March 2, 2009

Preparations for War in 1941

Shortly before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Johns Hopkins administrators and faculty anticipated that the nation would be drawn into war. Letters and memoranda in the Hamburger Archives of the Eisenhower Library indicate how quickly they moved to devise plans to protect the university’s valuable books, journals and significant art objects.

University architect Grosvenor Atterbury, of New York, informed Johns Hopkins President Isaiah Bowman in October 1941 that “a number of institutions in New York have taken up the question of safety vaults with an eye to possible trouble in the future.”

Following the November 1941 board of trustees’ Executive Committee meeting, Bowman wrote to John B. French, university librarian, to say that the trustees had discussed “safe storage facilities for especially valuable university property in case of war.”

French informed Bowman on Dec. 8 that he had consulted with the secretary of the British Museum, who “emphasized the need for protection against dampness in any underground shelter.”

Not everyone was alarmed. The executive secretary and librarian of the Peabody Institute, Louis H. Dielman, wrote to French that taking “precautions for the preservation of rarities – has never occurred to me and I have not the slightest idea of any practical steps to take.” He added, “I learn that the State is considering the use of an abandoned coal mine in Garrett or Allegheny Counties. Should such a cavern be sufficiently dry for this purpose, the problem of packing and transportation is too big for my capacity.”

On Dec. 16, Bowman appointed a Committee on Protection of the Library with French as chair. Bowman told committee members that they had three days to consider the issues and make recommendations to him and the trustees. The committee made these recommendations:

♦ Library: Although “the destruction by enemy action” of valuable materials “would be very serious, the removal and storage, even if feasible, would disrupt the work of the University so completely as to force us to suspend all research. The only thing to do is keep such material where it is and try to protect it as fully as possible.”

♦ Special Collections: Stating that these items “could be spared without serious effect on University research,” the committee suggested these items could be stored in a vault in the recently constructed Mergenthaler Hall at Homewood. The vault could be “so protected by sandbags as to make it reasonably secure against bomb attack.”

♦ Archaeological Museum: “Store the most precious objects in the Mergenthaler vault, and consider using sandbags outside the Museum as protection against bombs falling close to the University.”

The trustees, on Jan. 5, 1942, accepted the recommendations and authorized expenditures for a “Special War Protection Account” of $20,000.