Alumni War Journal: Robert Casey

Megan Angelo

The day began innocently enough. Robert Casey, a young man from Philadelphia, traveled to New York to see the World’s Fair and visit with his brother, a second-year Naval Academy student. During the afternoon, the brothers attended a show about World War I called “Cavalcade American.” When they emerged a few hours later, the sky had darkened — outside the theater and all over the world.

“I remember so well … we came out of the play that night, and the guys selling newspapers on the street were hawking that Hitler had marched into Poland,” Casey, now a professor in the Mechanical Engineering department, remembers. “World War II had started.”

Over the next several years, Casey would witness the world’s second great war from Villanova, where he enrolled in 1941.

Though World War II was already in progress, the United States was still uninvolved when Casey began what he describes as “a normal freshman year.” There was little talk of the fighting on campus.

“I don’t have any recollection of talking about the war on campus,” Casey admits. Smiling, he adds, “Maybe it’s because engineers are just, you know, square.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, however, quickly reversed the situation.

The Villanova campus was nearly deserted on Dec. 7, 1941. Unlike today’s student body, Casey explains, almost all of the approximately 1,000 male pupils commuted from Philadelphia and its local suburbs. Furthermore, the following Monday fell on the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, delaying the students’ return to campus for another day. The young men returned serious and ready to contribute to war efforts.

As many of Villanova’s Augustinian brothers headed to war themselves to become chaplains, one of the priests, Father O’Leary, made a point to talk to all of the young men about the gravity of the United States’ situation. He spoke about “how many guys were being killed,” Casey recalls. “We became very conscious of the war after Pearl Harbor.”

With the new spring semester came the installment of Villanova’s war physical training program. Clipper Smith, then head coach of the football team, was in charge of molding the young Villanovans into the nation’s finest. “He really whipped us into shape,” Casey groans, recalling endless hours of scaling the steps of the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. “It was tougher than anything I had in the service later!” Men from other schools and surrounding towns also joined the program.

Academics also saw reforms as Villanova introduced an accelerated curriculum that included three semesters per year. The young men were eager to complete their education and begin serving. Casey, who enlisted in the Navy, was scheduled to graduate in June of 1944. “Everybody wanted to get into the service,” he recalls. “Everybody was joining up. Everybody was gung-ho behind it.”

After commencement, Casey entered the Navy and served active duty until the spring of 1946, joining hundreds of Villanovans scattered all over the globe. He kept in constant contact with one of his friends — a former roommate.

In July of 1945, his roommate was lost on the cruiser Indianapolis, which was torpedoed and lost for several days. “He was a nifty guy, a great guy,” Casey says. “I remember he had a great left-handed hook shot. Indianapolis was a terrible tragedy.”

Following his release from service in the navy, Casey worked in industry for decades before returning to Villanova 18 years ago to teach in the Mechanical Engineering department.

In the face of the impending war on Iraq, Casey applauds the attitude of today’s Villanovans. “You’re conscious of what’s going on in the world, and you’re so willing to serve,” he remarks. He credits advanced global communication with raising awareness of world affairs among college students.

Producing a photograph taken at one of the Fieldhouse dances he so fondly remembers, Casey seems to realize all over again how profoundly the war affected his college years. “I look at this picture and, you know, there are a lot of guys who didn’t make it,” he says.

But Casey — who himself appears in the photo with the woman who is now his wife of 55 years — also sees a roomful of young heroes. Some died in World War II, and some survived it. Casey, for his part, has come back to the campus where he saw it all begin.