100 years ago in 1918: Penn State becomes a military training ground

Chris Koleno
October 02, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Grenade throwing, bayonet practice and trench construction were all very much a part of life on Penn State's University Park campus  100 years ago. While a military component had always been a part of the University’s curriculum, World War I brought about a military presence the likes of which the campus had never seen. Protecting our nation was a compelling ideal for many Americans.

“Ever since 1863, when Penn State took on its role as Pennsylvania’s sole land-grant university under the 1862 Morrill Act, the pursuit of military science and training has been part of our mission, and the University has had a long and strong tradition of supporting those in the military community,” said Col. (ret) Eugene McFeely, Penn State’s senior director for veterans affairs and services.

In fact, Military Appreciation celebrations this year at Penn State kick off on Oct. 26 with a Military Appreciation women's volleyball game, followed the next day by the annual Military Appreciation football game and run through Veterans Day on Nov. 12, closing with the Veterans Day ceremony on Old Main steps. This year’s seventh annual Military Appreciation football game will celebrate the 100th anniversary of women in the U.S. armed forces.

Looking back to 1917 and a century of military history, McFeely notes that the U.S. had just entered World War I and was focused on building up the country’s military. After years of neutrality and peace, America was now at war.

WWI ambulance corps at Penn State 1917

The Penn State Ambulance Corps, a World War I student training unit, poses on the steps of the “old” Old Main in 1917.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

The expansion of a military presence on campus became necessary when, in August 1918, Congress lowered the draft age to 18. Now, participation in the SATC (Student Army Training Corps) — which was originally intended to be the equivalent of the University’s modern-day ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) on campus — was now required by law for all physically qualified male students.

Nationwide, 1918 also was the first year the Marine Corps Reserves opened to women.

Through the War Department’s joint civilian-military Committee on Education and Special Training, the U.S. government had, in effect, taken over the curriculum on campuses across the country and as a result, the military commandant had more executive power on campus than the university president, according to “Penn State: An Illustrated History,” by Penn State historian Michael Bezilla.

The SATC, originally conceived as a voluntary unit where students would receive 15 hours of military field and classroom instruction every week at the government’s expense, now expanded to include 30 hours per week of required military instruction.

At noon on Oct. 1, 1918, 1,600 Penn State undergraduates gathered on the lawn of Old Main and joined more than 150,000 students across the country to be inducted into the SATC on their campuses. The University Park campus was turned into a makeshift military base, including converting fraternity houses into barracks and erecting new barracks on Old Beaver Field, located in the area of Whitmore, Frear and Osmond laboratories. The students’ schedule included rising at 7 a.m., marching to and from classes and meals, and an 8:30 p.m. curfew. Intercollegiate Athletics’ scheduled events were restricted, while intramural sports took the place of most official collegiate sporting activities.  

As a result of this intense focus on military preparation, Penn State and other universities shifted their curriculum and goals to help prepare students for life in the military, rather than the corporate world. Assisting the nation in its time of need was a priority.

Army officers on May Day at University Park

Army officers on May Day at University Park, 1920.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

But the militarization of Penn State was short-lived. A quick winding down of the aggressive military push occurred shortly after the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, and by the end of the year the student corps was disbanded.

Unexpectedly and with little fanfare, the emphasis on the military during World War I opened the door for women to serve in a military that had previously banned themIn 1918, Opha May Johnson became the first woman to join the Marine Corps. A year before, in 1917, Loretta Perfectus Walsh had become the first enlisted woman in the military, joining the U.S. Naval Reserve Force.

The first women to blaze new trails through the military at Penn State include: Sylvia Boyce, first woman admitted to the Detachment 720 Rifle Team, 1957; Beth Ann Boltz, first female commissioned at Penn State, 1960; Priscilla Hamilton, first female Army ROTC Cadet Brigade Commander, 1977; and Debra Truxal, first female Air Force ROTC cadet corps commander, 1978.

Penn State Army ROTC cadets shake hands with Brig. Gen. Bailey in 1972

Army ROTC cadets Mary D. Johnston, of Levittown; Nancy C. Fuller, of Pittsburgh; Diane K. Shifflett, of Saegertown; Carol A. O'Brien, of Wynnewood; and Susan E. Rodems, of Syracuse, New York, shake hands with Brig. Gen. Mildred Bailey, director of the Women's Army Corps, in 1972. The cadets were among the first 20 women nationwide to receive Army ROTC scholarships.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

During the final two years of World War I (1917-18), women joined by the thousands. According to the U.S. Army’s website, during this war more than 35,000 women served as nurses and support staff in an official capacity of the military, and more than 400 nurses died in the line of duty.

Today, women in the military have come a long way from the beginnings of their service 100 years ago. In addition to increased numbers, women now hold virtually any role in the military, including combat positions. This year at Penn State, there are 131 women, out of a total of 643 cadets, who are each in one of the University’s three ROTC programs — Air Force, Army and Naval (includes Navy and Marines).

“Right now is a great and exciting time for women in the military, because there really are no boundaries,” said Jane Li, senior in immunology and infectious disease and a cadet in Penn State’s Air Force ROTC program, who plans to enter flight school after graduation in hopes of flying bombers. “Any walls that had existed are being torn down and there isn’t anything keeping women from achieving and becoming military leaders. Right now, I feel like the field is very even and the sky is the limit.”

Resources for military personnel at Penn State include: 

Last Updated October 12, 2018