Amherst Magazine

Admiral Turner at home

An Officer and a Gentleman

By Dick Hubert ’60 and Rob Longsworth II ’99

Most Amherst alumni are able to pluck from memory a moment in their student career that designates a milestone in their life. For Admiral Stansfield Turner ’45, that moment would be the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, near the end of his first semester at the college. Walking across the quadrangle bordered by Pratt and Morrow dormitories, he heard someone call from a window above, “The Japs have attacked us at Pearl Harbor!”

Turner admits that at the time he was among the many Amherst students who didn’t know where or what Pearl Harbor was, let alone the importance of the bombing. This is no small confession from a man who later was to become the highest ranking military officer in Amherst’s history, as well as Admiral of the Navy, president of the Naval War College and one of three Amherst alumni (the other two are William Webster ’45 and John Deutch ’60) to serve as director of the CIA.

Turner at Amherst in the early 1940s

Though Turner left Amherst after only five semesters to attend the Naval Academy, Amherst was to never leave him. Turner says his Amherst education was life changing, and praises its intellectual fervor and sense of opportunity. By comparison, he found Annapolis’ inescapable electrical engineering coursework to be didactic and deflating. He consequently longed to immerse himself again in an intellectual richness reminiscent of Amherst’s. In his third and final year at the Naval Academy, a visiting lecturer, Harvard professor William Y. Elliott, was introduced as a Rhodes Scholar. Midshipman Turner was so captivated by the professor’s “approach, his reasoning, his presentation” that after the lecture the young officer declared to his roommate that he, too, would one day be a Rhodes Scholar. He achieved this goal and studied at Exeter from 1947 to 1950.

Now retired, Admiral Turner has strong views on subjects ranging from the United States’ military commitments throughout the world to the challenges our intelligence agencies face in helping to form their policies. He is also keenly interested in the educational and social duties of elite schools such as Amherst.

Dick Hubert ’60 and Rob Longsworth ’99 interviewed Admiral Turner on June 11, 2005. Excerpts follow. (See also the side story, "Military Intelligence.")

Turner on the USS Independence in 1970

How did you wind up going to Amherst College?

My father was an immigrant as a young boy from England. He came over with his mother and three other siblings. He was never able to go to college; in fact, I don’t think he finished high school, because he had to work to help support his mother, who was a single parent at that time. So when it came [time] to look for colleges for his older son, he took advice from the man who owned the real estate company where he worked in downtown Chicago, and that man had sent his two sons to Williams. So at the end of my junior year in high school my parents put my brother and myself in a car, and we headed east. Having sort of researched the college business without having been a participant and knowing it personally, my father took me to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, Amherst, Williams and Hamilton. I went with a preconception that I was going to Williams because of the precedent of my father’s boss’ sons; I’d read some things about it, thought it was great. But I think really what happened was that the student who was assigned to take us around Amherst was probably more engaging than the one at Williams, and at the end of that tour of those seven colleges I made my own choice. And contrary to expectations of everybody and myself, I chose Amherst.

Now what year was this, and what high school were you attending at the time?

I was at Highland Park High School, a suburb of Chicago 20 miles north, right on Lake Michigan. And this would have been the summer of 1940. I graduated high school and entered Amherst in the fall of ’41, just before World War II.

Navy men at attention
Amherst served as a site for U.S. Naval training
during World War II. Above: The Phi Psi fraternity
house (now Charles Drew House), circa 1944.

So you’re a student at Amherst just before the war breaks out. Pearl Harbor is bombed. Where are you? What’s the reaction?

Let me go back a little bit, because in June of ’41 I graduated from Highland Park High School. I was the valedictorian, which really is the speaker at graduation. And I can distinctly remember preparing that speech and saying, “Europe is at war. All of Europe other than Spain is in the hands of the Nazis; it’s inevitable that we’re going to get into this war.” And yet I don’t believe any of us at Amherst in the fall of ’41 made any plans on the basis that we weren’t going to be there for four years. So we went blithely on—September, October, November—and I can distinctly remember on Sunday morning, the seventh of December, I was walking in the quad between Pratt Dormitory, where I lived, and Morrow Dormitory, and somebody opened a window and shouted out, “The Japs have attacked us at Pearl Harbor!” Most of us didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was. But we all ran in to our radios—there were no televisions—and heard this news. And almost instantly, I think, we then appreciated that we weren’t going to be Amherst men for a normal four-year hitch.

Navy men in classroom
A classroom, circa 1944.

When did the weight of that understanding really begin to hit you and your classmates?

[Laughter] Well, about 10 days later we were getting ready to go home for Christmas vacation, and all across the campus there were huge…brawls, I guess you would call them. Because we all sort of said to each other, “Well the war is on, we’re going to be drafted, we’re going to go into the military, we probably won’t even be back at Amherst after vacation.” So everybody got drunk and had a big brawl, and said, “This is the last we’ll see of our buddies.” And of course in January every one of us was back [laughter]. Except maybe one fellow from my fraternity who volunteered to go to war. He went off on his own. So yes, we immediately realized that we were going to get caught up in this one way or another before long. But it took a while before people really did begin to leave the campus.

When did it catch up with you?

On December 1, 1942, I was 19 years old. I left Amherst one morning and worked my way down to Springfield, Mass., and enlisted in the Navy. I signed up in a “V” program for the Navy, the terms of which were that I would be allowed to stay on the Amherst campus, or at least I would be allowed to continue college, until I’d completed three years of college, and then they would send me to what they called 90 Day Wonder School. At Northwestern University and at Columbia University the Navy set up 90 Day Wonder programs, which meant that they brought in college students with at least three years of college, and in 90 days turned them into officers.

What made you sign up for the Navy, as opposed to any of the other services?

There really wasn’t any great question—in my mind, anyway—that I didn’t want to get drafted into the Army. I mean the Army just was not prestigious in any way.

It sounds like a terrific deal. You were able to come back and actually guarantee that while the war was raging you would be on campus.

It didn’t guarantee me a lot. Because, you see, in the summer of 1942, we’d now been at war for over six months. All colleges just went on through the whole summer, as though it were another semester, and we all stayed at Amherst, and it became a full academic semester. So we’re now on a three-semester program. So by the time I enlisted in the Navy, in Springfield in December of ’42, I had almost two years of college behind me. So I would have had another year [at Amherst] under this Navy program. I continued at Amherst through the spring of 1943.

Then came an irony and an amusing situation. The Navy had set up a unit for aviation candidates on the Amherst campus, and they were bringing people in from all over the country—not just Amherst people—to get a certain amount of training in things like air navigation. These were people on active duty in the Navy, right there on the Amherst campus—including, among others, Ted Williams! And I waited table on Ted Williams in Valentine Hall.

So Amherst in effect was not just a college at that point, but it was a military training school.

Yes, this one rather small unit of people was there.

But then I got written orders to report in June to a place called Williams College, because Williams College had the kind of V-12 unit that I had signed up for. So I’ve always told everybody that I was an Amherst man with orders to report to Williams College, and I could not tolerate that, so I found a way to go to the Naval Academy instead [laughter]. Most of my classmates (including Bill Webster) did go to Williams. And they spent, I guess, close to a year at Williams, then went on to one of these 90 Day Wonder Schools, and became officers, and were actually out in the war in the summer or fall of ’44.

Not long after I’d made my decision to go into the Navy, my father said, “Well, if you’re going to go into the Navy, and if this is going to be a long war”—and people really thought it was going to last a long time—“why don’t you do it right and go to Annapolis and become a really good Naval officer?”

Not a 90 Day Wonder?

Not a 90 Day Wonder. And I can’t tell you whether my father was just finding a way to keep me out of combat, or out of harm’s way, or whether he really believed this was a way I could make a better contribution in the long run. But he started me on the trail toward Annapolis. The hurdle here was you had to get a congressional recommendation. Well, we had a right-wing Republican congressman in our district in Illinois—so right-wing that even my parents couldn’t vote for him after he appointed me to the Naval Academy [laughter].

All right, you’ll have to define what a right-wing Republican was in 1942.

His name was something “Day.” I can’t remember his first name. But he was to the right of Attila the Hun. And we applied to Mr. Day, and he didn’t have any openings. In those days, each person in Congress had, I believe, five appointments to each academy: West Point and Annapolis. And each year they were allowed to appoint what they called a principal, who would get into the academy for sure, and four alternates. Well, I think Mr. Day gave me an alternate of some sort, but the prospects were not good for that.

So my father researched what other ways there were to get an appointment, and he found out that there were a number of Congressmen who never bothered to fill their appointments for one reason or the other. I can remember my father sending me from Amherst down to Washington to call on this Congressman from Pennsylvania, to tell him I would like an appointment. And I literally walked the halls of Congress two or three days, on two different occasions, when I was still a student at Amherst, trying to get an appointment and knocking on doors.

I was a football player at Amherst. As you can imagine, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for the big leagues, like Navy. But my father was just very diligent in all this, and through a man he met who had two sons at Annapolis I got an introduction to the football recruiter at Annapolis, a marvelous man named Rip Miller. He was the line coach, but also the recruiter. So I went down to Annapolis from Amherst and met Rip Miller. And Rip was the kind of guy who really had his finger on where all these vacant appointments were. But coming from a small college like Amherst, even though I played football there, he wasn’t going to waste one of his real high cards on me, because this being wartime he could get all kinds of football players. So Rip gave me a couple other names to call upon at Capitol Hill, and I did that, and then I went back to Amherst. I wasn’t getting anywhere, but I kept going to see this Mr. Day, our own congressman. Finally, Day looked at me one morning and said, “Turner, you’re so persistent, and you really want this so much that I’ll give you my next principal appointment. I’m really impressed.” Well, his next principal appointment was going to be 12 months away; I mean, somebody had to graduate and leave Annapolis. By then I was going to be in the Pacific as a private in the Army! [Laughter] So I thanked Mr. Day, but I went from Day’s office directly to Rip Miller’s office at Annapolis. And I said, “Mr. Miller, I’m not getting very far, but this morning Mr. Day promised me his next appointment.” And Rip Miller pressed the buzzer and said to one of his assistants, “Didn’t I hear that a midshipman who was Mr. Day’s appointment just flunked out?” And by gosh, within five minutes somebody came running in and said, “Joe Jones just left, we just sent the paperwork up to Washington yesterday. Mr. Day has a new appointment.” And that afternoon I’m back in Day’s office, and I said, “Mr. Day, if you would be good enough to call the Navy Department, you’ll find you’ve got an appointment [laughter].” And I got it, right there on the spot. All in one day.

Then I had to pass the physical exam for Annapolis. The doctor said, “I can’t let you in. Your eyes are all right now, you have 20/20 vision, but with all the reading and all the work you’ve got to do here at Annapolis your eyes are going to go bad.” He said, “I can predict that. But we always try to be fair, so a second doctor will give you an opinion.” The second doctor said, “I think you’re marginal, but you’re OK, so I’m going to give you an upcheck. So that means you got to go to a third doctor who will make the decision. Come back tomorrow morning.” But instead of coming back tomorrow morning, within a few minutes I’m in Rip Miller’s office [laughter].

I think I can smell what’s coming next.

I said, “Mr. Miller, I’ve got a small problem here. I’ve got one vote for me, and one vote against me on my eyes, and I’m going back tomorrow morning for the next exam.” He said, “OK.” So I went back the next morning, and I saw the third doctor, and he had my papers on his desk. And he said, “Hmm, Turner, I see you’re a friend of Rip Miller’s.” And I said, “Well, yes, sir, I know him a little bit.” And he said, “OK,” and he signed my papers without looking at my eyes. And I don’t know what the third exam would have said, but nonetheless, I didn’t ever take the third exam. Rip Miller got me in.

And how’s your eyesight?

Well, I do wear glasses now, but I did not wear glasses for reading until I was a commander in the Navy some 20 years after all of what we’re talking about here. So, the first doctor was not very good in his prediction.

When you started at the Naval Academy, did you have only a brief period to serve because they accepted the Amherst credits? Or was it like you were starting from ground zero?

In those days it was absolutely ground zero. I took Freshman English, [even though] I’d already written my honors thesis for history at Amherst. I mean, everything was accelerated, and I hadn’t completed my course in history, but for some reason I had done a thesis. So a lot of it, in the early days at Annapolis, was just pure duplication of what I’d done either at high school or Amherst.

How many of your classmates followed a career similar to what you did? Or to your knowledge were you the only one who wanted to make a career in the military, or at least begin that road?

Well, let me make it clear that I had no intention at this point of making a career in the military by going to Annapolis. I mean, this was strictly a wartime proposition, from my point of view.

But you didn’t know that.

None of us thought that at the time. I knew I would have an obligation to stay in the Navy after I left Annapolis, but in those days it was only two years. (Today it’s five; has been for many years.) But I don’t know that I looked at that, or thought about that, or worried about that all that much. We were in war. And that was where our focus was. And my father had suggested that I would come out of Annapolis a better qualified officer, ready to go out into the war and do my part. I can remember talking with my father and one of his friends before I went to Annapolis, and this gentleman said, “Well you ought to stay in the Navy for a career.” He said, “It’s a wonderful thing, you have great social status and not much to do.” [Laughter] And I said, “No, I don’t think I really want to make a career out of the Navy.” But I went in to get ready to do my thing for WWII, not planning to stay in.

Did Amherst say anything to you when you left?

No, not particularly.

No “Farewell, goodbye,” no “Come back when it’s all over, and we want to see you back on the campus,” anything like that?

No, no. What was happening was, of course, was that the whole campus was just sort of being denuded, as people found their individual niches in the military.

How did you wind up in the Class of ’45 as a full-time member? When were you fully invested as an Amherst alumnus?

Well, at the reunion just recently one of my classmates sort of looked at me and said, “What are you doing here? Why are you pretending you’re part of the Class of ’45?” I was insulted [laughter]. Well, Amherst in 1973 gave me an honorary doctorate, so technically I’m a graduate of Amherst, I guess. But I just had this great sense of loyalty to the college and to my classmates, and an affinity with them, and I’ve gone back to reunions as though I were a genuine member of the program, and nobody’s ever thrown me out, or anything like that [laughter].

Before leaving, I have to ask if you’ll tell the incredible story you once told me about the Amherst College Fire Department during World War II.

Right after Pearl Harbor, everybody was looking for what we could do to help the war effort. And we had an assistant dean named Dick McMeekin, who I think always wanted to be a fireman. And he sold the college on the idea that Johnson Chapel was going to be a target for German bombers coming over to bomb Westover Air Force Base. Because the Chapel is on a hill, it’s high, though not really very high, and if they bombed it and set it on fire, the subsequent bombers could use that as a pylon to turn 90 degrees south and find Westover easily. Militarily, I thought that was a cockeyed thesis to begin with, but he sold it, and McMeekin went out and recruited a bunch of gullible students like myself to be firemen. And under his tutelage, we would crank up this big fire engine (I think it was kept down on the eastern side of the campus, where there was a fire department for the college, I believe), and every so often we would go out and take this around to some part of the campus, and sometimes out to farmers’ fields, and lay out our hoses, and hook them up, and practice putting out imaginary fires.

It is astounding in retrospect how patriotic we all were, and how we didn’t realize that the existing Amherst College fire department and the town fire department (which is only a couple of blocks away) were probably perfectly adequate for the small probability of Johnson Chapel going up in flames.

But we did our thing. And the only time we got called upon was on a Saturday night when there was a fire in the DKE house. It was a genuine fire. And they sent out the alarm, which was calling out all the fraternities and telling people like myself to rally down at the firehouse and get our wagon going. I turned to one of my fellow firemen, who happened to be in the Psi U house, and I said, “We better go.” And he said [drunkenly], “Ah, we don’t have to do that Stan, let the Fire Department handle it.”

And that happened in successive fraternity houses to the point that nobody was able to get the fire engine going. But the local fire department did come to the rescue of the DKEs, and their fire was contained. But our one chance for glory was passed up because we were all too inebriated that Saturday night [laughter].

And the Germans never did fly anywhere near Johnson Chapel?

I don’t think the Germans had an airplane that could reach Johnson Chapel, and they certainly didn’t have an airplane that could possibly reach Johnson Chapel and Westover Air Base and get home. It just was a totally implausible scenario. One hardly thinks that Westover itself was so important to the Germans that they would want to do this. But it shows the enthusiasm. After all, on the West Coast of the United States we were building huge concrete bunkers with guns in them to repel a Japanese invasion when that was something that absolutely stretched the Japanese Navy’s capabilities well beyond what they could possibly do. But, boy, you can still see remnants of that up and down the Pacific Coast of California. But you get carried away in wartime, and it’s probably better to be patriotic and enthusiastic than otherwise, but in retrospect Dean McMeekin led us down a very problematic path.

Dick Hubert ’60 is a trustee emeritus, and Rob Longsworth II ’99 is president of the Amherst Association of New York. Their first article for Amherst was a profile of Army Lt. Paul Rieckhoff ’98, the first Amherst graduate to earn the combat infantry badge since World War II.

Next: Military Intelligence >>

Photos: Turner at home: Katherine Lambert; Turner in 1940s and 1970: Amherst College Archives & Special Collections