World War I allowed Texas A&M to fulfill its land-grant role. Under the Morrill Act of 1862, states were to sell federally owned land to create an endowment for a public university focused on agricultural and mechanical studies, and provide military training.
A&M had seen a steady enrollment since the beginning of the 20th century. Parents were sending their "roughneck and wayward sons" for the college's military focus and discipline, according to a November 1950 Battalion article. Students lived in tents because housing wasn't being built fast enough, according to the 125th A&M anniversary issue of The Eagle.
"Tent city" in 1906 was spread over 10 acres of campus and housed 243 tents, with two cadets in each. Tents and later crude shacks remained a part of campus landscape until after World War I.
A call to arms
The United States officially declared war on Germany in April 1917. A&M cadets were quick to join in the war efforts. The entire senior class of 1917 entered the military, with half entering officer-training camp at Camp Fenton in Leon Springs. The administration relocated graduation to the camp and handed out Honor War Certificates, which did not serve as diplomas, but were given to students who had been in good standing. The point was to acknowledge their progress in higher education so that they would have a record if they chose to return to school after the war.
The Selective Service Act went into effect in May 1917, and at that time required military registration for men ages 21 to 25.
A&M was already the largest military college in the nation, larger than the service academies. Enrollment more than doubled from 915 in 1915 to 1,902 in 1920 after the war's end two years earlier, with men wanting an education and technical training before enlisting or being drafted, according to The Centennial History of Texas A&M University by Henry Dethloff. The regular curriculum for the student body was condensed to a two-year, eight-month schedule so students could graduate before they enlisted without cutting required coursework.
Students contributed to the war effort with engineering and agricultural skills as well. The extension service system was created under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to teach developments in agriculture and home economics. The College of Veterinary Science was only a year old at this point. An Eagle article on June 6, 1918, pointed out the college worked in cooperation with the extension service system to increase food and feed production.
Training the U.S. military
A&M President William Bizzell and the board of directors steered the campus through wartime by offering the government "the use of the college to the limit of its capacity in training men for army service," according to a March 1918 article in The Eagle.
From April to October 1918, A&M served as a camp of sorts, focused on technical training for the Army. At least 3,600 soldiers received special training at the A&M campus by September 1918, according to The Centennial History.
Faculty volunteered to teach vocational and industrial courses to the Army. Topics spanned auto mechanics, radio mechanics, signal corps (telegraphy), horseshoeing, blacksmithing, carpentry, general mechanics, meteorology, surveying and topographical drafting. A&M was the only place soldiers could receive instruction in meteorology.
The age range for the draft was expanded in August 1918 to include men 18 to 45 years old.
World War I was the first time airplanes were used during wartime. The Pavilion was converted into an airplane hangar where students stored planes for training and engineering development. Lt. Robert G. Fowler, the first person to fly across the United States, gave Bryan and A&M its first view of a plane when he "circled twice over Kyle Field and then [landed on Kyle] as gracefully as a bird" on Dec. 2, 1911, as described in The Eagle. He flew a biplane similar to that of the Wright brothers' — equipped with a Cole four-cylinder car motor.
When the war started, A&M engineers and cadets worked in aviation development and training for air combat. Many Aggie pilots from this era are considered aviation pioneers. Lt. Jesse Easterwood, class of 1909, was among the first pilots to receive training as a naval aviator and see combat in Europe. He was responsible for shooting down at least 16 German planes during the war. The A&M airport in College Station is named in his honor.
The National Defense Act of 1916 included the creation of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) in colleges and universities. More cadets were commissioned from 1917 to 1918 and continued military careers immediately after the war than in the first four decades of the school's existence.
Participation in the advanced unit was mandatory for freshmen and sophomores. Juniors and seniors received compensation for remaining in the unit. Due to the government's involvement with the ROTC program, the Corps traded in its uniform for one that resembled the Army's.
The Spanish influenza was at its height in the summer and fall of 1918. The virus began its way across Texas. The military was training at A&M and, due to close living quarters, the illness was rampant. Many soldiers brought their families with them for training. Students would leave and not return, or drop their classes to help care for sick cadets and soldiers.
A series of articles in The Eagle details President Bizzell's campaign to receive federal funding and loans to build three new barracks to house the soldiers (and later for students), along with another hospital. The War Department granted its approval of a modern military hospital, according to an Oct. 10, 1918, article in The Eagle.
Irene "Mom" Claghorn, superintendent of the campus hospital during the epidemic, said in a 1966 interview with The Battalion the hospital had accommodations for eight beds in two wards, but was pushed to hold more than 300 patients. October 1918 articles in The Eagle detail how most of the deaths on campus were among the soldiers and campus staff and their families.
The campus, along with 500 other colleges, was put under quarantine. Bryan businesses, churches and schools closed to minimize exposure to the virus. The Oct. 24 Eagle gave notice of B.P. Day's death from pneumonia, which in most cases developed from influenza. Day was the musical director and bugler of the A&M band.
Records are inconclusive on the total deaths of A&M-related people (students, soldiers, college personnel and their families). Exact numbers were difficult for states to collect because medical personnel were overwhelmed.
From a global standpoint, it is estimated between 30 and 50 million people around the world died from the flu in 1918 and 1919.
Aggies in service
A New York Times analysis in July 1918 reported that 49 percent of Aggie-exes, as former students and the alumni were referred, were serving in the military. By the end of the war, A&M provided more than 2,000 officers in the Army — not including the trained soldiers — which was more than any other college or service academy. A&M was nicknamed the "West Point of the Southwest." Most were sent to Europe, but some were sent to train U.S. troops on the Mexico border.
The alumni association chose to accept the class members of 1917 and 1918 who did not graduate before leaving to serve in the military, according to a May 1918 Eagle article. A second association, Alpha Phi Fraternity, was organized for former students who had not received degrees. The two organizations merged in 1925, and the Association of Former Students was founded.
Changes that the war brought to A&M included new buildings and an expanding ROTC. A&M memorialized those who fought and died. Before the war was over, the class of 1918 made a 15-by-26 service flag to commemorate 1,963 Aggies who served in World War I and 57 who died. The flag was displayed at the alumni day and commencement ceremony in May 1918.
There are discrepancies as to the number of those who died. Fifty-three oak trees were planted in 1920 around the drill field, but today 54 are fitted with plaques on their trunks, one for each who died. A 1978 article in The Eagle cites 55 trees and 55 flags flying over Kyle Field. An article a few months earlier in The Battalion notes the 52 names are on the stone memorial on Main Street and that the University Archives reports 53. Freshmen in the Corps are told to memorize from their cadence guidebook that 55 were killed. The Gold Book, Vol. 4 No. 4, an alumni quarterly from 1919, profiles 49 Aggies who died. In Texas Aggies Go to War by Dethloff, he lists the names of 54 Aggies.
The Armistice to end the war was signed Nov. 11, 1918. Dethloff said in The Centennial History of Texas A&M University, 1876-1976: "American society … emerged [from] [World War] I as a society of producers — of engineers, technicians, scientists, and agriculturists. It was the world for which Texas A&M had been originally designed."
— Compiled by Claire Heathman