The ink was barely dry on the armistice ending the Great War, but the University of Akron was ready to re-enlist.
A century ago, President Parke Kolbe and the board of directors applied to the U.S. War Department to establish the Reserve Officers Training Corps, better known by the initials ROTC, to prepare Akron college students in case World War I wasn’t really the war to end all wars.
ROTC would replace UA’s Student Army Training Corps, a war-era program that shut down during the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918. Kolbe believed it would be beneficial to require male students to undergo two years of military and physical training.
“While it may seem undesirable to require actual military drill of all students in the future, the war has taught the value of physical preparedness and has emphasized the necessity of extending the opportunities for physical training to every man in college, rather than to a few only,” Kolbe wrote to the board of directors in December 1918, only a month after the peace treaty was signed.
Freshmen and sophomores would receive one credit hour per semester for at least three hours of physical training per week under the supervision of an Army officer to be appointed to the university as a professor of military science and tactics.
The UA board approved a resolution Jan. 25, 1919, to follow the War Department’s edicts on maintaining a ROTC program. Training began that September under the command of Capt. Adolph Unger.
Crouse Gymnasium served as ROTC headquarters, and the government supplied arms, uniforms and equipment. Early training included field fortifications, the study of horses, field sanitation, map reading and infantry tactics.
“It was compulsory unless you had some sort of physical impairment where you could not do the physical training,” explained Tamra J. Dixon, who conducted months of ROTC research as an administrative assistant in the UA Military Science Department.
Dixon, a UA alumnus and 35-year employee, said Kolbe believed “young men would benefit from participating mind and body from the discipline they lacked.”
“ROTC was part of the fabric of students’ everyday life,” she said.
Terry Michaels, recruiting operations officer for military science and leadership, is a UA graduate who was commissioned through Army ROTC in 1986 and served in the Army for 24 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2010.
“We are one of the original members of ROTC,” he said. “Initially, our program was infantry producing.”
UA was one of 89 units added in 1918-1919, bringing the number of college-based programs to 135 in the United States.
In addition to classroom training, Akron ROTC members marched to Buchtel Field to conduct drills off Brown Street.
“Initially, it was the formations, marching from point A to point B, doing the left face, right face,” Michaels said.
Cadets also began attending summer camp at Fort Knox in Kentucky, a tradition that continues to this day.
In 1922, Cadet Maj. Willard B. Melvin and Cadet Capt. Conrad Van Hyning became the first UA graduates to earn a commission as second lieutenants, and went on to serve in the Army Reserve. Eight second lieutenants from UA later ended their military careers as generals.
President Kolbe was correct about the need for leadership. According to Dixon’s research, officers commissioned through Akron ROTC have held positions of command for the past century, and have led the armed forces in every war since 1940.
“It gives you fantastic leadership training,” she said. “Many of our graduates are doing really fantastic things.”
The War Department established an air corps at UA during World War II. After the war, the Air Force began a separate ROTC unit at UA in 1947, and it operated until 2005 when it merged with a Kent State program.
In 1955, Akron ROTC commissioned its 1,000th graduate.
ROTC remained compulsory for 50 years until the university decided in 1969 to make the program optional during the turbulent Vietnam era.
A year later, the former boys club was crashed by UA’s first female cadets.
Crouse Gymnasium is long gone — the program has been based at Schrank Hall for decades — but cadets still train on Buchtel Field as their counterparts did a century ago.
Akron ROTC, also known as the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Battalion, includes a four-year academic curriculum. Today, the University of Akron has more than 100 students in ROTC.
It’s an elective program in which cadets can learn leadership skills while pursuing the degree of their choice. And ROTC scholarships are an incentive.
“You can compete for scholarships,” Michaels said. “100 percent tuition and fees, plus $600 a semester for books,” and a monthly living stipend.
Centennial celebrations for Akron ROTC began in December with a military ball and will continue throughout the year at UA.
“It’s such a distinguished program in the university history,” Dixon said.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Akron ROTC, visit www.uakron.edu/armyrotc/