Penn was operating as usual in the early stages of World War I, but when it became apparent that the United States would enter the war, the campus’ focus changed to preparing students to join the military.
In 1915, a group of students involved in a peace movement formed an organization called The University of Pennsylvania Peace League to Combat Militarism. The group sent a letter to President Woodrow Wilson calling on the United States to stay out of the conflict. Group members hoped that if the U.S. remained neutral, other nations would follow its lead.
But the war continued to escalate, and after the U.S. decided to enter the fighting in April of 1917, the Marine Corps turned to college students to volunteer to serve. Under a special program for college students, the candidates would enlist as privates and then take a preliminary course at Parris Island. The top recruits went on to participate in special training camps for the rank of lieutenant. The first Penn student to enlist was Arthur McCarty, the editor in chief of The Pennsylvanian (now called The Daily Pennsylvanian). This 1918 photo shows Marine Corps recruits preparing to leave Philadelphia for training at the Parris Island military base in South Carolina.
The Penn campus was even the site of some military training exercises, with hundreds of students performing drills on the Quad. Students also participated in government and aviation training programs.
By the end of 1917, approximately 2,000 Penn students had enlisted in the military or joined a government service in the U.S. or abroad. By May of 1918, the Pennsylvania Gazette recorded 5,500 Penn students as “men classified in service.” Penn’s involvement in military activities grew so strong that near the end of the war the University created a new four-year academic program in military science.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on May 19, 2011