When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Occidental was a small college struggling to survive in its new home. With a new president and a renewed sense of urgency, how did the Great War change Oxy?
By Paul Robert Walker '75
The 1916-17 academic year at Occidental began with a bombshell. A decade into his presidency, John Willis Baer—the charismatic leader who had guided the College from a cramped urban campus in Highland Park to a sprawling, bucolic landscape in Eagle Rock—announced his resignation, effective November 1.
Baer cited exhaustion as the reason for his decision, but he was doubtless frustrated by the failure of the Million Dollar Campaign, an ill-conceived "modern" fundraising drive that attempted to raise $1 million over a 12-day period (the equivalent of $23.4 million today) in February 1916 by soliciting support from the Los Angeles community beyond traditional College donors. It ended with less than half of its goal—$401,282, of which $7,620 went to the professional fundraiser hired for the effort.
Methods aside, it was a tough time for fundraising. Resources were in short supply following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, even though the United States had stayed out of the fray to that point. Following Baer's departure, Dean of Faculty Thomas G. Burt assumed temporary leadership of the College, and the year progressed with apparent normalcy despite the fighting in faraway Europe.
Football was king on campus, and the Tigers went undefeated among their Southern California rivals (tied only by Whittier), traveling north to defeat UC Berkeley 14-13 and claim the California football championship. Debate competitions were front-page news in The Occidental, and there were clubs for Shakespeare, German, Prohibition, economics, and automobiles—whose members raced each other up the dusty road to College Hill. Men and women paired up for school dances through a priority list called "the slate," but no gentleman would sign up for a girl who was already "going steady."
Normalcy ended when the United States entered the war on Friday, April 6, 1917, while Oxy students were on spring break. In morning chapel four days later, Dean Burt "calmed the entire Occidental assembly," according to a student reporter, by reading the 90th Psalm: "Establish Thou the work of our hands upon us." He went on to tell the students that if any of them felt called to enlist they should "go by all means, taking no regard to grades or graduation, as the College stood behind them and would welcome them back as would any mother."
Despite this offer, the dean pleaded with the students to stay in school in accordance with the U.S. government plan to train officers on each college campus in preparation for entering Army camps that summer and commanding new recruits. "There is a terrible need of officers in the country today," The Occidental reported. "The State of California alone needs 10,000 officers, and there is no better place to get leaders of men than from college circles."
In a chapel meeting the following afternoon, the Oxy men voted unanimously, if symbolically, for compulsory military training. The faculty made it official, and by Friday, the students were drilling on newly completed Patterson Field under the temporary leadership of football coach William L. "Fox" Stanton. By the next week, 28 Oxy men had signed up for the Reserve Officer Corps and passed their physicals, and were waiting word on whether they would be accepted and sent north for real Army training at the Presidio in San Francisco.
The female students quickly embraced the war effort as well, with some 67 enrolling in Red Cross training classes within the first week. The series of 15 four-hour classes under a trained nurse would be held on campus and led to a government examination for official certification as a nurse's aide.
On Friday, May 4, the Oxy battalion went on a six-mile hike up Verdugo Road and into Glendale. According to a student reporter among them, the trainees did mock battle with an "enemy" shooting blanks with Stanton's pistol, and wrangled with cows, wheat fields, and farmers before returning to cheering women and children in Eagle Rock. "Altogether it was a great experience for the men, even if they are not planning to enter any of the training camps," the reporter concluded. "It taught obedience to a group of independent college men so that they went up a hard place with all the spirit of regardless daredevils when commanded to do so."
The quick burst of military drill ended abruptly in mid-May, when Coach Stanton was called to the Presidio to train real soldiers. Although drill was suspended, the faculty voted to eliminate final exams as a wartime measure. As Dean Burt explained, many men were expected to miss exams by going to military camps or working on ranches—replacing field hands lost to the war—so the women deserved the same opportunity. With no exams to cram for, it was hoped that students would focus on a strong finish to their coursework.
As the year drew to a close, the Board of Trustees unanimously selected Silas Evans as Occidental's seventh president. Evans, 41, had served as president of his alma mater, Ripon College in Wisconsin, for the previous six years. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a professor of philosophy, he brought quiet dignity and high standards to his new position. He would need every ounce of personal character to guide the College through the war.
Oxy students had their first chance to see and hear their new "prexy" at a chapel assembly on Sept. 19, 1917—the opening of the College's 30th year. Evans was an impressively modern thinker and speaker, and his words ring true a century later:
"College is not merely a brain factory; it is not a magic wand to call out fame or social standing; it is not a turning of the trick for wealth or professional success," he said. "College is designed to give opportunity and leisure to make such manhood and womanhood as is equipped for the world's work and world's worth.
"In a more abstract way we may define the college purpose as the possession of a new freedom and chance at a liberal education. We mean this: In college the powers of the student are liberated, set free, developed. You tap new depths; you find new resources. A primary concern is clear thinking. You can never get your bearings in the modern complex world with murky brains."
In light of rising prices and economic hardships, The Occidental's new editor-in-chief, Raymond Buell 1918, urged student organizations to cut back on extravagant spending: "Too many college fellows feign the millionaire when their folks don't even own the house they live in. Others with good sense will not engage in these social activities; and consequently, the social life of this institution would become divided into groups based on ostensible means. This college has always insisted upon democracy ... surely our proud boast will be gainsaid if this situation comes into existence."
Military training resumed under Maj. E.L. Swift, a retired Army officer who had served in the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippines, Cuba, and the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. Swift was an unpaid volunteer, and the training, though more serious than the previous year, remained a College initiative, not a government program. It was compulsory for underclassmen and voluntary for upperclassmen, about half of whom chose to participate with an eye toward a commission in the regular Army. Pioneering Los Angeles oilman Edward L. Doheny lent the trainees a supply of rifles, but the students bought their own uniforms, which were similar to regular Army uniforms and could be "worn at any time." Khaki became a proud form of dress on campus.
Even as the campus shifted into war mode, more frivolous College concerns persisted. The front-page article announcing the beginning of military training ran beside a story that upperclass women had formed a "Women's Tribunal" to assure that underclass women, especially freshmen, would follow College traditions such as allowing upperclass women to pass through doorways before them, refraining from "excessive queening," spending a "certain amount of time in the manufacture of pom poms," and wearing buttons with their class numeral. The war still seemed far away to some of the students, but that would change.
On Oct. 4, 1917, Evans delivered an eloquent chapel speech titled "Prostitution of Peace Ideals," in which he explained why he supported the war. His thesis was that the war was a necessary evil in the pursuit of peace and that pacifists who continued to cry "peace, peace, when there is no peace" had prostituted the ideal and were aiding the German cause. "If we are in this war, we must send our men to France, we must buy Liberty bonds, we must tax ourselves, we must do our utmost toward the prosecution of this war. Not 'America First,' but 'The Cause First,'" he said. "I am a pacifist, a fighting pacifist, if you please."
More than 50 years later, 1919 graduate Florence Brady recalled a split between "pacifists and militarists" on campus, not unlike the doves and hawks during the Vietnam War. The president's "stirring address," as she described it, was perhaps not only an explanation of his personal convictions but also an effort to help reconcile these campus factions.
Brady, who served as College registrar from 1930 to 1966, also recalled "a strong feminist movement" on campus as young women began to question their traditional roles. As Lynn Dumenil, Robert Glass Cleland Professor of American History Emerita, points out in her new book, The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I, women insisted their war work earned them the right to equal citizenship, "a claim that became an important part of the final drive for women's suffrage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920."
Evans' exhortation to buy Liberty bonds was embraced by the students, who participated in all four national Liberty loan drives held during the war, not only buying bonds themselves but also selling them in the community. According to the Dec. 3, 1918, issue of The Occidental, the College went "over the top" for each drive and raised a record $8,000 in the final drive. On a smaller level, students purchased Thrift Stamps on campus for 25 cents each; 12 stamps on a card plus another small payment would buy a War Savings Certificate Stamp worth $5 on maturity.
The College's greatest contribution, however, was its men. Any man 21 or older was subject to being drafted, but many enlisted voluntarily, and by the end of November 1917 the College had 107 students and alumni in active military service. In a morning chapel ceremony the students were presented with a large "service flag" with a blue star for each man. Associated Students president Ralph Kellogg, Class of 1918, received the flag from Dean Burt and spoke of what it meant:
"Every star on this banner represents an individual. Many of these men we have known personally. Some of them have been very dear to our hearts. Now they have answered the call of their country, some of them perhaps never to return. Others of us may soon be on the firing line. Occidental stands ready to sacrifice to the utmost, and this flag, with its ever increasing number of stars, is the proof." In a sad irony, Kellogg would be among the Oxy men who died in the war, and a gold star would be placed on the service flag in his honor.
There were battles on the home front as well. On Dec. 11, 1917, The Occidental published an editorial titled "Damn the Torpedoes" criticizing the Los Angeles School District for suspending the teaching of German and German literature. "It is impossible to gain even a meager understanding of the causes of this war and the influences at work among the German people without reading this literature," Buell wrote. "Our educational institutions ought to develop an intelligent patriotism ... not an implicit one, based on childish ignorance and enmity."
The story was picked up by the Los Angeles Times, with apologetic statements by Evans and Burt, and an abject refusal to apologize by Buell. That fall, the young editor had apologized for criticizing Occidental fraternities, but now he stood firmly on principle: "I wrote every word of the editorial and I believed every word of it. I merely gave expression to the opinion of many people as patriotic as the Board of Education, who will not allow their love of country to become hysterical."
Buell continued as editor until March 1918, when he left the College for Ordnance Training School in Berkeley. He reached France two months before the war ended and stayed overseas to help write a history of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. Just after the armistice, he wrote to Evans inquiring whether an instructor position might be open for the second semester, "as a private's income isn't overly lucrative." Buell returned to Oxy as an assistant professor of history and economics in 1920-21 before completing his Ph.D. in history at Princeton. He went on to become a renowned author and lecturer on international affairs and president of the Foreign Policy Association. Not surprisingly, he was an ardent foe of isolationism.
In his inflammatory editorial, Buell wrote hopefully, "We are quite certain that the authorities of this college will never allow their patriotic ardor to submerge them into such whirlpools of irrelevancy." That is exactly what they did, though it was likely a mix of patriotism and the bottom line.
At a Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 12, 1918, Board Secretary William Stewart Young reported that he had told German Professor Frank E. Moll that his services would no longer be needed after the current academic year. At the same meeting, Silas Evans reported that the once-thriving German department had seen a sharp drop in enrollment "due undoubtedly to the state of mind." To his credit, Evans thought it was worth continuing to offer classes, and it's unclear what happened the following year. German disappeared completely in 1919-20, part of a national trend that saw German instruction dropped or legally banned in high schools and colleges. The department was resurrected gradually beginning in fall 1920, with courses taught by instructors and French professors. (Oxy was not the only Southern California school that grew allergic to German connections: Pomona's mascot shifted from the Hun to the Sagehen over the course of the war.)
Major Swift was called to active service in Washington on the first of the year, but training continued, led by student officers under the supervision of chemistry professor Elbert E. Chandler, who chaired the Faculty Committee on Military Affairs. A new training officer took charge in February: Maj. E.D. Neff of the California State Guard, who was "considered one of the best marksmen in the entire country."
The arrival of a sharpshooter proved fortuitous, because a long-awaited indoor rifle range opened that month, housed in the "old training quarters" near Patterson Field. A pet project of Chandler's, the range could accommodate seven shooters and was 25 yards long with a regulation steel-plate bulkhead. Although heavy Ross rifles were available, the men had to buy ammunition at the bookstore, where it was sold at close to cost. Women were allowed to use the range and could obtain lighter .22 caliber rifles at the bookstore. Major Neff also trained the men on an outdoor range, where they fired at silhouettes instead of targets.
As men continued to leave for the war, Occidental and other Southern California colleges developed a unified policy to help students maintain their academic standing and graduate if possible. As long as a student stayed in residence at the College until entering the service, he would receive credit for work up to that point as completed. In addition, seniors could receive up to eight semester hours for work done for the government. This policy allowed men like Buell to leave in mid-semester and graduate with their class. In practice, the College was flexible with each student, and a surprising number of student-soldiers graduated with their class or the following class.
In May, Evans announced a new opportunity for the women. Through a partnership with Pasadena Hospital, a woman could leave Oxy after her junior year and undergo two years of hospital training, at the end of which she would receive both a nurse's certification and an A.B. from Occidental. According to The Occidental, this innovative program was aimed at developing "the nurse of the future ... the sort of woman who is one of the leaders of the community, demanding better conditions and ably equipped to oversee the work of reconstruction."
In the meantime, 1914 graduate Edith Bryan, head of the local Red Cross and an experienced wartime nurse, returned to campus to recruit nurses of the present, who could quickly take responsibility in military wards and free the men for service at the front.
Red Cross service drew many Oxy men and women, and those who served in military camps were considered among the soldiers in the College "Service Honor Roll" published at the end of the year. There were 193 names on the list by then, including Bryan, and the number would continue to grow.
When the students returned in fall 1918, the campus had been transformed into a military camp. After a year and a half of ad hoc training, Occidental—together with more than 500 other colleges and universities—was home to the newly launched Students' Army Training Corps (SATC). The program began officially on Oct. 1, 1918. Enlistment was voluntary, and trainees were considered privates on active duty assigned to the College. By the terms of the agreement, the College provided academic instruction, housing, meals, and a drilling facility—all subject to military approval as to quality and suitability. The War Department provided military instruction, uniforms, and equipment (no more need to buy ammunition at the bookstore), as well as cots, blankets, and bed-sacks. It would pay the College $1 per day for each student plus a daily equivalent of the $100 annual tuition, allowing the trainees to attend tuition-free.
Capt. Walter F. Frantz led the program, assisted by five other officers. A new barracks was under construction on the site that is now Samuelson Pavilion, but when the program began, the men slept four to a room in Swan Hall—the College's only dormitory—or in tents behind the dorm. They ate in a temporary mess hall, while a more permanent one was constructed on the site that is now the north end of the Johnson Student Center and Freeman College Union. Regular Army uniforms became standard daily clothing.
Men would not be drafted as long as they were in the SATC. However, to avoid the appearance of special privileges for college men, a trainee who reached the "day of reckoning"—on which he would have normally been drafted— would report to the commanding officer and college president, who would recommend the best type of service for that student. (The draft registration age was lowered from 21 to 18 just three weeks before the program began, so the day of reckoning might come earlier than anticipated.) Although the goal was to send as many men as possible to officers' training camp, they might also be assigned to stay in school to pursue studies in medicine, chemistry, engineering, or other critical fields, or assigned to military work as enlisted men.
The SATC program produced the largest freshman class and largest overall enrollment in College history to that time—179 first-year men, compared with just 54 the previous year and 67 in each of the two pre-war years. The influx of men for the war effort boosted total College enrollment to a record 462.
On Oct. 14, 1918, two weeks after the ambitious wartime program was launched, the Health Board of the City of Los Angeles ordered all schools closed due to the deadly Spanish flu (the first civilian cases had surfaced in Los Angeles three weeks earlier). Regular classes were suspended, and most of the women went home, but the SATC continued operations, posting guards to protect campus. There were 135 cases of the flu on campus but not a single casualty. The Occidental reported that the Los Angeles County Health Department considered the campus "the healthiest spot in Southern California," and was investigating the methods used in order to help stop the epidemic in the city. Certainly, the isolated location and military discipline worked to the College's advantage.
The war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, while the College was still closed for the flu. Like many Americans, the SATC men were caught by surprise and uncertain as to the future of military operations. A few days later, they received their first payday at the rate of $1 per day from the date of enlistment to November 1; according to The Occidental, 176 men received individual payouts ranging from $4 to $26, much of which went to paying off credit at the Post Exchange located in the brand new barracks—which also included a barbershop, telephone booth, drinking fountains, and laundry agency. Ironically, the barracks and mess hall were officially opened just after the armistice.
The health order was lifted November 22; five days later, President Evans received a telegram from Washington, D.C., at the end of morning chapel and announced that the SATC would be demobilized by mid-December. As the Army prepared to leave, the College scrambled to make up for time lost to war and influenza. The quarter system, adopted that August as a wartime measure, was replaced by the original semester system, so that current classes could run into February augmented with Saturday sessions. The number of credits required for graduation was permanently reduced from 126 semester units to 120 units. Many of the young men who had enrolled because their tuition would be paid by the government wanted to stay, and the YMCA came forward with a jobs program to help them pay their own way.
Much of this information was in a report by Evans to the Board on December 6. "We must face the immediate problem of housing and feeding," he said. "We hope to get government permission to use the mess hall this semester, and possibly for the balance of the year. Failing in this, we would have claims in justice on the government for the expense and demoralization which has been caused by disturbing our housing and feeding plans in previous establishment and in attempts at re-establishment."
The mess hall not only stayed open, but opened to women, as reported by a female journalist under the pseudonym A. Messhaller: "That mess hall hands out the best meals that have ever seen the Occidental campus. What's more you can have all you want for the small sum of 30 cents." When the SATC left, the mess hall become the first College commons, with a dining hall under student management and meals sold at even lower prices: 70 meal tickets for $16, or 21 tickets for $4.80.
The Post Exchange held a going-out-of-business sale, and SATC men voted to give the proceeds to the football program, which had been decimated by influenza and the comings and goings of star players. Before leaving campus, the military sponsored a goodbye party that began with a display of drilling by the trainees on Patterson Field, followed by a roast beef dinner in the "spacious mess hall" for the whole College community. There was singing and dancing, including a game effort on the dance floor by Evans that was pronounced "a disappointment" by a female reporter, who gave higher marks to a "talented" vocal rendition by Capt. Franz.
The SATC was officially dissolved on Dec. 17, 1918. Despite his concerns about food and lodging, Evans was graceful in his final message: "Personally, the SATC has given me a renewed confidence in the College as occupying a leading place in the nation. The SATC stirred us up and did us good. Consequences of great educational value will come sooner and better because of it."
Some educational consequences lasted longer than others. An ROTC program was established during the second semester, with a full range of military science and tactics courses offered in 1919-20, but it was gone by fall 1920. On the other hand, a two-hour physical culture class provided to women in lieu of ROTC formally established physical education for women at the College. Topical courses such as Literature of the Great War came and went, but a greater focus on international affairs took root. Mathematics and science gained new importance, and the combined A.B. and nursing certification remained available until 1956-57. Enrollment dipped slightly in 1919-20, but the following year saw more than 500 students at the College for the first time, and enrollment trended upward for more than half a century.
Perhaps the most important impact of the war, however, was the way it changed the lives and perspectives of those who fought and those who stayed at home. Letters from "over there" appeared regularly in The Occidental, a steady stream of former soldiers returned to campus with stories to tell, and sad news trickled in of students who would never return and whose stories would have to be told by others. In the spring of 1919, the yearbook provided a proud accounting: "More than 300 alumni and undergraduates were in active service in the Army and Navy, while 200 more men were enrolled in the Students' Army Training Corps at college—a splendid total of 500 given by one American college for the cause of world freedom."
Walker wrote "The Trials and Triumphs of Léon Dostert" in the Fall 2015 magazine.