A Brief History of Military Education at Penn State, by Jackie R. Esposito, University Archivist (used by permission)
(Photo above, Veteran's Memorial Plaza Dedication, Sept. 14, 2012)
Thank you very much for inviting me here today, on this auspicious occasion, to reflect upon Penn State’s history and the role of military education. An article in the Daily Collegian during World War II began by stating, “Up in the peaceful Nittany Mountains of Central Pennsylvania, war has brought changes to the Commonwealth’s institution of higher learning…” For a few moments today I’d like to review what some of those changes have been.
The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, which commemorates its 150th anniversary this year, specifically states “…the endowment, support , and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics (emphasis mine), to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…”
Students at Penn State in 1862 actively participated in daily military drills right here on the Old Main lawn usually first thing every morning. Many of the young male students wanted to enlist in the Civil War, even though President Evan Pugh, a devout Quaker, tried to discourage them from participating until they received their degree. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, both students and faculty, were actively involved and serving their country with recognition.
Perhaps, Penn State’s most well-known military figure from the Civil War era was none other than General James Beaver, after whom Beaver Stadium is named. Beaver, who lost part of his leg during the war, served as President of the Penn State Board of Trustees for over forty years. His loyalty and devotion to the College were unwavering. His belief in military discipline went mostly unchallenged by the students under his tutelage.
During the Atherton Era, the most significant, and perhaps unrecognized, military-related accomplishment was the conversion of the Cadet Band to the now world-famous Penn State Blue Band. Its military background still reflected in the number of marches and drills utilized as part of its game day repertoire.
The second major military occupation which drew focus in Penn State’s history came prior to and during the First World War as Penn State supported the Student Army Training Corps. The Corps was established as a national military training operation within the National Defense Act of 1916. SATC, (now known as ROTC), specifically educated Penn State students in the use of practical tools for warfare, such as surveying, topography, and mapmaking. Students were encouraged in training brochures to avoid “slouchiness, slovenly speech, hesitancy, and no grit.” The moral lessons they were advocated to learn in the same brochures included “wake up, take an interest, do the little things well, speak up, come to the point, heads up, shoulders back, don’t be a quitter.” Not bad advice in1917; not bad advice in 2012.
The utilization of the Armory building as both a military storehouse and training center, formerly across the Mall where Willard Building now stands, made it one of the more popular buildings on campus. In addition to the military uses, the Armory was favored for dances, balls, wrestling matches and all kinds of social and athletic gatherings. But it was not the only facility related to military education established at Penn State. Following the end of World War I, the newly created Nittany dorms were named for Penn State student veterans killed in the Great War. Their legacy lives on with every group of students who inhabit those buildings and learn about the honor and dignity of their namesakes.
The article in the 1942 Daily Collegian that I cited above stated that “soldiers, sailors, Marines, air cadets sing in cadence as they march to class. Trim ensigns assemble almost before sun-up for marching drills…handsome fraternity houses…now serve as barracks…and all over campus…lights burn late at night so that research might speed the end of the war…” During World War II, Penn State served extensively as a center for civilian defense training. The Curtiss Wright training program was a model for aircraft education as well as the creation of newer initiatives that led to innovations such as educational TV programming, driver’s education, and chemical agents for warfare and peacetime uses.
Post World War II was a flourishing time on campus with the benefits of the G.I. Bill especially visible across the Commonwealth at each of the campus locations. Thousands of newly returned veterans flooded Penn State to obtain a degree and expand the U.S. workforce. No single piece of educational legislation in the 20th century had a more dramatic effect on the national, regional or local economies. The G.I. Bill, not only afforded individuals a fantastic Penn State education, it fostered the growth and development of twenty Commonwealth campuses and distributed the influence of higher education to Pennsylvania citizens in every one of its sixty-seven counties.
New defense-related activities and facilities also flourished. Penn State was the recipient of major Department of Navy funding which began in 1941 and continues to this day. The Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, a naval hydrodynamic facility for torpedoes, was installed for research development and still operates effectively on the north side of Atherton Street. Wagner Building, named for H. Edward Wagner, a distinguished serviceman with the 82nd Airborne, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who died in combat in WWII, became the center for ROTC activities as Penn State grew to one of the largest military-centered campuses in the nation.
In 1989, four Penn State faculty members designed the winning entry for the creation of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Don Leon, John Lucas, Veronica Burns Lucas, and Eliza Pennypacker Oberholtzer submitted a proposal that focused specifically on building a memorial that depicted the life of the soldier during the conflict. The soldiers were designed with full pack, raincoat, boots and artillery loads.
During the Vietnam War while campus protests did occur, military education and research activities continued and Penn State was amply represented throughout the southeast conflict. Similarly during the Gulf War, Penn State graduates represented the Armed Forces with the utmost of bravery and dedication.
Therefore it is to be expected and anticipated that the same honor and dignity were demonstrated as the United States became embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 bombings. The commitment of the individual is no better exemplified than by Penn Staters such as Lt. Michael Murphy and the other veterans recognized by this memorial.
As noted in the World War II Daily Collegian article I mentioned as I began this overview, “the mountains that surround Penn State are still peaceful and the campus looks as serene as ever, but students and professors and researchers know…” this calm is credited to the hard work and sacrifices made by our military representatives every day in every way.