OU ARMY ROTC HISTORY
The World Goes To War. OU Follows
History by Numbers:
12: Companies in the Student Training Regiment.
40: Daily cadet pay in cents, circa 1919.
$65,000: Cost of the Armory in 1919 dollars.
Following years of war in Europe and months of international brinksmanship, an increasingly frustrated Congress declared war upon a belligerent and aggressive Germany in early April of 1917. That action heralded the long-awaited entrance of the United States into what by then had become the Great War – a conflict without historical peer – and a conflict seemingly without end. As Americans from the hills of upstate New York to the arid coasts of southern California asked how they could do “their part” for the war, a group of young men from the windswept plains of Oklahoma met to address that very question.
Coming together in a mass meeting called by Student Body President Josh Lee, the men of the University of Oklahoma decided that their institution, like all other segments of society, needed to make a contribution to the national war effort. They decided, as an institution of higher learning, that their contribution would be best made by training students in basic military skills. Looking with favor upon the decision of the students, University President Stratton D. Brooks gave his approval to form a military training unit.
Possessing patriotism in abundance but lacking weapons, equipment, and uniforms, the men of the Student Volunteer Regiment drilled for several hours each week and practiced basic military skills without the formal direction of professional soldiers. With the end of the academic year in early May, the unit disbanded, ending in less than one month the University of Oklahoma’s first experiment in military education.
Even though the academic year had ended, the war in Europe did not, and both the university and the state government came to recognize the need to provide students with a general military education. Although the university offered its facilities for use in general military training, the War Department declined the offer, instead requesting that courses with direct military skill applications be offered. At the same time, the newly-formed State Board of Regents for Education mandated that all male students enrolled in the 1917-1918 academic year participate in a two-year military training program, which would remain a requirement at the university for almost 50 years.
With that decision, the first formal military training organization, the Student Military Regiment, was organized at the beginning of the academic year. Administered by a retired Army officer, Captain C. D. Dudley, and a professor of highway engineering, R.C. Terrell, the Regiment, not yet recognized by the War Department or in any way affiliated with the armed forces, trained its cadets in military drills using wooden rifles that the two instructors carved themselves. Following a May inspection by War Department officials, the Student Military Regiment was given official recognition as its cadre and cadets had hoped, but it was not incorporated as a part of the newly-created Reserve Officer Training Corps. Instead, the Student Military Regiment was brought under the banner of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a program designed to train students for immediate service in the Army.
Constituted in October of 1918 with over one thousand students enrolled, the SATC, like the previous two military training programs at the university, was short-lived. With the Armistice signed, the war over, and the SATC disbanded, normalcy returned to the University of Oklahoma as classes in military skills were dropped and buildings converted to house soldiers were made once more into dormitories and fraternity houses.
As the War Department no longer needed masses of quickly-trained enlisted soldiers to fill its ranks, the request to form an ROTC unit was finally approved. In September of 1919, the makeshift wooden rifles of previous military training programs were replaced by real arms and uniforms. In addition, the ROTC was given 60 horses, nine artillery pieces, tractors, trucks, observation cars, and a wireless telegraph set. Within a year, Captain Carl A. Baehr and his staff of three officers and 33 enlisted soldiers occupied the newly-completed Armory building, forming the first true ROTC program at the University of Oklahoma.
A Time of Peace, A Time of Growth
History by Numbers:
9: Future generals graduated during this period.
244: Awards won by the Pistol Team between 1930 and 1933.
150: Peak membership of the ROTC-sponsored polo club.
As originally organized, the Student Volunteer Regiment was solely an infantry unit that taught its cadets basic drills and military skills. Advanced topics were not part of the curriculum, nor were special skills. Even today, training for all cadets emphasizes only basic soldier skills, infantry tactics, and leadership theory. Cadets are not taught specialized skills, such as artillery or military engineering, until after they have commissioned. But in the 1920s and 1930s, the organization of the ROTC was radically different, approximating an actual Army regiment with its own specialized support units staffed by cadets who trained in the special skills of their respective departments.
In 1920, a battalion of artillery was added to complement the regiment’s infantry battalion so that half of the cadets were trained in infantry skills and the other half were trained in artillery skills. By 1925, the infantry battalion was no more. The regiment became an all-artillery regiment, training its cadets to become artillery officers upon graduation. Unlike today, where the ROTC offers a general education and cadets may choose to enter any one of sixteen career fields, graduating cadets at that time were commissioned directly into the Army Reserve as Field Artillery officers. As newspaper articles and photographs from the period attest, live fires were a regular component of that training, and for more than two decades artillery shells whizzed over the open ground around Norman.
The establishment of an ordnance unit in 1935, followed by the establishment of quartermaster and engineering units, brought to the ROTC a greater diversity in the training offered to its cadets. Although the artillery unit with its horse-drawn cannons remained the program’s primary focus, cadets could finally receive their commissions in other technical specialties. These specialist officers were desperately needed by an Army transitioning into the modern era from a time of horses and gliders to one of tanks and bombers. Reflecting that transition, a battalion of motorized artillery joined the program’s horse artillery in 1939.
Besides offering direct military skill training, there were also numerous opportunities for extracurricular expression. The ROTC offered intramural sports within its ranks, and the band, pictured above, gave rise to the first organized civilian band at the university. During the 1930s, the pistol team gained national recognition with an impressive number of wins. The awards from those events still adorn the halls of the Armory even today. When the horses of the artillery unit were not employed in moving cannons, they were ridden for recreation. The ROTC-sponsored riding organization became incredibly popular amongst students.
Yet on the horizon ominous clouds gathered. The forces of evil personified by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan marshaled against the free nations of the world. As university students rode horses meant to haul artillery, Hitler’s mechanized forces overran Central and Eastern Europe.
Previously untested in a major conflict, having narrowly missed service in the First World War, the men of the ROTC, recent graduates and new cadets alike, were about to bite down upon the wet ashes of real combat.
Catharsis: OU’s Newly-Minted Officers Draw Blood
History by Numbers:
333: Commissioned officers produced upon ROTC’s suspension.
503: OU ROTC alumni killed in battle.
2: Medals of Honor given to OU ROTC alumni.
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor caught the ROTC, like the rest of the nation, by complete surprise. The Army, immediately forced to go on a wartime footing and produce enough officers to fight on two major fronts, completely stripped the program of its resources and personnel. All regular Army officers were immediately reassigned to critical positions in overseas combat units. To provide new training cadre, the Army called to active duty several reserve officers who had received their commissions through the program. That following year, all juniors and seniors in the program were sent to accelerated training at Fort Sill. Upon completing their training, the senior cadets immediately received their commissions, while the junior cadets were given the option of attending Officer Candidate School or transferring directly to active duty as enlisted soldiers.
Because the War Department had a desperate need for new officers and could not wait for underclassmen to finish the full program, the ROTC at OU was suspended in the summer of 1943. It was replaced by the Army Specialized Training Program, which was designed to provide critically-needed technical training to soldiers on active duty.
The mobilization of ROTC cadets for immediate active duty during the early crisis days of the Second World War remains the first and only time that the ROTC has been suspended and used in such a manner. Although similar plans exist today for a mobilization of the ROTC in the event of a national crisis, they have never been implemented, and cadets were never again deployed en masse.
Although officer education was temporarily interrupted during the war, officers serving bravely on both fronts with a variety of different units carried the Sooner heritage overseas, from the dense forests of the Reich to the tropical islands of the Pacific. Many made the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties, doing until the very end what they had been trained to do.
Of Forgotten Wars and Dress Rehearsals
History by Numbers:
5: Future generals graduated during this period.
0: Times the Korean War is mentioned in hundreds of pages of reviewed sources.
1,406: Cadets enrolled in OU ROTC on the eve of the Vietnam War.
The Korean War has sometimes been called “The Forgotten War.” Wedged precipitously between the triumph of the Second World War and the tragedy of the Vietnam War, the inconclusive stalemate in Korea has been largely overlooked by history. Although such treatment in no way diminishes the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought and died there, we sometimes cannot give proper credit to those of whom we have no account. As the Korean War has seemingly been forgotten in our national memory, so too has it been forgotten in our local memory. Our sources, although by no means complete, are eerily silent on the topic of Korea. We do not have photographs, documents, or alumni accounts from this period. The secondary sources we used, large compilations summarizing numerous primary documents, some of which no longer exist, also gloss over the subject, jumping suddenly from the end of the Second World War to the middle of the 1950s.What we do know is that in the spring of 1946 the ROTC once again returned to campus, incorporating an Army Air Corps unit that would later give rise to the Air Force ROTC when the Air Force was created in 1948. Between 1955 and 1962, several critical changes were made to organize the program in a way similar to its current organization. Gone were the specialist branches and technical skill training that served as a hallmark of the program throughout much of its history. The ROTC was reorganized as a single unit that taught a general curriculum suitable to prepare cadets for service in any part of the Army. The leadership roles and responsibilities of each year group became more clearly defined. For example, the idea of rotating leadership positions for third year cadets first arose during this time and is still used today to provide them with a variety of leadership experience. On the eve of the Vietnam War, cadet enrollment was at an all-time high; however, participation in the ROTC, which had since been mandatory, was about to become optional. The unpopularity of the program following the Vietnam War would almost prove its undoing.
Dealing with Discontent: ROTC and Vietnam
History by Numbers:
5: Future generals graduated during this period.
2: Number of women enrolled in 1973, the first class to include women.
-1,245: Net decrease in enrollment, Spring 1965 to Fall 1973.
When the United States sent troops to Vietnam en masse, enrollment in the ROTC actually increased by more than one hundred new cadets. Once again, the students of the University of Oklahoma proved that they had the patriotism and moral fiber to respond to the call of their nation. However, the Vietnam War would prove a different experience for the program, and world events shaped the campus experience of ROTC cadets more than ever before.
By 1968, public faith in the Vietnam War fell to a tremendous new low with the surprise and shock of the Tet Offensive. Although ultimately an overwhelming victory for US forces, the idea that the North Vietnamese and their guerrilla allies could strike simultaneously at targets throughout “friendly” territory caused many to question US progress and for what purpose American blood had been shed. While military personnel are often confined to remote bases and installations, personnel affiliated with the ROTC are integrated within the campus community. They served as visible and readily-available targets upon which some members of the public vented their misplaced frustrations regarding the conduct of the war.
That academic year was characterized nationwide by massive student protests of US involvement in Vietnam and the presence of ROTC on college campuses. The University of Oklahoma was no exception. Cadets were often the targets of misdirected attacks against US foreign policy, and the rising unpopularity of the war in Vietnam reduced enrollment considerably. Similarly, the 1969 passage of a draft lottery law further reduced enrollment as students seeking to avoid the draft by joining ROTC left the program if they were no longer in danger of being drafted.
With the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State, student unrest rose to unprecedented levels. The annual ROTC awards ceremony that year was disrupted by protests, and for the next two years student protests against ROTC continued while cadet enrollment likewise continued its rapid decline. With the 1973 withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam and the end of the draft, enrollment in ROTC dipped to an all-time low. A chart of enrollment and officer production from 1961 to 1981 shows that at the beginning of the 1973 academic year enrollment was only 161, down from its prewar high of 1,406. Some of the 39 officers commissioned that year were dismissed after only 90 days of active service because their positions no longer needed to be filled in the wake of massive troop reductions.
History by Numbers:
3: Cadets attending Ranger School, 1974.
46: Freshman cadets who quit following the imposition of a haircut requirement for junior cadets.
$93.44: Amount remaining in the program’s Armory remodeling budget following renovations.
Like the period between the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the time from the end of the Vietnam War until the beginning of recent history in the late 1980s is something that we know very little about due to our incomplete records. From what we do have, we know that it was a time characterized by recovery. Like the Army as a whole, the ROTC at the University of Oklahoma sought to heal the wounds of Vietnam and make peace with the civilian community. After enrollment reached a new low in 1975, numbers began to slowly but steadily increase. For its part, the ROTC embarked upon a concerted campaign of recovery, bringing back numerous long-abandoned organizations and completely remodeling the half-century old Armory. The rifle team, resurrected after a protracted absence, met with success after success, winning awards that still hang on the Armory walls today. The Pershing Rifles, OU ROTC’s drill team, participated in numerous parades and events throughout the community.
In another attempt at community outreach, cadet instructors under the supervision of training cadre administered a civilian repelling clinic, which allowed cadets and students to leap from the top of the Armory while suspended on a rope. A similar event was later held during the mid-1990s.
The 1986 creation of Cadet Command, of which OU ROTC became a part, signaled the transition of our local program from the old to the new – a fully recovered organization ready to lead the way and produce outstanding, high-quality officers as it had always done before.
History by Numbers:
3: Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans enrolled as cadets, circa 2006.
2: Operation Enduring Freedom veterans enrolled as cadets, circa 2006.
1: Cadet deployed to assist with the Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief efforts.
The swift defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War had a profound and unexpected result here in the United States: once again, being a soldier was OK. As yellow ribbons flooded city streets and rural turnpikes throughout the nation, ROTC cadets at OU enjoyed a college experience markedly different from their predecessors scarcely two decades prior. Appreciative, respectful citizens willing to forget the old scars of Vietnam replaced the throngs of angry protestors and anti-military hecklers in vogue during the Vietnam era. Cadets became a welcome part of the community, an important part of remembrance events, and a topic of interest for the local papers, which covered ROTC extensively during the 1990s, especially the Ranger Challenge Team’s impressive winning streak.
With the fall of the Soviet Empire and the defeat of its last vestiges, the 1990s were an idyllic time to be a soldier, one characterized by a pax Americana that seemed unlikely to end. But no good thing lasts forever.
Like all Americans, the cadets and cadre of the ROTC watched transfixed as foreign terrorists laid low that symbol of American economic prosperity, the World Trade Center, ending in one day more than 3,000 American lives. They felt a twinge of sadness, then anger, as medics dragged from the ruined façade of the Pentagon the flag-draped body of yet another American serviceman who had made the final sacrifice, an ultimate end asked of soldiers since the birth of the profession of arms, one which the graduates of the Sooner Battalion have answered since its inception.
Thus we find the cadets of Sooner Battalion today, both students with myriad opportunity joining uncoerced in a time of war and steely-eyed veterans of that same war stepping forward to again return to duty and act as the soldiers they are and the leaders of men they soon will be. Our final chapter has not yet been written. The end of our history is not an end, but a temporary interlude. That next chapter will be written by some future generation looking back as we have now done. Like us, they will look back upon the resolve, fortitude, and self-sacrifice of this generation, qualities that we have so admired in generations past. They will write our story as we have written theirs, looking upon our photographs and reading our letters written in jagged script by hands shaking with age, telling their future generations, and ours, about a little brick building on the east side of campus, and those who passed through its doors into destiny.