Mount Oread responds to the great war’s call of duty
by Evie Rapport / photographs courtesy Spencer Research Library
As Kansas Alumni magazine editors in early 2018 began considering how to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, a frequent contributor from years past appeared with a proposal: Evie Masterson Rapport, d’70, g’78, had written her journalism master’s thesis on war coverage she’d uncovered in Kansas Alumni’s predecessor publication, The Graduate Magazine; she was preparing to teach an Osher Institute class on the University’s complex role in supporting the war effort; and she hoped to pull her materials together to remind our readers of the chaotic season of war and influenza that KU weathered in fall 1918.
Rapport’s story proposal caught many of us by surprise as she highlighted the all-but-forgotten chapter of devastation visited upon campus when the Spanish influenza pandemic struck, shortly after KU created its Student Army Training Corps. Campus barracks erected for the influx of soldiers were turned into field hospitals and isolation wards, and Mount Oread was placed under strict quarantine. By the time the crisis tapered off, weeks after the ceasefire in Europe, nearly 1,000 students had been infected and 32 died.
As Rapport reported, at least 675,000 Americans died and the worldwide death toll was as high as 50 million. And, she added, while Fort Riley’s Camp Funston had long been suspected as the pandemic’s Ground Zero, thanks to a March 1918 outbreak there, current scholarship now pointed toward an earlier hotspot in Haskell County, in southwest Kansas, documented in dire warnings forwarded to the U.S. Public Health Service by a local physician who described healthy, robust citizens “being struck down as suddenly as if they had been shot.”
Yet, even as we published Rapport’s fascinating story in issue No. 6, 2018, it still lacked any particular urgency: The prospect of an influenza pandemic crashing through American college campuses had become as antiquated as trench warfare.
How things change.
For those interested in revisiting a detailed account of the University’s most recent response to a viral pandemic, we offer here Rapport’s story—lavishly illustrated with photographs provided by Spencer Research Library—which can also be found in our archives at kansasalumnimagazine.org.
Then, as now, the University’s response was swift and sure, and no doubt kept infection and mortality rates lower they would have been otherwise. The rhythms of campus all but ceased in fall 1918, and did not return until after the threat had passed.
Even as we look forward to our own armistice from the worldwide siege of spring 2020, we can always learn from Jayhawks who came before: Tough times do not deter us. Weeks and months of loss and hardship will, eventually, give way to normalcy, even if we’ll need more than a moment to remember what, exactly, that means.
This article originally appeared in Issue 6, 2018 of Kansas Alumni Magazine.
Through the winter of 1916-’17, as the tragic stalemate of the Great War continued in Europe, hopes that the United States could evade the chaos dimmed. Germany renewed unrestricted submarine attacks, and the Zimmermann telegram revealed the plot to draw Mexico to the German cause.
What many knew was coming, and dreaded, cascaded down. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, the University of Kansas—like the rest of the country—threw itself into the hectic, grueling effort.
Chancellor Frank Strong immediately placed all KU resources—including its arable land and his own formidable energies—at the disposal of the government.
While the War Department swept through U.S. colleges and universities, vacuuming up faculty to help train and lead the calamitously unprepared American Expeditionary Force into the trenches of France, an Emergency War Committee of top KU faculty and administrators took control on campus.
New courses were instituted, new teachers were hired to fulfill government mandates, physical alterations necessary to accommodate trainees and training were made. By the end of America’s first year in the Great War, academic responsibilities and patriotic duties were coming into balance.
KU’s School of Military Instruction, staffed by National Guard officers and faculty veterans, offered practical courses to support an army in the field: engineering, mapmaking, explosives, signaling, telegraphy and regimental drilling. Faculty, staff and students took Red Cross and nursing classes. Vegetable gardens were planted, the produce dried or canned and sold to raise funds.
Four student trainee companies had neither uniforms nor equipment and drilled with dummy wooden rifles made in Fowler Engineering Shops (now Stauffer-Flint Hall). A fully outfitted Reserve Officers Training Corps unit was established in fall 1917.
The foundations of the central and west portions of the Administration building, unfinished since East Ad opened in 1911, were “trenches” for drilling until, miraculously, the Kansas Legislature appropriated the long-promised funding and construction resumed.
National Army trainees posted to KU and sleeping on cots in Robinson Gymnasium took eight-week training sessions in such desperately needed skills as automotive mechanics and maintenance, carpentry, radiography and telegraphy, munitions and explosives.
Chancellor Strong and Graduate School dean F.W. Blackmar sat on the Kansas Council of Defense. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean Olin Templin, c’1884, c’1886, g’1889, led the collegiate division of Herbert Hoover’s Federal Food Administration in Washington, D.C.; home economics chair Elizabeth Sprague joined that effort for a year.
From left: Strong, Blackmar, Templin, Sprague
The Army took all three psychology professors; the dean, superintendent of Fowler Shops and five other engineering faculty; three professors and four home economics instructors; and four coaches and five physical education professors. Their colleague James Naismith was a YMCA chaplain in France.
The French department had the largest enrollment of the year: 459 students. Nearly half the 14 professors and instructors were in service, so two music professors who were fluent were hired to help meet the course responsibilities on campus and at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. (Enrollment in German dropped by more than half, and half of that faculty had to be reassigned or let go.)
From left: National Guard chaplain James Naismith, signaling drills
The universal draft, enlistments and volunteer service made deep inroads in all areas of the engineering, medical, sciences, languages, law and history faculties. Enrollment likewise collapsed: More than 1,000 students left to enter service or take up essential occupations through the school year, leaving about 1,800 on campus.
All students did military drill or physical exercise. Women attended compulsory lectures on food conservation and knitted hundreds of sweaters and thousands of surgical dressings, rolled bandages and collected salvage. Everyone ate meatless, wheatless or sugarless meals and conserved coal and gas.
In May 1918, Chancellor Strong reviewed the year’s efforts. “There have been difficulties of detail to overcome. There have been objections, some of them reasonable … It is hoped and believed that next year the whole scheme will operate more smoothly and to better advantage.”
In June 1918, as the Germans mounted their last great offensive at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood, barely 300 graduates attended an abbreviated Commencement. The Alumni Association’s Graduate Magazine service record that month comprised 27 pages listing members of the KU community involved in the effort. Some entries:
Barnes, Arthur, Ottawa, Kansas, 110th Engineers, France
Farley, Frank, ’18, Kansas City, Kansas, ordinance corps, Stamford, Conn.
Vernon, Harry, lieutenant, Blue Rapids, Kansas, 341st machine gun battalion, France
Bennett, Bernard H., l’10, Nashville, Kansas, signal corps, Chicago, Illinois
Cook, Hales S., ’14, captain, Kansas City, Missouri, Battery E, 76th field artillery, France
Men and women were stationed in Austin, San Antonio, El Paso; New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Memphis; in Indiana, Rhode Island, Florida, Virginia, Alabama.
They were Red Cross nurses, dietitians, dentists, hospital visitors. They worked with the War and Labor departments and the Bureau of Standards. They did gas-mask research and ordinance testing and staffed the quartermaster and ambulance corps.
The KU men who had died so far were seven alumni, including Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, c’1910, m’1912, a physician who was the first U.S. Army officer killed in France; three trainees; and one student: Lt. Charles D. Seward, ’1919, died April 6 when his airplane went into a tailspin and crashed.
A new contingent of National Army trainees arrived in June for another eight-week session. Before that ended in August, and crushing Strong’s hopes for a less trying academic year, the War Department announced the formation of the Student Army Training Corps, the SATC.
Faculty, staff, students, alumni and affiliates in the military, the Red Cross or related services totaled 1,786 in June 1918, including 818 undergraduates. Of these, 1,595 were on active service (588 as officers), and 191 were on allied service or in the reserves.
Universities were to be reimbursed for housing, feeding and training high-school graduates in collegiate and vocational units. KU inducted 1,753 men in infantry, artillery, aviation, naval and ordinance service and the quartermaster corps. The 450 men in the National Army detachment and 200 in the Naval training camp were folded in. All received uniforms, tuition, board and $30 a month. Commander B.T. Scher and his staff were based in Green Hall.
Through a chaotic September, KU struggled to accommodate the massive influx.
Barracks had to be built: three for the vocational corps between Marvin and Haworth halls on Jayhawk Boulevard, and nine on the west side of Mississippi Street adjacent to McCook Field for the collegiate units.
Architecture professor Goldwyn Goldsmith designed the barracks; engineering professor C.C. Williams and Buildings and Grounds head John Shea supervised construction. Carpentry crews worked overtime to finish by Oct. 1, when the oath of allegiance would be simultaneously administered to 200,000 trainees at 525 universities. The process was so rushed that the windows of the Mississippi Street barracks were covered only with pastel-tinted mosquito netting.
Most of collegiate unit went into engineering or the College, and about 170 were sent to officer training. Education dean Frederick J. Kelly oversaw their courses in, among other subjects, astronomy, chemical warfare, French and German, map reading, meteorology, physics, psychology and sanitation and hygiene. A compulsory “Issues of the War” course required 50 sections. About 30 temporary teachers were hired to help carry the load.
Meals were served in mess rooms by Brick’s cafe and the Eldridge House. The home-ec department and the YWCA ran a Hostess House in Myers Hall (on the site of Smith Hall), serving cafeteria-style meals. A lounge with desks and big armchairs created a homey atmosphere, and female students provided nightly musical programs.
Trainees in telegraphy and carpentry
Within days of the SATC swearing-in, the Spanish influenza began moving through the barracks, the campus and the town. It has long been thought that this highly contagious, deadly form of swine flu originated that March at Fort Riley’s Camp Funston, ignited by burning manure and pig carcasses.
But early in 1918 a doctor in Haskell County, in southwest Kansas, had warned the U.S. Public Health Service about a new, savage form of influenza he was treating: “Violent headache and body aches, high fever, non-productive cough … rapid in its progress … Soon dozens of patients—the strongest, the healthiest, the most robust people in the county—were being struck down as suddenly as if they had been shot.”
On Oct. 8, 92 KU students reported symptoms; the next day, 130. Soon, 400 were ill. Medical school dean Samuel J. Crumbine, secretary of the state Board of Health, ordered the campus closed until Oct. 15. Nobody could leave town, public gatherings were prohibited and “strict compliance is a patriotic duty,” Strong asserted.
The University infirmary at 1300 Louisiana St. proved at once inadequate, so five Mississippi Street barracks were furnished as isolation wards and a pneumonia hospital was built next to them.
SATC corpsmen and medical students from Rosedale treated the ill, one of whom was Abilene sophomore Deane W. Malott, c’21, with little more than aspirin and fluids. Dozens of female students and faculty became nurses, collected linens and supplies in town and maintained a hospital kitchen.
Just as the disease seemed under control, 400 vocational trainees were sent to Lawrence, bringing new cases with them. The quarantine was extended through Nov. 11.
But in a stunningly precipitous end to four years of hellish warfare—and only 19 months after the U.S. was pulled into the conflict—the armistice was signed in a railroad carriage at Compiègne, France, at 11 a.m. on that 11th day of that 11th month. The Great War was over.
When the epidemic waned at KU just before Thanksgiving, nearly 1,000 had been infected and 32 had died. In the U.S., at least 675,000 died. Worldwide, the death toll was at least 50 million.
Deaths from war-related injuries, gassing or influenza among Jayhawks in service continued for months, eventually totaling 127 men and two women. The University’s service flag bore more than 3,500 stars.
The SATC was demobilized Dec. 21. The barracks, built at a cost of $120,000, were dismantled in the spring and sold for $11,000 in salvage. Strong pleaded for months before KU received the promised reimbursement of $173,000 it had spent on the SATC.
Just before Christmas, “West Ad” opened, while construction continued on the central section. After the wartime chancellor’s death in 1934, the buff terra-cotta building at the center of campus was named in honor of Frank Strong.