Louis Scolnik, 94, a member of the Bates V-12 Navy Training Program that trained for World War II, enjoys a lunch at the Benjamin Mays Center in Lewiston on Friday. Alan Kelly, also a veteran, is at right.
Louis Scolnick, who grew up in Lewiston, said he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as he walked out of a movie theater.
Right away, the Bates College freshman wanted to enlist. He listened to his brother instead and signed up for an officer training program rather than simply joining the ranks.
After all, Carleton “Zeke” Finch said, the country needed to create about 300,000 officers to lead the millions of men donning uniforms to join the fight in World War II.
So Scolnick continued to take classes like every other student, waiting for the day the U.S. Navy would order him into active duty.
One day, the letter arrived. It told him to report for duty — at Bates College.
“I packed a bag and walked six blocks,” Scolnick said.
Scolnick was one of the first to join what became the V-12 Navy College Training Program that saw hundreds of young men take college courses at Bates while simultaneously learning what it took to lead their countrymen into battle.
Finch and Scolnick are the only two of those men who showed up Friday for an annual ceremony at the college honoring Bates veterans that started decades ago as a way to pay respect to the V-12 graduates.
Their classmates are mostly gone and Finch, who attended his 70th class reunion last year, is worried that few will remember them soon.
“Our memories are going to fade very fast as the years go by,” Finch said, pleading with college officials and younger veterans to try to “keep them up front” into the future.
Associate Vice President for College Advancement Eric Foushee said Bates plans to create a memorial of some sort to honor its veterans, perhaps as soon as next year. The college doesn’t know how many of its students were veterans, but is trying to reach out to them.
Foushee said people talk a lot at Bates about the school’s inclusiveness and values. But he said it’s also important “to honor the people who defended those values.”
For Keith Harvie, a 1967 graduate who is a veteran, the prospect of a memorial is “very good news.” He said those in his class who realized the toll taken by the Vietnam War had pushed for it.
“We wanted to make sure that something happened,” Harvie said. A new scholarship for a veteran or someone in a veteran’s family is also likely.
The V-12 program, which churned out naval officers at many colleges across the country, was a lifesaver for Bates, Finch said.
He said with the war snatching up most of America’s young men and women, the college, which didn’t have much of an endowment at the time, was struggling financially.
But the Navy’s decision to put 320 officer trainees at a time in the Bates program, paying full tuition, room and board for all of them, made it possible for the college to thrive, Finch said. It was the only college in Maine with a V-12 program.
Those participating in the program got an abbreviated college education — a couple of years — as well as training in naval traditions and plenty of physical education.
Finch said he arrived in 1943, donned a white bell-bottomed uniform, and started right in. They’d get up at 5:45 a.m., he said, and do drills and exercise before breakfast. He recalled climbing ropes up and down behind the grandstand at Garcelon Field and an obstacle course across the street.
During the the day, they’d normally take classes with the rest of the students, but they faced a 10 p.m. curfew that most Bates students didn’t have.
Since Finch was “very much interested in the ladies on the other side of campus,” particularly one named Arline Sinclair, he often pushed against that curfew. He said he was grateful to the program’s bugler, Paul Mitchell, the brother of future U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, who played taps at the appointed moment each night.
“He would hold that last note forever,” Finch said, “until we got in the door.”
Scolnik remembered walking in formation in their white uniforms through the city to reach the YMCA pool so they could take swimming lessons. He said as they marched along, all sorts of people he knew from the neighborhood would call out, “Hey, Louis!” as he waved his cap to them.
The officer trainees may have had it harder than their non-military classmates, but they recognized that many others their age were facing dangers daily across the globe as the war progressed against Germany and Japan.
By 1944, both Finch and Scolnik were on their way toward battle, graduates of the V-12 program and ready for additional training to take their place on one of the navy’s new ships heading into the Pacific.
Scolnik wound up on a landing ship for infantry that hit the shore in the Japanese-held Philippines in January of 1945, fortunately without opposition. He said the shells flying overhead from battleships were the only real risk that day. Otherwise, Scolnik said “it was a piece of cake.”
Finch, who married Sinclair the day after the V-12 program ended, was assigned to a weather ship in the Philippine Sea, which was only 90 miles from the spot where the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a cruiser, went down after Japanese torpedoes tore into it. He said his ship could have rescued many from the shark-infested waters, but nobody told them about the nearby sinking that later became infamous.
Both Scolnik and Finch returned to Bates to finish up their regular college education after they left the service. Scolnik became a lawyer and eventually served on the Maine Supreme Court with distinction.
Finch had a career in business before shifting to the job he’d always wanted: teaching. He taught high school students for years in Leominster, Mass., a job he said never failed to make him spring out of bed each morning, excited for the day ahead.
Scolnik said he was never that great a student at Bates because he was always distracted from his studies since he loved playing saxophone for local bands on many nights.
He never put the instrument down, even during his long years on the bench, when lawyers would joke that he was not a hanging judge but “a swinging judge” who had those big-band beats down pat.
And at Friday’s luncheon ceremony at the Benjamin Mays Center, Scolnik, 94, played sax with a trio that included professor John Smedley and Tim Clough during 45 minutes of socializing beforehand. He’s still got it.