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The United States officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917. The nation had been neutral for the first three years of the conflict, and as a result, mobilizing for the war was an enormous task. President Woodrow Wilson determined that a draft was the best mechanism for mobilizing the country. It allowed the government the flexibility to make sure that people who were needed to run industries could stay at home and fuel the nation’s war machine while other young people went to fight in Europe.

More than 200 cadets traveled to Memphis during World War I to take part in the Student Army Training Corps.
More than 200 cadets traveled to Memphis during World War I to take part in the Student Army Training Corps.

Students at West Tennessee Normal School played a role in World War I, even though the University was a small teacher training institution with an enrollment of just over 400 students at the time. Within a few weeks, 95 of the 115 men on campus had left to engage in various aspects of war work. Six of them went through officer training school, 12 enlisted in the military and the others went to work in war industries around the region. Four of the School’s servicemen were killed in combat.

The co-eds on campus were not content to sit idly by. By the fall semester they had started a Red Cross auxiliary chapter at the School, which was administrated by the Women’s Association. The chapter created a room in Mynders Hall for co-eds to volunteer their time to make surgical dressings, bandages and clothing for soldiers who were fighting in the war. According to the 1918 DeSoto yearbook, many women on campus volunteered in the Red Cross Room on a daily basis. Over the course of the semester, in addition to surgical dressings, the Red Cross volunteers also knitted 73 sweaters, 57 pairs of wristlets, 42 mitts, 32 caps and six pairs of socks. The sewing classes on campus, which were part of the Home Economics Department, also contributed 12 pairs of pajamas and 36 hospital shirts.

In the fall of 1918, the Normal School’s war contributions expanded when a Student Army Training Corps program brought 238 new male students to campus. The program was designed to provide preparatory training for Army Officer Candidacy School. Although the cadets were living in converted office space in the Administration Building, they still maintained a strict military schedule. They were up at 5 every morning, drilling and going to class all day and in bed at 10 p.m. Their time on campus was short-lived since hostilities ceased on Nov. 11, 1918.

The campus was under quarantine a large part of the semester as well since Memphis was in the grip of a worldwide flu epidemic. Even though armed guards restricted access to campus, at least 150 students at the school were sick that fall. Many of them received excellent medical care, often free of charge, from local physicians.

Most of the students on campus contributed in some way to the war effort. All who were not ill participated in an enormous parade through the streets of Memphis on Armistice Day. Approximately 100,000 Memphians celebrated in the streets late into the night. Several students missed the last street cars to campus and had to walk back from downtown.

— by Frances Breland

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