Imagine, if you will, entering Princeton in the fall of 1940. The world is at war from Asia to Europe to Africa and the Middle East. The Battle of Britain is raging. And throughout the United States, citizens are engaged in a soul-searching debate about whether to aid Britain at the risk of being drawn into the war. A Gallup Poll released on September 23rd finds that 52% of Americans say help England, while 48% say keep out. Things are not, shall we say, normal, as twin brothers William (Bill) and Talbot Adamson, ’44 begin their Princeton careers. And things will be even less normal before their time at Princeton is done.
Born and raised in Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, the twin brothers were inseparable. They attended the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, prior to decamping at the age of 13 to St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. An avid sportsman, Talbot as a senior would participate in six sports on 10 teams. They learned to skate and ski in New England, which helped them make the hockey team at Princeton, where they were both accepted.
They arrived in September of 1940, where they roomed together as freshman off campus, which was common at the time, in a place called Libby House on Bayard Lane. In their sophomore year, they moved to Jolene Hall, where they again were roommates and where they would live for the rest of their time at Princeton. The brothers bickered and were both accepted into Charter Club. But by the time they joined in the spring of 1942, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. As Talbot recalls, “That changed everything at Princeton. What happened was, we were all accelerated. Everybody!”
“So, we got out in September of ’43. We went there summer, winter, the whole time. And that screwed up all kinds of things. A lot of the eating clubs were taken over by Howard Johnson.” (Note: Our research shows the University announced its first war time catering contract with Howard Johnson’s in 1943, ending it in 1960, when they again established its own food services department. We found no reference to Howard Johnson’s ever serving at the eating clubs).
“They were the oldest living identical twins in Princeton history.”
So, all that business of living at clubs, and camaraderie and everything else, was completely gone. Because it was all acceleration. You went to the club and ate…You didn’t have a lot of socializing during World War II. And it ruined a lot of sports…the buses didn’t have enough gasoline to get around, so they had to change the schedules of sports for more colleges nearby, like Rutgers.”
At the time, Princeton was “a simple little country college.” The campus was open, with far fewer buildings, and people biked around campus (without the bikes being stolen). There were about 700 students per class. It was wartime, and everything was different. Both brothers majored in Chemical Engineering and it was a lot of work. Everyone’s thesis in the department had to do with the war effort. Talbot was assigned to try to increase the octane rating of gasoline beyond the typical 87 to help fighter planes escorting bombers reach farther into Germany from England. Talbot worked with his advisor, Professor Wilhelm (who was German!), and they were successful in making 94 octane gasoline using a fluid catalyst process instead of the standard solid catalyst of the time. Despite being a “B student,” Talbot received a 1+ on his thesis, “to everyone’s surprise in the class.” Years later, he would meet a former P-51 pilot who at one point had found that the planes could go farther, but never knew why. “You’re looking at the guy who did it” was his response.
Upon graduation, Bill and Talbot interviewed for jobs, but everyone knew they would join the service, so the interviews were “quite relaxed.” After a brief break following graduation, the brothers received orders to attend Naval Officer training in January of 1944, conducted on an old battleship docked on the Hudson River in New York. After three months they graduated as Ensigns, upon which they went to small craft training in Florida followed by diesel engine training at General Motors in Cleveland. Talbot was sent to Portland, Oregon where they were billeted in a country club with two other officers while their ship was being built at the Willamette Ship Works. The ship launched Christmas Eve, 1943, with Talbot as the ship’s engineer and damage control officer.
After sailing to San Francisco and then Los Angeles they spent a month shaking out the ship and preparing the crew. On weekends, however, the officers would spend time with a friend of Talbot’s who was a top film editor at 20th Century Fox, mostly at parties in Brentwood where they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Tyrone Power. It was during this time that his Captain commissioned a “pinup” picture of one of the young actresses they knew, Marguerite Chapman, to be posted in their wardroom once they went to sea. We share a copy of the picture below, with all due apologies to our modern sensibilities!
After a month at sea, they reached Pearl Harbor where they were assigned mine sweeping duties, which included detonating mines with rifle shots. Months later, near Okinawa, his fleet was attacked by kamikazes, in actions where 4,500 men were lost. Luckily, his ship was never hit, and at one point they saved 72 men from a pair of destroyers that were destroyed nearby.
At war’s end, Talbot’s ship was sent to clear all the mines between Korea and Honshu, Japan, then on to the Philippines. With so many servicemen waiting to return home, it took him nine months to accrue enough points to return. Amazingly, both brothers were offered jobs at the Bakelite plastics company after the war, so once again they were together.
Fast forward to 2017, after long and varied careers in engineering and finance, with forays into painting (Talbot) and car collecting (Bill), the brothers were again together in the Waverly Heights retirement community in Gladwyne, PA. Prior to Bill’s death at 95 in January of this year, the brothers were informed by Princeton that they were officially the oldest living pair of identical twin alumni in the history of the school.
Bright eyed and energetic at 95, Talbot Adamson continues to live in Gladwyne with his second wife, Maisie. A born raconteur, he greatly enjoys the opportunity to share his stories with his neighbors via the “resident tales” program (he regaled me with stories for well over an hour!). I will leave you with one of his favorites.
Finding himself in rough seas on a steamer from Calais to Dover in 1952, Talbot ventured out on deck for some fresh air. An unshaven chap approached from the other direction and they struck up a conversation. “You won’t believe this, but you look like that actor Ronald Reagan,” says Talbot. “You’re talking to him,” says Reagan, who, having lost his shirt in a poker game in Paris, proceeds to bum 25 bucks from Talbot for the train to London. What a ride that was!