Ed Steers, Jr., holds a WWII banner used to denote military service. Each blue star represented a family member; when a family member was killed, the blue star was replaced with a gold one. Photo: J Kish

Ed Steers, Jr., clearly recalls the window banner displayed across the street from his childhood home in Bethlehem during World War II. One morning, one of its stars changed color—from blue to gold—a sign that a family member had died in the war. That seemingly small act, along with many others, made a big impression on Steers, who describes the era with poignancy and insight in his recent book Don’t You Know There’s a War On?

Supported by thorough research, the book documents local involvement in the war that many historians consider "the defining event of the 20th century." Moravian College played a significant though nearly forgotten role, said Professor Steers during his presentation "War Comes to Moravian," given November 10 in Reeves Library and sponsored by Friends of the Library.

Moravian College was in dire straits at the beginning of the war, Steers explained. Already burdened with a large budget deficit in the late 1930s, Moravian faced a financial crisis by early '43, when the draft and recruitment reduced the student body to 55 (38 in the College, 15 in the Seminary).

Remarkably, the war also saved Moravian College. The V-12 program designed to recruit and train officers for the Navy proved immensely popular. Thousands of young men were eager to serve their country in exchange for the chance to attend college as Naval officer candidates, while hundreds of colleges were eager to provide training in exchange for the funds that could help keep them afloat.

"Many people today cannot imagine a war like World War II," said Steers. "It affected everyone. The entire family participated, and everyone sacrificed."

Unfortunately, Moravian was not one of the colleges selected to participate, but Muhlenberg College was. Unable to provide training for 80 naval air cadets in the V-5 program, Muhlenberg subcontracted the job to Moravian in July 1943—saving Moravian from bankruptcy. Steers’ father, Edward Steers, Sr., (Moravian science professor 1934-45) taught the Naval cadets preflight instruction, which included aerodynamics, weather, Morse code, navigation, and plane recognition.

"The cadets often visited our house," recalled Steers. "They joked around with us, and we looked up to them. They were heroes to us." Indeed, 364 Moravian College men (220 students and 144 alumni) served in World War II—71 percent of the Moravian student body during the War years—probably a higher percentage than any other college, according to Steers. Thirteen of them did not return.

"Many people today cannot imagine a war like World War II," said Steers. "It wasn't’t like our modern wars. It affected everyone. The entire family participated, and everyone sacrificed."

Read more about Moravian College in World War II in Don’t You Know There’s a War On?, available at the Moravian College Book Store, the Moravian Book Shop, and at amazon.com. Ed Steers, Jr., attended Moravian as a freshman, 1955-56, before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania to study biological sciences. He earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and enjoyed a distinguished career conducting biomedical research. After he retired in 1994, he turned his attention to historical writing. He has written eleven books, ten of them on Abraham Lincoln. He has appeared on BookNotes, the History Channel, the Today Show, and CNN’s Crossfire. He is now writing a novel about an American pilot rescued by the French Resistance after being shot down over German-occupied France in 1942.