David Alan Rosenberg, Ph.D., CAPT, USN (Ret.)
The Destroyerman – October 2020
Graduation day on 2 June 1931 at the University of Michigan was not normally a place where one would find an American naval officer in dress white uniform. A Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps unit would not be established in Ann Arbor for another nine years. Yet among the graduates in caps and gowns standing in line for their degrees was Lieutenant Arleigh Albert Burke. Burke was receiving a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) for a year’s coursework in chemical engineering under the world renowned Professor Alfred H. White who had created the Michigan Department of Chemical Engineering, the first of its kind in the United States. Burke was the second U.S. naval officer sent to the university for a chemical engineering MSE (the first, Lieutenant Tom Hill, would go on to serve as Admiral Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet operations officer in World War II and retire as a rear admiral.)
Completing a master’s degree was a significant achievement in 1931. Fewer than five percent of Americans were college graduates and the percentage of those with advanced degrees was even lower. Lieutenant Burke had graduated 70th in a class of 412 midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy on 7 June 1923 but while he received a diploma from the academy and his ensign’s commission in the Navy (and also got married) on that day, he was not awarded a bachelors’ degree. Only an Act of Congress could approve the Naval and Military Academies to grant degrees. The House of Representatives attempted to do so in March 1922 for the Class of 1922 but the Senate pigeonholed the bill because it called for most of the class to graduate into civilian life, in anticipation of personnel cuts resulting from the Washington Naval Treaty.
Burke not only lacked a college degree, he also did not have a high school diploma. Burke had started the college course at the State Preparatory high school in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado in 1916, against the wishes of his father who desired him to succeed him in running the 180-acre family farm. Encouraged by his teachers, inspired by history books, and stimulated by the outbreak of the First World War, he became interested in a military career. The flu epidemic of 1918 closed high school during his junior year. After a brief sojourn on a threshing crew, seventeen year-old Arleigh decided to compete for an appointment to the Naval Academy. The night before his congressman’s competitive exam in December, he rode into Boulder because it looked like snow the next day and slept in the stable with his horse. The snow became a blizzard. Many students who were academically better prepared stayed home, but Arleigh took the test and got the appointment. With school still closed, he studied for the Academy entrance exams with the help of his teachers and some University of Colorado professors, and for a few months attended a cram school run by a former congressman in Columbia, Missouri. He passed the exams, and, barely escaping quarantine when his father contracted a mild case of smallpox, boarded the train to Annapolis.
Even before commissioning, Midshipman Burke had written his bride-to-be of the thrill he felt when the big guns were fired during his summer midshipman cruise and of how he hoped to “get a full knowledge of ordnance so that we may have a chance to take a P.G. [postgraduate work].” Ensign Burke spent his first five years in the Navy in battleship Arizona learning the basic skills of a sea-going officer. In 1927 he applied for “P.G.” training in ordnance engineering at the Navy’s Postgraduate School at the Naval Academy. Rejected, he transferred to the auxiliary Procyon, applied again, and was accepted in 1929. The PG School, established in 1913, provided a wide array of course work in engineering for line officers, most designed to stand alone as preparation for work in the fleet, but selected officers were also prepared for further work at a civilian graduate institution in such fields as electrical and diesel engineering and, in the case of Hill and Burke, ordnance. After a year of classroom and laboratory work, and being tutored in college chemistry to meet graduate admission requirements, Burke moved on in 1930 to the University of Michigan. On 30 October of that year the Naval Academy was accredited as an “approved technological institution” by the Association of American Universities.
After receiving his MSE, Burke spent another year touring Navy and Army ammunition and explosive production facilities before returning to the fleet as main battery officer on the new heavy cruiser Chester. Burke’s postgraduate training qualified him as a “design and production specialist” in ordnance explosives and a full member of the elite and influential “Gun Club” of line technical specialists who staffed and led the Bureau of Ordnance. BUORD would control his life for most the next decade. Even after serving as executive officer of the new destroyer Craven and winning the Destroyer Gunnery Trophy as skipper of her sister ship Mugford in 1940, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Commander Burke was at the Naval Gun Factory in the Washington Navy Yard working as an inspector of anti-aircraft and broadside gun mounts. It took him another thirteen months to get orders to command Destroyer Division 43 in the South Pacific.
Congress ultimately accredited the Naval Academy to grant Bachelor of Science degrees in 1933 in response to a request by the Secretary of the Navy that a “deserved incentive” should be provided to the increasing numbers of graduates for whom there was no commission vacancy. Award of BS degrees was grandfathered initially to the classes of 1931 and 1932 but in July 1937 Congress authorized award of degrees to all living USNA graduates as of January 1938. There is no record that Arleigh Burke ever applied for this certification and no BS degree has been found in his papers.