V.P.I. in World War I

Hokies left enduring marks on the conflict

  • cadets salute The Rock
    The Rock, a memorial to alumni who lost their lives in WWI, which was dedicated in 1919.

The armistice that ended fighting on the Western Front in World War I took effect 100 years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

The U.S. began the annual celebration of Armistice Day on November 11 the following year. In 1947, recognition was extended to all military veterans, who are honored on the national holiday now known as Veterans Day.

World War I marked a great juncture in history, closing the door forever on the Gilded Age and making way for the modern era. The conflict permanently altered the nature of warfare, with industrialization producing changes of scale in weapons, tactics, and casualties. The war traumatized Europe, but is remembered less in the U.S., which did not enter the conflict until April 1917. The war and the years that followed saw Virginia Tech transform from a largely military institution into the comprehensive land-grant university that it remains today. The period set in motion cascading effects that continue to ripple even now.

At the beginning of World War I, Virginia Tech was defined by its Corps of Cadets. Members of the all-male student body adhered to a strict four-year corps requirement. Thus, when the U.S. entered the war, Tech and other military institutions became primary sources for officer recruitment.

“The American army at the start of war was only 100,000 soldiers,” said Daniel Newcomb ’13 M.S. ’17, who has headed up “VPI in World War I,” a research project on Virginia Tech’s connections to the war. “By the end of the war, it numbered 4 million. If you went and signed up and had a college education, chances were you were going to become an officer.”

Virginia Tech’s contribution to the war effort included 2,297 men in uniform: 2,155 in the Army, 125 in the Navy, 19 in the Marine Corps, six in the Coast Guard, one in the British Army, and one in the French Foreign Legion. One alumnus, Earle D. Gregory, Class of 1923, was awarded the Medal of Honor for advancing ahead of his platoon and capturing a machine gun, howitzer, and more than 20 enemy troops. The Gregory Guard, the corps' precision military marching unit, was re-named in his honor in 1963. Seven other alumni earned the Distinguished Service Cross, and one the Navy Cross. At least eight were awarded the Silver Star.

Some of those Hokies left marks that endured long after the battles ended. Probably the most well-known is Major Lloyd W. Williams, Class of 1907, who commanded the 51st Company in the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment. In 1918, Williams’ division was deployed to support the French army at the Battle of Belleau Wood. He and his men arrived to find their allies retreating. A French colonel advised Williams that his division should do the same. Williams memorably responded, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!" Today, the first two words of his exclamation remain the motto of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Cadet officers salute The Rock
Cadet officers salute The Rock, following a tradition established in 1919 when the memorial was dedicated.

Several days later, Williams led an assault at Belleau Wood that routed the Germans but devastated his men. Only one of the ten officers and 16 of the 250 enlisted men survived. Again, Williams clashed with a French official who advised him to retreat; Williams refused. Although he had been gassed and injured from shrapnel, Williams told medics, "Don't bother with me. Take care of my good men.” He died when a shell exploded nearby as he was being removed from the battlefield. Williams posthumously received three Silver Star citations and a Purple Heart.

Many Virginia Tech alumni saw combat during the final two years of World War I. They served in the infantry, machine gun battalions, and artillery units, among other assigned areas. Twenty-six Hokies died in service, and another twenty-six were wounded.

Despite being surrounded by sometimes overwhelming devastation, some of the soldiers were able to maintain a positive perspective and even a sense of humor about their experiences. In a survey after the war, Leonard Gaines, Class of 1917, who served as first lieutenant in the Army, wrote in response to a question about his impressions of the fighting, “It was good fun until you were hit.”

Newcomb’s research project involves compiling a database of Virginia Tech alumni who served in the war, to include information from official records, historical letters, and remembrances of family members and descendants of those who fought.

First-year students in 2016 and 2017 have aided in the effort, learning about the techniques used to document historical facts by exploring the lives of alumni who participated in World War I. The 2017 class not only recorded alumni information, but drilled down into the letters of Joseph Ware Sr., Class of 1903, who was a professor and Commandant of the Corps of Cadets from 1911 to 1914, as well as the father of the flight test engineer for whom the Joseph F. Ware Jr. Advanced Engineering Laboratory is named. Each student transcribed a letter that had been written by Ware, from an archive in Special Collections. Those transcriptions have been published and made available online.

“We wanted these students to recognize that they have a responsibility to write history as much as the older students, and that we’re going to provide them with the tools to do that,” said Trudy Harrington Becker, senior instructor in the Department of History. “They’re historians like us, just less experienced. We’re beginning with making sure they can work with primary sources. This project was: Suppose you know nothing about World War I other than these 100 or so letters you’ve been given. Make the story public and contribute to a database through transcriptions to make this data more available.”

Over the semester, the students in the first-year experience class traced Ware’s journey to Europe through his letters to his future wife.

“They didn’t learn top down about World War I as a military endeavor,” Becker said. “What they learned was absolutely from the bottom: what’s going on with this individual and his colleagues and his friends and who he is serving with. We came from the bottom up.”

By the end of the war, Virginia Tech had become home to a sprawling unit of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), a national project intended create soldiers by simultaneously providing military training and a college education. Somewhere between 400 and 600 soldiers—about half of the total number of students at the time—were in an SATC camp at Virginia Tech when the war ended. None of them would actually see combat.

The years following World War I ushered in a time of transition for the university. Joseph Dupuy Eggleston resigned from his post as Virginia Tech’s seventh president in 1919 to become president of Hampden-Sydney College.

Eggleston’s successor, Julian Ashby Burruss, Class of 1898, became the transformative eighth president of Virginia Tech. Under Burruss, the requirement for students to serve in the Corps of Cadets fell from four years to two. In a related move, Virginia Tech moved away from its pre-war focus on military education to advance the land grant-related fields of agriculture and engineering, which subsequently defined the university for much of the 20th century.

WWI The Rock
The Rock in place on the Upper Quad.

According to a journal article by Newcomb, a 1923 survey of faculty found that many thought the military training at Virginia Tech created problems in student life, and Burruss subsequently described the focus on military education as “archaic.” He wrote that it stunted the growth of the institution, impeded its ability to compete with other state and regional colleges, and did not prepare students for “citizenship in a democracy.”

Nearly a century later, the shifts that World War I spurred at Virginia Tech are a bright line in the university’s history, marking a juncture that made possible developments that played out over the ensuing decades: the university’s outreach to returning World War II veterans in the late 1940s, the acceptance of women and African Americans in the ’50s and ’60s, elimination of the corps requirement, and development of the Principles of Community.

Yet, the sacrifices of Virginia Tech students and alumni during World War I are still remembered today, memorialized through three iconic campus landmarks: The Rock, a stone memorial erected by the Class of 1919 for those who died in combat; War Memorial Gym, which was dedicated to Hokies who served in the war; and the names of those who died in the war that are etched on the Brotherhood Pylon on the Memorial Court of the War Memorial Chapel. Cadets passing the Rock still stop to salute it, a sign of respect for a group of Hokies who served their country in a way that continues to be reflected in the Virginia Tech experience.

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