"In the Air Force, when I had a choice between training to be a pilot, a bombardier, or a navigator, I chose the latter. I was more interested in maps than airplanes or bombs." Allen's choice proved a happy one: "Very few things are as challenging and as much fun as navigating."
He spent much of the war in training, flying over various portions of the U.S., where the worst he endured was trial by temperature. In mid-1945 he was sent overseas on the first B-29 to land on Okinawa-the site of one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Pacific Theatre. "The battle there was still going on, but I never saw aerial combat there, or anywhere. I did fly over Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after they were bombed. I still haven't forgotten the devastation."
Allen was still on Okinawa when the war ended. Members of the B-29's crew needed more flight time, which allowed them some unprecedented aeronautical opportunities. "When we heard that a volcano was erupting in Japan, we'd fly over it," he remembers. "When we heard a rumor of a mountain in China even higher than Everest-we went searching for it. Before we were done we had flown over most of the Far East."
What Allen had learned about world geography and cultures intrigued him, but when his service time was up, he was eager to return to Reed. He came back in the fall of 1946 to find that many of his classmates were also returning from the war.
"The best teacher I ever encountered anywhere in my education was Reed history professor Dorothy Johansen," says Allen. "She almost made a history major out of me. She was demanding and stimulating, with a great critical mind matched by enthusiasm and knowledge." Allen wrote a paper for her on the origins of the geographical concept of the Willamette River. He discovered that early geographers (operating mainly on information from the Lewis and Clark expedition) could not imagine that a river as significant as the Willamette had its origin in the Coast Range, but must originate in the Rockies, perhaps at Utah's Great Salt Lake. Allen claims he did more research on that paper (which won the 1948 Armitage Competition in Oregon Pioneer History) than on his senior thesis on photo optics.
Despite Professor Johansen, Allen stuck with physics, but by his junior year began to question his future in that discipline. "I don't have a primarily theoretical mind," he says. "I began to realize that I wanted something more practical, particularly where I could be outdoors.
"At that time, the Reed physics department was sending most of its graduates to the University of Chicago. When I applied in geophysics and geology to California Institute of Technology, my professors were not happy." Although he didn't realize it when he applied, the main emphasis there was seismology, which Allen calls "sort of a good accident." He earned his master's and his doctorate there in geophysics and geology, then joined the faculty, where he is now a professor emeritus.