The Greatest Interruption
Sixty years ago, the attack on Pearl Harbor impelled many HLS students to join the fight of their generation. Survivors returned to a new world and to their old School.
Ralph Nutter ’44 (’48) remembers the moment he heard the news. His law school roommates were making a racket in the hallway, and he yelled for them to can the noise, he was trying to study. Then one of them told him to throw away his books–the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Nutter pushed his books into the trash.
Four years later Nutter and a whole class of Harvard Law School students returned to Cambridge to finish what the war had interrupted. They’d served in the Allied forces, overseas and at home. They’d navigated bombers, fired artillery, lived in submarines, deciphered messages, organized shipments of supplies, watched their friends die. They’d been given medals and commendations, seen more of the world than they might have expected, and been part of a bureaucracy larger than any institution of higher learning could ever match. Chiseled in the marble of Langdell Library are the names of the 112 students killed in World War II. Those who returned were determined to get on with their law degrees and their lives.
This fall some of these graduates come back to the School for their reunion. Some see the war as having shaped their legal careers, albeit indirectly. For others this break in their legal training was only a brief detour, a point of affinity not always explored or even considered. Nevertheless, when asked, members of these classes interrupted tend to remember their experience with vividness, humor, and sometimes anger. They recall not textbook moments of strategy, but the smaller victories and failures that make up a war and a life.
Leonard Robbins ’44 (’47) joined the Army Air Corps out of a mixture of patriotism and pragmatism. “I am Jewish and I thought something had to be done about Hitler.” He says that at the same time he and others who enlisted were motivated by a desire “to choose the branch of the service we’d be in rather than be plucked up as a draftee and not have any control.”
Walter Morey ’44 (’47) had already served in the military for a year after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1940. His first semester at HLS, he remembers the formidable Edward “Bull” Warren urging his class to serve their country. Warren offered a copy of one of his books to any man leaving for the war. In December Morey volunteered to rejoin his old artillery unit, and before he left, he picked up his prize. Warren was cordial, Morey said, “although his book never helped me win the war.” Morey drove home to Decatur, Ill., and before he shipped out he proposed to his sweetheart, Dorothy Huff. They agreed they would write every day and marry when he returned–it couldn’t be longer than a couple of months. Three years later they were still writing.
Marshall Levin ’44 (’47) grew up hearing good things about the Navy; his French grandfather had left Alsace, France, to enlist. Once the United States was at war, Levin joined up, rather than waiting to be drafted. “The understanding was that students who did would be allowed to finish their first year,” he said.
Gerald Lipsky ’46 (’48) had enlisted in the Army when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania to avoid being drafted before he finished college. He was at Harvard Law School only two weeks before he was called up, but he remembers loving every day. Lipsky had been so eager to attend HLS he had first applied after he graduated from high school. He recalls the pleasure of being taught Property by Roscoe Pound with only nine other students in the class. When he returned, the number was closer to 250.
Clyde Martz ’44 (’47), on the other hand, was not loving law school. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was ready to do his duty to his country and get away from “the frustrating lecture program.” As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Martz had intended to go into business. But when a professor helped him get a scholarship to Harvard Law School, he couldn’t say no. He came to the School with no drive to practice law and was “perplexed by the study of abstract principles and cases that hadn’t been decided.” Anticipating being drafted, several friends signed up for the Army Air Corps. “I couldn’t because I was too nervous, my blood pressure was too high,” Martz said, “so I opted for the Navy.” He was eventually assigned to submarine service on the USS Tilefish in the Pacific. Martz’s brother was also in the service, stationed in the Middle East. Once the war was over, they’d start an international trading business together, they decided. During the long hours on the Tilefish, Clyde Martz reassured himself that practicing law would not be part of his future.
In one letter dated September 3, 1943, Walter Morey described the British invasion of the Italian mainland across the strait of Messina: the silence at 3:43 in the morning before “the 500 guns barked at once and the sky lit up and then for the next 45 minutes there was a solid roar with flashes going hundreds per minute.” Finally, after dawn broke, he saw “the most magnificent sight,” the strait of Messina packed with Allied vessels.
“I know I would rather be here than any place in the world,” he wrote. “If a Joe Louis fight is worth $100 at the ringside, my OP [observation post] is worth a million.”
In his letters he touched on the dangers he encountered with the bravado of a young man, tempered with the understated humor that still characterizes the 83-year-old lawyer today. After several especially hellish months in North Africa under heavy German shelling, he recapped one incident for his fiancÈe: “They made a direct hit on the gun and wounded seven men of the crew. Needless to say I was in a trench at that time, studying up on my religion.” He added, “The heartening thing about being under fire is it is so funny afterwards, except for the unfortunate guys who get nicked.”
After Tunis fell to the Allies on May 7, 1943, Morey flew up in a little plane to see the thousands of German soldiers behind barbed wire. He later found a few who could speak English. “I asked, ‘What battles were you in?’ and we discussed things.” For Morey, it was natural to want to talk to them. “You fight these people and shoot these people, and so of course you want to know what they’re like.”
Morey and his heavy artillery unit spent more than a year in Italy, much of the time supporting the French Expeditionary Corps. They reached Rome the night after the Italians had surrendered. A few days after Rome was liberated, as Morey wandered unescorted in search of the Sistine Chapel, he came upon four men moving through a crowd with another on their shoulders seated in a chair. Pope Pius XII was blessing people, and when he saw Morey in his uniform, “taller than most Italians,” he asked him whether he was American. “I didn’t know how to address a pope, so I said, ‘Yes, sir,'” Morey remembers. He received Pius XII’s blessing. “I don’t know if it took,” Morey said, “but I lived through all those bombardments, all this life afterwards, so I’ll give him his share of the credit.”
Some 57 years after this benediction, in preparation for talking about his experience, Morey has assembled a wartime’s worth of materials in the basement of his Decatur home. (He served in Korea as well, but that, he says, is another story.) There are maps and newspaper articles, medals (three awarded by France and two by the United States), his uniform and helmet. As he flips through the stacks of letters and photos, both pleasure and occasional sadness flicker across his face. He stops at a picture he took in France. When the Germans had finally surrendered, he remembers being in the city of Nancy. Odd, he reflects, that after all the fighting and the noise it should end in such a quiet place.
People think the military is the epitome of organization, but often it was mass confusion, Marshall Levin says. After his training in midshipman school, Levin expected to be assigned to a battleship or a cruiser, but instead he found himself part of an amphibious unit. When he asked, he learned he would work “in communications.” Although it was unclear to him what that would mean on the landing crafts that unloaded infantry and equipment during invasions, he industriously taught himself Morse code and semaphores in preparation. As it turns out he never used his flag-waving skills, except while horsing around with a comrade on the far reaches of the deck of the USS Philadelphia that carried them across the Atlantic.
After landings in North Africa and Italy, Levin was eventually stationed for a year in London, where he deciphered and enciphered messages, many of them Franklin Roosevelt’s to and from Stalin and Churchill.Levin recalls that, despite the war, London was a wonderful place for someone who was young and single. Before arriving, he’d made a connection with the British socialist Harold Laski, who invited him to his house, where he got a taste of the city’s intellectual life. As for the German bombings, you got used to them, he says, or at least as much as British citizens did. You learned to listen for the noise of the V-1 “and then the silence that let you know it was coming down, and you’d just hope it wouldn’t get you.” Levin remembers one night after his eight-hour shift waiting impatiently for his replacement so he could get out to one of city’s nightclubs. The communications headquarters was located 100 steps down, below a concrete barrier. He heard a tremendous bang, and when he and the others went up the steps, they saw the carnage: debris, bits of hair. A V-2 had hit, just as a sailor was passing through.
Levin knows it was dumb luck that kept him safe during the war. But when he had the opportunity to add privilege to luck, he declined. After he was abroad for nearly three years and his father pulled some strings to end his son’s overseas service, Levin wouldn’t have it. “I wanted to be home,” he said, “but I just felt that it wasn’t fair. ”
When Ralph Nutter finished his initial combat tour–25 B-17 bombing missions over France, Belgium, and Germany–he knew he was lucky too. But it’s the sort of luck that would give some people nightmares.
Nutter had been quickly promoted to group navigator, flying with Colonel Curtis LeMay, a man he greatly admired. He had been awarded commendations and a flying cross and congratulated by U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. from his home state of Massachusetts. General Heywood Hansell had just put him in charge of the navigation for the B-29 program over Japan.
But the B-17 daytime bombing raids over Germany had lost as many as 16 percent of their planes per mission. Without radar or fighter support, the so-called flying fortress was extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. From Nutter’s initial group of 22 navigators in training, he was one of only two survivors. He’d seen his friends and comrades shot down. He’d watched as men who dangled helplessly from their parachutes were strafed with machine-gun fire.
Convinced that the war against Hitler had to be won, Nutter heeded LeMay’s advice not to dwell on the losses. He’d witnessed men in the B-17s literally blinded and paralyzed, not by enemy fire but by fear. The rest of them did what they had to not to think about it. Nutter felt bitter at the loss of his friends and comrades. But he remembers LeMay telling him, “Ralph, you’re probably going to get killed, so it’s best to accept it. You’ll get along much better.” And that, Nutter says, is what he did.
When Nutter came down to earth he had trouble adjusting to life behind a desk. He was back at HLS in a classroom that to him seemed virtually unchanged, except for the students, so many of whom had also served in the war–although the war, he says, was the one thing he and other veterans absolutely never talked about. “We were sick of it,” he said. “We studied and we drank.” Although he didn’t talk about the war, he dreamt about it; the nightmares caught up with him. One dream took him back to the confines of the bomber, and he woke up to find he’d broken the glass in the window by his bed in an attempt to escape.
Nutter never mentioned the incident to any of his professors but says that the faculty cared about the welfare of the veterans. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to be a lawyer or that he was qualified. He remembers the encouragement of Professor Edmund Morgan and Vice-Dean Livingston Hall. He also remembers the words of Professor Zechariah Chafee, who decried the anti-Communist hysteria that was sweeping the country. “He told us if we didn’t support civil liberties when we graduated from law school, we would lose the values we fought for in the war.”
Chafee’s words stuck with Nutter, and during his career he has tried to act on them. He took on discrimination cases for minorities and union members, and became involved in litigation to try to win back the property of Japanese-Americans that was confiscated during the war. Recently he traveled to Guam, where he had been stationed, to try to help win water rights for the Chamorro people.
Nutter says the most valuable lesson he learned from the war was from Curtis LeMay: “If you believe something, don’t be bothered if they criticize you.” Nutter points out that as a judge in the Los Angeles courts he came under fire for supporting the rights of antiwar demonstrators but also those of the Ku Klux Klan. Nutter, a liberal Democrat, says his great respect for LeMay isn’t dampened by his mentor’s reputation as one of the most conservative military leaders in America. As a general, LeMay ordered the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Nutter says these bombings, which he helped to coordinate, have troubled him, but he hopes that LeMay was right that they were necessary to save American and Japanese lives. Nutter has completed a book about his war experience and the two generals who shaped it, The Possum and the Eagle, forthcoming from Presidio Press early next year.
As Nutter is talking about the war, he is interrupted by a phone call from the firm in Los Angeles where he is of counsel. Would he be free to help defend a local living-wage measure? A silly question for a man who refers to himself with gusto as that “white-haired labor law bastard.” Now–like 60 years ago–he is barely able to contain his exhilaration at the idea of taking up a good fight.
Leonard Robbins, like Nutter, had been a combat navigator, but over North Africa and Italy. He won two flying crosses and six air medals, was shot down over the Anzio beachhead, and made it back to his base to fly again. He says of course it was a relief to be back at the School. “You weren’t in combat; you weren’t flying anything that was going to blow up and kill you.” But the war changed returning veterans, he says, and set them off from their classmates. “I left as a boy and came back as a man.” They were a little less naÔve and a lot more socially active than before the war, he says. They were also especially focused on getting on with their lives. Robbins went into plaintiff’s personal injury trial law in Florida and is still practicing today. He said the war added a great deal to his life, but “I sure as heck wouldn’t want to do it again.”
“During the war,” Marshall Levin said, “there was a lot of waiting around, a lot of tedium.” But back at Harvard Law School he found his days were filled with hard work and anxiety. “It was a grind,” he said. “And you’d have a friend next door who had flunked out and he was smart. That would scare you to death.” He recalled Dean Griswold as “a master of terror,” and Bull Warren was even tougher. Levin joined his father in his Baltimore practice and eventually became a circuit judge. He has returned to Harvard Law School on several occasions to teach in the Trial Advocacy Workshop, where, if he has anything to do with it, terror does not reign.
Gerald Lipsky returned to HLS after serving in the Army in Calcutta. Despite his patriotism, he said, “It was hard not to feel robbed of three and a half years.” But this only fed his motivation to complete the law degree he had been looking forward to since high school. Lipsky eventually started his own law firm in California, specializing in entertainment law. He, like so many who served, simply did what he had to do to get through the war. “The following day,” he said, “it was yesterday’s business. That’s how I continued with my life.”
When Walter Morey returned to Harvard Law School, Dorothy Morey came with him. They’ve now been married nearly 56 years, a fairy-tale existence, the two-war combat veteran says. Morey may have worked hard in school–his wife Dorothy says she knows that he did–but he mostly remembers life being wonderful. Many other veterans had married. It was a treat just to be together and “to go to a grocery store and shop and have lights on.” Other pleasures and rewards followed, including raising a family, law practice, and a banking and investment career. The couple has visited every country in Europe, although they have never convinced any of their European friends to come to Decatur.
Clyde Martz received three medals for his service on the USS Tilefish.He says he is still grateful for the medals today. They meant he was released from the service, though his brother was still overseas. While he waited for his return, Martz went back to HLS thinking if he applied himself, he might learn a few things that could be helpful in their enterprise. To his surprise he found law school to be an entirely different experience. “Before my brother had gotten out of the service, I had fallen in love with law and opted not to join him in the international trading business, but to continue on to get my degree.” Martz went on to teach at the University of Colorado and became a pioneer in the areas of oil, gas, water, and mining law. Because of his expertise, he was appointed assistant attorney general in the resources area in the Johnson administration. He later served as solicitor for the Department of the Interior under President Carter.
“I had a truly exciting career, ” Martz said. “And it all started with Pearl Harbor.”