IU and World War I

Read about IU's involvement in World War I and the plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war's end.

World War I transformed campus, opened Indiana University to the world

Go back in time 100 years, and you'll find a very different Indiana University in Bloomington. The Old Crescent buildings are already there, but the students, most of whom are men, are wearing military uniforms and living in crowded barracks. Every morning they march and drill on the athletic fields.

World War I is raging in Europe, and the U.S. military has assigned the job of training troops to colleges and universities. Most of IU's male students have enlisted in the Student Army Training Corps, created to keep students in college while preparing to fight the war.

"The student body basically gets turned into a military body overnight," said John Summerlot, director of IU Veterans Support Services, who is writing a book on the university's military history.

ROTC circa 1918View print quality image
ROTC Summer School Battalion in July 1918.  Photo courtesy of IU Archives

The university had been drifting toward war consciousness for two years. In 1916, a few dozen students organized Company I of the Indiana Volunteers and traveled to Texas for the Mexican Border War. Bored and uncomfortable, they soon were allowed to return to school.

But as the distant war in Europe gained more attention, students pushed to get involved. The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. IU trustees approved a Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Military training, led by faculty, began that year.

Lewis B. Hershey, later an Army general and longtime director of the Selective Service, helped organize the program as an IU graduate student.

A militarized campus

Many students and some staff and faculty members left campus to volunteer for service, Summerlot said. But U.S. military leaders, expecting a protracted conflict and an ongoing need for manpower, encouraged young men to stay in college and train there.

That was the rationale for the Student Army Training Corps, which at IU included four companies and well over 1,000 men. Members wore uniforms, were paid $30 a month and lived in barracks that were converted fraternity houses. Their days included academic classes and military drills.

Support for the war encompassed the campus. Women prepared bandages and first-aid kits for the front. Nurses and nursing students volunteered with the Red Cross, which, unlike the Army and Navy nursing corps, sent women to serve overseas.

"Your first thought every day should be in what you can most effectively serve your country in the greatest crisis in its history," IU President William Lowe Bryan said in a message to campus. "If we are worthy to enjoy the liberty won for us by Washington and by Lincoln, we must now fight for it anew."

William Lowe BryanView print quality image
IU President William Lowe Bryan speaks to recruits during an induction ceremony on Oct. 1, 1918. Photo courtesy of IU Archives

In addition to regular IU students, hundreds of young men arrived by train for short courses on how to maintain and operate truck-sized battlefield radios. Physics professors, experts in the new technology of wireless telephony, taught the radio men, who lived in a former women's residence hall.

According to university records, 3,798 alumni and students served in World War I. Fifty-nine of them died, including at least one woman: Flora Ruth, a nurse who died from appendicitis on an Army base in Arkansas. Other IU women who served in the war included Adah McMahan, an alumna and physician who helped staff a field hospital in France; Edna Henry, head of what later became the IU School of Social Work, who was recruited by the surgeon general to establish a medical social work program for the Army; and Georgia Finley, who served as a dietitian in France and wrote frequent letters back to IU.

There were only a handful of black men at IU at the time, but they took part in ROTC and joined the Student Army Training Corps, drilling with white classmates and living separately in Barracks No. 7, the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house. At a time when the Army assigned African-Americans to segregated units, the brass didn't know what to make of racially integrated companies.

"I would argue the first racially integrated Army unit was the SATC," Summerlot said. "And it may have been just at IU. I've yet to find any other integrated SATC units during World War I."

A university transformed by war

If IU influenced the war, the war also changed the university. James Capshew, the university historian for Indiana University, said the institution became more service-oriented and outward-facing through its engagement with the war and the larger world.

The role of scientific research, conducted at IU and other universities, ramped up and became increasingly linked to national security and military preparedness. The National Research Council was created in 1916 to provide support for the sciences.

After the war, the university would grow rapidly, doubling in enrollment in a few years. As president, Bryan brought more emphasis to preparing graduates for the professions, opening schools of business and music to build on a foundation of liberal-arts education.

SATC Company CView print quality image
SATC Company C.  Photo courtesy of IU Archives

Finally, the $1 million Memorial Fund campaign in the early 1920s raised money to honor those who served in the war and built the Indiana Memorial Union, Memorial Hall and the first Memorial Stadium.

"Things got put into place that became hugely important to the university, like fundraising," Capshew said. "Students gave money (including future IU President Herman B Wells), alumni gave money, all for the improvement of IU."

In the fall of 1918, however, all that was still in the future. But in the midst of the excitement of training for war, the Spanish influenza outbreak, the deadliest pandemic in history, reached Bloomington. The campus was closed Oct. 10 by the State Board of Health and stayed closed until Nov. 4. SATC members were confined to their barracks, and other students were sent home.

No sooner had classes and training resumed in November than news broke that an armistice had been signed ending the fighting between the Allies and Germany. In Bloomington, a fire bell clanged to signal the end of the war. Uniformed SATC recruits marched in a celebratory parade.

By the end of December 1918, the SATC members had been discharged from the military. Students who had gone off to fight trickled back to resume their studies. Normalcy returned to campus.

But for some, Burton Myers wrote in a history of the university, "There was a pronounced tone of regret that so dramatic an undertaking would be halted."