Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Penn State Goes to War: How an American College Supported the War Effort

By Michael Bezilla

The Memorial To Penn State's
Seventy-Four Fallen of
the Great War
From the Editor: This article is intended to be a case study demonstrating how colleges all over America typically supported the war and how the schools changed [usually temporarily] through that experience. The Pennsylvania State University [Penn State] was founded in 1855, became the nation's second Land Grant College in 1862 and is today one of our largest publicly operated learning and research centers. Your editor spent two tours of duty at Penn State. MH

...By 1917 nearly everyone's attention was fixed on events in Europe. The flames of a war that had been consuming the European continent since August 1914 were about to engulf the United States. During the early years of that conflict the question of American neutrality divided the Penn State community no less than it divided the nation. Should the United States remain neutral at all costs, or should it come to the aid of Great Britain and France in their struggle with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire? Not until the fall of 1916—ironically as President Woodrow Wilson was campaigning for reelection on the theme that he had kept the nation out of war—did the first signs appear at the college that America might soon become something other than an interested spectator. The cadet regiment, composed of all physically qualified male freshmen and sophomores (juniors and seniors were no longer required to participate) finally exchanged the blue uniforms that had been a hallmark of Penn State military training since the Civil War for the regulation olive drab apparel of the regular army. Weekly drill periods were lengthened, and in contrast to past indifference, students participated in these exercises with at least occasional seriousness of purpose.

Through the National Defense Act of 1916, Congress authorized the formation of a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to help supply the leadership the army would need in the event of a sudden involvement in a large-scale war. Students enrolling in ROTC units, which were to be established on a voluntary basis at colleges nationwide, would receive instruction in military subjects in addition to their normal academic studies. Upon graduation they would be awarded reserve officers' commissions. Since Penn State already had a military cadre—albeit one limited to freshmen and sophomores and offering no promise of commissions—the college declined to join in the stampede of institutions that besieged the War Department with requests to set up ROTC programs on their campuses.

Relations between United States and Germany worsened throughout the winter of 1916–17. On 3 February diplomatic ties were severed. Two days later, 2,300 Penn State male undergraduates voted to send identical telegrams to President Wilson and Governor Martin Brumbaugh advising them "that we tender our services, in whatever capacity they can be used, for preserving the national rights of a country against aggression." The measure was a purely symbolic one, but it did show that student opinion was fast congealing in favor of America's entry into the war. In March the board of trustees seconded the students' gesture by volunteering the use of the college's grounds and buildings to the War Department and to the Pennsylvania National Guard for training purposes. After Congress issued a declaration of war against Germany on 6 April, gestures turned to action, as the first wave of students left the college to enlist in the military or to take civilian defense jobs. Unsure how to handle this exodus, President Sparks and his Council of Administration decided to award academic credit for the entire semester and a course grade equivalent to the one earned upon termination of studies to all students who could present proof that they were engaged in war-related employment. By the time June commencement arrived, about 200 undergraduates had joined the army or navy, and another 570 were working on farms or in defense industries.

The Nation's Second Land Grant Institution, 
Penn State Had a Substantial Armory That 
Was a Center of Activity During the War

World War I was America's first technological war. Because the nation's colleges and universities could provide on a continuing basis the large numbers of technically trained men demanded by this kind of conflict, these institutions assumed a strategic value that they had not possessed in previous wars. Edwin Sparks joined presidents and representatives from 187 institutions of higher learning in Washington, DC, in May to discuss how their schools' human and material resources could best be utilized. It was agreed that students should be discouraged from enlisting for military service until they graduated or reached the draft age of 21 so that they might take with them into the service as much prior training as possible. This training should incorporate topics that were militarily valuable, and as many students as possible should have the opportunity to enroll. Upon his return to Penn State, Dr. Sparks applied to the War Department for a Reserve Officers Training Corps unit, which was formed in the fall of 1917 and comprised more than 200 juniors and seniors.

At the Washington meeting, college and university officials also promised to cooperate fully with the federal government and the quasi-military agencies that had been created to coordinate mobilization for war. The implications of this pledge were not to be realized for many months. In the meantime, Penn State geared up to meet the emergency. The 1917 summer session for teachers began on schedule with a record enrollment of 1,104. Except for compulsory military drills for men and a course in first aid and nursing for women, the session resembled those of past summers.

More defense activity occurred in the School of Agriculture, which added personnel to its county extension staffs to assist in the campaign to increase Pennsylvania's food production. County agents became official representatives of the federal government in overseeing the planting of additional corn, wheat, and other staple crops and proved invaluable in cutting through bureaucratic red tape to help farmers to obtain the extra fertilizer and seed they needed. Agents kept meticulous records of food production and storage as part of a government plan to export as much food as possible to America's allies without undercutting domestic needs. Home economists, who had been added to the extension staff under the Smith-Lever Act, fanned out across the Commonwealth with information on home canning of surplus foods and planning nutritious meals using substitute foods for those that might not be available because of war-induced shortages.

When the fall semester began, approximately three-fourths of the 1,600 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors of the previous year returned to the campus, a signal that students were heeding the message to stay in school. A freshman class slightly larger than the one admitted in 1916 put the college's total enrollment at about 1,900, down less than 300 from 1916–17. Soon after the new academic year got under way, the School of Engineering became directly involved in military training through its new course in "storekeeping, accounting, continuous inventory, disbursing, and transportation." Students took it on a voluntary basis in addition to their normal academic load. Hugo Diemer originated the course at the request of the Army Ordnance Department, and it was taught by Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering J. Orvis Keller.

Members of the Boys' Working Reserve Learn 
Proper Techniques for Spraying Fruit Trees

The war had not yet caused a significant disruption in the academic routine at Penn State. There were the usual plantings of war gardens and campaigns on behalf of Liberty Bonds, of course, but in spite of succumbing to such occasional bits of patriotic fervor as renaming sauerkraut "liberty cabbage," students and faculty did not seem to harbor the intense anti-German feelings that prevailed at some other institutions. No serious attempt was made to delete the German language from the curriculum. True, German eventually ceased to be taught for a short time, but it was squeezed out by military subjects added at the direction of the War Department. Nor did any threat materialize to remove German books and periodicals from the shelves of Carnegie Library. To the contrary, the faculty expressed fear that the war would halt the flow of internationally respected technical and scientific writing from Germany, causing irreparable loss to the library's holdings. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries many American scholars went to Germany to pursue doctoral studies, for the universities there led the world in the quality of their graduate education and in fact set the pattern after which American schools fashioned their own graduate programs. After the United States entered the war, faculty trained at German institutions were thought to have divided loyalties and became objects of suspicion on many American campuses. Relatively few members of the teaching staff at Penn State held PhDs from German or any other universities, thus sparing the college the embarrassment of having the patriotism of its faculty called into question.

Neither Penn State's faculty nor its students questioned the wisdom of unconditionally committing their school to the war effort. They viewed their institution's participation in defense work as the logical culmination of the service ideal of land-grant education, Furthermore, instruction in military subjects represented no departure from past practice, having been explicitly called for by the Morrill Act of 1862. On college campuses everywhere there was the feeling that in time of war, the survival of the nation was at stake. If making academic institutions instruments of the federal. government would significantly increase the chances of military victory, then the traditional freedoms and independence of higher education had to be sacrificed for the duration of the crisis.

This view was never seriously challenged, even as the college was being transformed into first a trade school and then an armed military camp. In December 1917 Penn State agreed to join about 150 other colleges and vocational schools in providing technical training for large numbers of army enlisted personnel. To make room for the expected influx of soldiers, the college was put on an accelerated schedule for the remainder of the academic year, and commencement exercises were held on 24 April. Three weeks before, a vanguard contingent of two hundred men from the Ordnance and Signal Corps had arrived to begin eight weeks of instruction in such subjects as carpentry, sheet metal working, and radio telegraphy. Additional contingents followed until by midsummer over 1,000 men were undergoing training in automobile repair, topographical surveying, and other topics selected by the War Department.

The greatest burden fell on the School of Engineering, which was hard pressed to find enough teachers since it had lost so many of its regular faculty to the army's Engineering Reserve Corps and war industry plants. The School of Agriculture also supervised a vocational training program, although it worked with civilian rather than military students. Soon after the close of the spring semester, the school and the U.S. Department of Labor's Boys Working Reserve cooperated in establishing a Farm Training Camp on the campus, the only camp of its kind in Pennsylvania. Four groups of about 250 youths each were selected from the Working Reserve, a volunteer army of males between ages 16 and 21, to attend the camp for two-week periods of intensive instruction in the rudiments of farm work. The students were then dispatched to "liberty camps" scattered throughout the state, and from there they were assigned as needed to nearby farms in an attempt to relieve the labor shortage that threatened to limit food production.


Before the year was out, nearly every department in the college became involved in some manner in national defense. In February 1918 the War Department created a joint civilian-military Committee on Education and Special Training (CEST), whose principal objectives were to encourage students to acquire as much education as possible before entering military service and to develop a standardized program of defense-related instruction for these students. In the spring of 1918, the CEST formed the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a unit of which was to be established in September at all colleges and universities and at all professional and technical schools enrolling at least 100 males over the age of 21. As originally contemplated, enlistment in the SATC was to be voluntary and all SATC students were to receive 15 hours of military field and classroom instruction every week at government expense. It was hoped that the SATC would give students more tangible evidence that they were helping their country and at the same time give the War Department more control over the kind of training available at institutions of higher education.

The SATC, as originally planned, would have been little more disruptive of the academic routine at Penn State than the Reserve Officer Training Corps, but in August Congress decided to lower the draft age to 18. In the absence of educational deferments, this action left the SATC without a reason to exist and threatened to deplete the ranks of the college population. With the consent of the War Department, the CEST resorted to the drastic measure of making enlistment in the SATC compulsory for all physically qualified male college students. The only legal means by which this could be accomplished was to make each student an army private on active duty. This wholesale conscription in effect nationalized all colleges and universities and enabled the federal government through the CEST to dictate their curriculum. Legally speaking, the executive powers of military commandant Major James Baylies exceeded even those of President Sparks. Required military instruction was increased to 30 hours per week, put under the direction of some 30 officers, and covered such topics as grenade throwing, bayonet practice, and trench construction. Even instruction in the humanities was altered to suit the exigencies of national defense. History, economics, and political science courses all focused, by government fiat, on the background of the European conflict and America's war aims. Study of the French language assumed an importance it had never known before. At Penn State even the library offered its support, as head librarian Erwin Runkle busied himself amassing special collections in military history, and—his personal favorite—" adventure and daring."

SATC Cadets on the March near the Armory Parade Ground

The CEST put all institutions on a quarterly academic calendar, with the first term beginning 1 October. At noon on that day, over 1,600 Penn State undergraduates gathered on Old Main lawn to take the oath of allegiance, sing the national anthem, and listen to the reading of a telegram from President Wilson. Identical ceremonies occurred simultaneously at 500 college campuses across the nation as over 150,000 students were inducted into the Student Army Training Corps. All members of the SATC were expected to have obtained sufficient training within nine months to enable them to be transferred as needed to military assignments both at home and overseas. Going to college was hardly an option for any youth who wished to avoid service in the armed forces.

The SATC snuffed out the remnants of student social life at Penn State. Undergraduates had to wear uniforms at all times and observe military regulations just as they would at any other military base. To meet the demand for additional living quarters, fraternity houses were converted to barracks, two new barracks were erected on Old Beaver Field, and a mess hall was built adjacent to McAllister Hall. A rigidly prescribed schedule governed daily activities, with students rising promptly at 7:00 A.M., marching to and from classes and meals, and observing a strict 8:30 P.M. curfew. While this routine bore only an approximate resemblance to real military life—surely most troops on active duty did not enjoy the luxury of a seven o'clock reveille—and was well insulated from the horrors of combat, it did make freshman customs seem downright childish by comparison. Among the 500 undergraduates disqualified from the SATC (that is, female students and males who did not pass the physical exam),green dinks (beanies) worn by freshman males and hair ribbons for their female classmates disappeared as quickly as the old taboo prohibiting first year students from walking on the grass. Compulsory attendance at daily and Sunday chapel was also discontinued for the first time in the college's history.

Even before the full weight of the SATC was felt, the war was bringing about changes in extracurricular activities. In their spring 1918 production of "It Pays to Advertise," the Penn State Thespians for the first time included women in the cast. (The women's appearance was a short-lived one; not until 1926 would the Thespians again include a female in their show.) A shortage of qualified players was not so easily solved by the varsity athletic teams, although the 1917–18 schedules were adhered to with few modifications. In the fall of 1918, the CEST restricted intercollegiate play, preferring intramural sports as less costly and time-consuming and encompassing a greater proportion of the student population.

The great influenza epidemic that struck the nation that autumn further reduced the football schedule. Many communities fared worse than State College, where six students and six townspeople died from influenza. Strict quarantines had to be instituted in many parts of the Commonwealth. The football team managed to play only four games that year, all in November and all under new head coach Hugo Bezdek. Former coach Dick Harlow had resigned in July to join the army. In August, when the schedule still seemed fairly complete, Bezdek, who had coached football at the Universities of Oregon and Arkansas, was secured as his replacement. As head of the Department of Physical Education, Bezdek was also expected to breathe renewed life into the program of physical conditioning that the college ostensibly required of all students. The army and navy had discovered a dismayingly high number of potential inductees physically unfit for service, prompting Penn State and other schools throughout the country to reexamine the place of physical training in higher education.

Outright militarization of the college had been a long time coming, but once an armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, demobilization occurred swiftly. The Student Army Training Corps was disbanded by mid-December. Nearly 2,200 Penn State students and alumni (excluding those in the SATC) saw military service during the World War I, nearly half of them as commissioned officers, along with 49 members of the faculty. Many months would have to pass before most of the students and teachers who had left the college and were fortunate enough to have survived the war could return. Yet life at Penn State as the prewar generation knew it would never be quite the same, for the institution had come to the end of another era in its history and was about to enter a vastly different epoch.

The college experienced this rite of passage literally in a trial by fire. On the evening of 23 November 1918, flames broke out in the rear of the Main Engineering Building, and despite the valiant efforts of Penn State's own student fire brigade and those of the borough's Alpha Fire Company, the structure soon became a roaring inferno. Wind-whipped embers threatened to ignite other buildings until additional firemen from Bellefonte and Tyrone arrived to confine the fire to the Engineering Building and adjacent power plant. The wall of the steam whistle at the power plant first sounded the alarm and then continued throughout the night, a fitting accompaniment to the awful destruction of the architectural capstone of the entire campus. Morning light found the Main Engineering Building a smoking hulk and the college without steam heat and electric power. Classes were cancelled for a few days while utilities were restored, but it was not clear how the college would cope with the loss of one of its most important academic structures, one providing classrooms for hundreds of students and containing thousands of dollars worth of laboratory equipment.

The mental and physical stress arising from the aftermath of the fire proved more than Edwin Sparks could bear, and in February 1919 he suffered a nervous breakdown. Sparks had been extremely active during the war. Besides guiding Penn State through a period of sudden, radical change, he served on numerous state and federal commissions, devoting practically every spare moment to defense work of one kind or another. That he accomplished so much with so little rest and relaxation was due in part to the assistance of Mary Nitzky, who since 1905 had served as presidential secretary and handled many of the administrative chores of the office. In the fall of 1918, Miss Nitzky herself became incapacitated by nervous exhaustion and had to take a temporary leave from her job, forcing Sparks to spend much of his time dealing with petty details. The president was already attending to more routine administrative matters than usual, having assumed many of the responsibilities of Arthur Holmes, who in 1917 had given up his post as dean of the general faculty to accept the presidency of Drake University. The burning of the Main Engineering Building simply stretched Sparks's personal stamina too thin. The board of trustees granted him a leave of absence for the remainder of 1919, expecting him to resume his duties by the end of the year.

George Pond, dean of the School of Natural Science, was named head of a faculty committee charged with carrying on the necessary presidential activities in the interim. After his long period of recuperation, however, Sparks still felt he had not regained his health sufficiently and submitted his resignation. The trustees accepted it with reluctance, although they did prevail upon him to return to his post until the June 1920 commencement. Sparks also agreed to remain at the college as a lecturer in American history, an appointment he held until his death from heart failure in 1924.

In Case You've Ever Wondered What "Happy Valley" Looks Like

Sources and thanks: Michael Bezilla was formerly the Director, Development Communications & Special Projects at Penn State University, University Park, Pa. This article is excerpted from his full work, "Penn State: An Illustrated History," which can be found at the Penn State Libraries Website. By permission of the author and his publisher, The Pennsylvania State University Press. MH, PSU 69, 73.


  1. One of the names on the Penn State plaque of students killed in World War One is Donald T. Shenton. He joined the 103rd Engineers in Philadelphia along with his brother, Ed, in early 1917. Both trained at Camp Meade in Maryland and later at Camp Hancock in Georgia. Don was assigned to Company E, while Ed was in Company B. They went to France together and both fought in all the major battles in which the 28th - Keystone - Division was engaged from the Second Battle of the Marne to the Battle of Meuse-Argonne. Only eleven days after the Armistice, Don was killed along with four other members of Company E when a German mine he was removing exploded. He was buried in the churchyard in Vignuelles.

  2. After being buried in Vignuelles was he moved to St. Mihiel, Thiacourt?

  3. It appears Donald's remains were reinterred at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. RIP.

    See Find A Grave Memorial No. 91218100 at