the new ROTC home in the 1990s, these exceptions prove the rule that Notre Dame involvement with the military has been an accepted part of its traditions. For instance, Vietnam memorials are not common on campuses. Yet the Clarke Memorial Fountain (dedicated in 1986 and known as Stonehenge) honors the veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and times of peace. ROTC students post a 24-hour watch on each side every Veterans Day.
Today at Notre Dame, one recent effort to reach out to veterans comes from the graduate business school through its Transition Together program, which offers faculty advising, collaborative classes and a structured-career approach. In 2015, G.I. Jobs.com named Notre Dame a Military Friendly School, an honor accorded the top 15 percent of higher education institutions for “doing the most to embrace America’s veterans as students.”
Seung-Jae Oh said these veteran programs make sense because both institutions strive to bring out the best qualities in young people. After an eight-year path through Notre Dame, he is now working as a teacher in Oklahoma to continue his passion for service.
“The four years I spent in uniform and away from campus,” he wrote shortly before graduating, “turned my Notre Dame education from cheap grace to costly grace, to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. I can’t be more thankful for that. Every day I spend as a Notre Dame student is a privilege beyond measure. It’s easy to lose sight of that. Not me.”