The University of Texas at Austin
  • Nine pounds of wool and grommets

    By Jim Nicar, Texas Exes
    Published: July 1, 2011

    “History in a box.” That’s what I thought as Evan Hocker, staff member at the Briscoe Center for American History, laid the dull-gray archival container on the conference room table.

    UT's service flag

    The university’s service flag made during World War I.Photo: Jim Nicar

    I’d heard about and searched for its contents over a decade ago without success, having scoured the catalogs of the center’s University Archives, and inquired, by chance, at the Harry Ransom Center.

    In the end, it was never really lost, just stored in an unlikely place, and at last I’d be able to view it: the University of Texas service flag.

    World War I was a defining moment for American higher education. Before the war, colleges and universities were still viewed by many to be frivolous or elitist, not as opportunities for social and economic mobility. Professors were rarely asked for advice on issues or problems of the day. Despite curriculum reforms to include more “practical” courses in modern languages, science and engineering — along with the more traditional Greek and Latin — colleges in the early 20th century had failed to win widespread support from government, business and the public. The world war changed everything.

    Caught up in the patriotic fervor that pervaded the nation, male students rushed to enlist in the armed forces, which decimated college enrollments. At co-ed institutions like The University of Texas at Austin, the women assumed leadership roles on the campus previously been denied to them. Professors who specialized in subjects useful for war were recruited for their expertise.

    To avoid the closure of hundreds of male-only colleges, a national Student Army Training Corps was created to allow students to both remain in school and receive military instruction. Because the corps was open to any high school graduate, legions of young men who might otherwise have joined the work force found themselves on a college campus, and returned after the war to finish their degrees.

    Members of the UT Student Army Training Corps

    Members of the UT Student Army Training Corps fall in to formation in front of a row of wooden barracks along the west side of Speedway (where Waggener Hall and the McCombs School are today). On the hill to the right, Pig Bellmont, UT’s first live canine mascot, inspects the troops.

    By the end of the war, universities had firmly established themselves in the public eye as a national resource. The college campus became a place where American youth could be transformed into broadly-educated and valued citizens.

    In Austin, the U.S. declaration of war on April 6, 1917, transformed university life almost immediately. The faculty organized into a military company. Led by Al Brogan, honorary captain and philosophy professor, 84 professors agreed to participate in one hour of drill three days a week. The group included honorary Private and UT President Robert Vinson. Senior professors who were a little too old for active military training assisted Dr. Eugene Barker from the history department in planting a war garden on a section of vacant land near the campus.

    Many UT students rushed off to enlist, but with the advent of the Student Army Training Corps, campus enrollment again swelled to accommodate those who were concurrently students and members of the U.S. Army. The Forty Acres was converted into an armed encampment, as students in uniform woke to the sounds of Reveille, marched in formation to meals, and followed a strict schedule that included both academics and military training. Sentries were posted at university buildings, and professors were required to present proper identification to enter their offices and classrooms.

    In late April 1917, President Vinson was appointed to the Council of National Defense and was requested to attend a strategic conference in Washington, D.C. The meeting formalized an idea supported by President Woodrow Wilson to involve universities in the war effort. To take advantage of existing college facilities and instructors, the U. S. government established special military schools for aviators at campuses throughout the country. Six colleges were initially chosen to host a School of Military Aeronautics (SMA), and the University of Texas was among them. The SMA was to provide basic technical instruction for beginning pilots before they moved on to flight training. An eight-week session included classes in the history and theory of flight, meteorology, astronomy, machine guns, aerial combat, and the use of signal flags in communication. Those attending the SMA were soldiers in a new branch of the Army known as the “Air Service,” later to become the Air Force, and were not considered university students. Instructors for the SMA included both army officers and UT professors.

    The SMA opened in June 1917. It was first housed in B. Hall, the first men’s dorm, but the SMA quickly grew from 50 students to several hundred. It was moved to more spacious quarters in buildings once used by the state’s Blind Institute, now called the “Little Campus,” just north of the Erwin Center, where Hargis Hall and the Nowotny Building remain. When the war ended, the SMA had expanded to almost 1,200 students. The largest in the country, it was given the nickname “West Point of the Air,” and was a prototype for the Air Force Academy.

    A view from Old Main

    A view from the top of the old Main Building. Rows of army tents, used to house the School of Radio Operators, are set up on what will become the South Mall.

    The success of the School for Military Aeronautics placed the university in good stead with the War Department, which assigned two additional schools to the Austin campus. The School for Automobile Mechanics opened in March 1918 at Camp Mabry in northwest Austin. Three hundred men at a time completed a six-week course before being sent overseas to the war. Like the SMA, instructors included members of the university faculty.

    The School for Radio Operators was established on the campus a month later. It took over the B. Hall quarters vacated by the SMA, but needed more classroom space than was available. To solve the problem, several rows of large canvas army tents were pitched in front of the old Main Building, along what is now the South Mall. Once opened, radio students and their equipment were a common sight on the hilltops and in the valleys west of Austin.

    One of the by-products of World War I was the invention of the service flag. Designed by Robert Queissner, an Army captain from Cleveland, Ohio, the rectangular banner featured a blue star on a white background with a red border. Queissner initially created and displayed a pair of flags as a patriotic tribute to his two sons, who were in France fighting on the front line. But the idea quickly became popular nationally, and service flags were visible on front doors, in living room windows and on Main Street storefronts.

    Each blue star represented a son or daughter enlisted in the armed forces during wartime. If a person died in service, the blue star was covered with a gold one.

    Women working on the service flag

    The University ladies Club and the Women’s Council work on the service flag.

    In early February 1918, members of the University Ladies Club — spouses, daughters, sisters and mothers of UT faculty and staff — decided that the University of Texas needed a service flag of its own, one large enough to display blue stars to honor all of the faculty and alumni engaged in the war effort. Spearheaded by the wife of engineering professor Ed Bantel, the Ladies Club recruited the Women’s Council, a student organization for UT co-eds, and discussed plans for an ambitious project.

    The flag required a full two weeks of labor, with volunteers divided into 15-person shifts. Made from “a fine grade French flannel,” the entire flag measured 10 1/2 x 16 feet. The white center was 6 1/2 x 12 feet, and was initially filled with 1,570 blue stars. Each was 1 3/4 inches tall, individually traced, cut, placed and hand sewn in meticulous straight lines. While Captain Queissner’s original service banner was intended to be hung against a wall or in a window, with the blue star visible only on one side, the ladies elected to make the university’s version a true flag, so that two star fields were created, attached back-to-back, and a two-foot wide red border sewn around it.

    The flag was ready by March 2, and debuted at the university’s Texas Independence Day ceremonies in the old wooden gym that pre-dated Gregory Gymnasium. Following a rousing rendition of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by the UT Band, Charlotte Spence, chair of the Women’s Council, formally presented the flag to the university. Space was left for 140 additional stars, and, instead of a gold-colored material, eight of the stars had white toppings to indicate those who had died. Before the war was over, the remaining stars would be added (more faculty and alumni served in the war than the flag could accommodate), and 85 stars would be topped in white.

    Flag presentation

    The service flag is formally presented to the university on March 2, 1918.

    Once completed, the service flag was a popular public symbol of the university’s commitment to the war effort, though its size made it a challenge to display. Most of the time it was kept safe in the gym, but when possible, it was attached to the outer brick walls of the old Main Building for commencement and other ceremonies.

    Patriotism Day

    Patriotism Day on Nov. 14, 1918. The service flag is lowered from the university’s flag pole.

    One year after the war ended, on Friday, November 14, 1919, the university held a “Patriotism Day” memorial. At noon, in accordance to “General Order No. 1 as issued by President Robert Vinson,” classes were dismissed, and all students, faculty and staff assembled in military style in front of Old Main, where, for the first and only time, the service flag had been hung on the university’s flag pole.

    Engineering dean Thomas Taylor acted as commanding officer. The names of University men and women who lost their lives were read, “Taps” was heard, and as the band played “The Star Spangled Banner,” the flag was slowly lowered, folder and solemnly carried into the Library (now Battle Hall) to be preserved in the archives.

    Unfolding the service flag

    Briscoe Center staffers Evan Hocker and Margaret Schlankey look over the flag, opened half way on the conference room table. Photo: Jim Nicar

    Two decades later, the flag was placed on loan to the Texas Memorial Museum, where it was on exhibit through World War II. But in the post-war rush of returning veterans, increasing enrollment and campus construction, the flag was boxed and shelved with the museum’s natural history collections. It was checked and cleaned in 1961, and with the museum’s growing acquisitions needing more shelf space, was discovered misplaced and returned to the UT archives in 2004.

    Late last spring, while talking with Evan Hocker about UT history, the subject of World War I surfaced, and I mentioned my long-ago search for the flag. Evan checked the catalog, discovered the flag had arrived from the museum, and we made an appointment to see it.

    At the Briscoe Center, Evan and I found the largest table available, but were still only able to safely unfold the 93-year old flag halfway. After so many decades, I imagined it would be faded and tattered. We found a few tiny holes here and there, but the service flag was incredibly well preserved, its rich blues and reds still brilliant after almost a century. I wondered about the stars. Did the women involved in creating the flag have stars picked out for specific persons, friends or family? And who accepted the unhappy task of sewing a white star on top of a blue?

    We took pictures, checked for damage, counted and measured the hand-sewn stars, and even weighed the flag (nine pounds exactly). It was refolded — this time with rolls of tissue paper placed in each fold to prevent creasing — and returned to the safety of the University Archives.

    Jim Nicar is the director of the UT Heritage Society at the Texas Exes. Visit the Texas Exes UT History Central Web site for more fun facts about the university’s history.

    • Quote 2
      John Morris said on July 17, 2011 at 3:21 p.m.
      Agree whole heartedly with Mr. Cardwell -- should be required reading for every entering freshman and transfer student. Another requirement: some background on why the football stadium is called "Memorial Stadium," with all due respect to Coach Royal. I know Coach Royal personally, and he deserves the recognition. But it's apparent that few, anymore, know that the stadium originally honored UT students who gave their lives in WWI. A sad legacy for a great "memorial" to so many.
    • Quote 2
      George Cardwell said on July 10, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.
      America was strong then, and unashamed. Should be required reading for the current student body and the faculty - from a time when men loved their country more than their life.
    • Quote 2
      Shannon said on July 8, 2011 at 11:09 a.m.
      I'm proud of America. This story is just so powerful.
    • Quote 2
      Jean German said on July 8, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.
      I wanted to share this interesting article with a friend by e-mail. I was sad to see that e-mail no longer is possible for sending articles from the newletter.
    • Quote 2
      Paul said on July 8, 2011 at 9:49 a.m.
      I agree with Dottie. As a WW II history buff I've c0me to realize how much of WW I history is no longer fresh in our culture. This was a great story, well written, and connecting.
    • Quote 2
      Bill W said on July 8, 2011 at 8:45 a.m.
      By far the most interesting story from the past on UT's home page in a long time. Thanks to Jim Nicar for spending time finding the flag and then writing such an interesting article!
    • Quote 2
      Kent Hemingson said on July 8, 2011 at 7:47 a.m.
      An excellent and informative article about UT's rich history...thanks and please plan to publish similar stories in the future. Most important, it gives our international students a perspective of the American spirit and illustrates one of the many ways that UT has contributed to making our country a world leader.
    • Quote 2
      Dottie Newhouse Fiedler, BJ 69; MAT (NLU), 96 said on July 7, 2011 at 2:19 p.m.
      Historically,we seem so far removed from WW I what with so many wars in the interim; it is bittersweet, yet refreshing to find this "memory" preserved for us newbies who studied WWII going forward. Thanks!
    • Quote 2
      David A. Grant, MD said on July 7, 2011 at 1:37 p.m.
      Having grown up in Austin, moving there in 1936 at age 10, and having attended UT in the WWII active NROTC (headquartered in the old Littlefield Home), I, too, am surprised that I had never heard of this remarkable flag. Thanks for the enlightening information. UT has always been, and always will be, a special place!
    • Quote 2
      R Gonzalez said on July 7, 2011 at 11:42 a.m.
      This flag was "Made In America" with great pride and dedication as reflected in the photo. What a nice story and sad knowing that there were 85 with a white cover over their star meaning they lost their life at a young age. Fortunately, my dad came home from Korea.
    • Quote 2
      Sandra Martinez said on July 7, 2011 at 10:17 a.m.
      Thanks so much for such an interesting story. Would it be possible to display the flag occasionally? It seems such a shame that an emblem like this is never viewed. Imagine if at one football game this flag was used instead of the Texas flag -- perhaps at the Texas A&M game. Many of their students would appreciate this as much as UT students do.
    • Quote 2
      Sandy Dochen said on July 7, 2011 at 9:53 a.m.
      Cheers to UT for its many archives and treasures of literature, collections, history, etc. The most amazing and living treasure of history and stories is Jim Nicar! Everyone should experience one of his Prowls.
    • Quote 2
      Charley Montero said on July 7, 2011 at 8:53 a.m.
      Jim, great story and an even better "find". Love reading about the history of The University. Thanks!
    • Quote 2
      Jody Ladd Craig said on July 7, 2011 at 8:11 a.m.
      This was one of the most interesting articles I've read in the UT@Austin newsletter. I live in Kansas City, home to the national WWI Museum at Liberty Memorial. I think an exhibit about how WWI changed the course of univeristy education in this country would be new and very informative. I intend to pass the idea along to WWI museum staff. Thanks for continuing my education.
    • Quote 2
      Karen Pope, PhD '81 said on July 7, 2011 at 7:35 a.m.
      Remarkable story, fascinating photos. Very glad I followed the email trail to this discovery. I hope I am around when the flag's 100th birthday is celebrated!
    • Quote 2
      Pat Hervey said on July 7, 2011 at 7:26 a.m.
      Fascinating! I hope you will publish this in the Alcalde so more people can read it.
    • Quote 2
      Tina Millican said on July 7, 2011 at 6:31 a.m.
      Great article. Makes me proud to be an American and a Longhorn.
    • Quote 2
      Kathleen Bergeron said on July 7, 2011 at 6:14 a.m.
      What an amazing story, and a wonderful job you did, Jim! It reminds me of when I was about 10 years old, playing on the grounds of what used to be called the Little Campus, and one of the folks who worked there showed me a picture of General Custer and his family posing on the porch of the building. About a dozen years later, the Alcalde magazine published a write-up, and now it's well known. I'd love to see a book of little known UT stories like this! As Oliver Twist said, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"
    • Quote 2
      James Hooper said on July 7, 2011 at 3:39 a.m.
      A very interesting look into UT's past. Thank you for the great back-story.
    • Quote 2
      Lawrence said on July 7, 2011 at 12:49 a.m.
      What an inspiring story! A glimpse back into an earlier era, both for our nation and UT specifically. The self-confidence and lack of cynicism of that time are what come through the story. Those attitudes are missed today.
    • Quote 2
      Linda said on July 6, 2011 at 12:45 a.m.
      What a great story! Another wonderful reason to be proud to be a Longhorn.
    • Quote 2
      Jaci Spuhler said on July 4, 2011 at 9:12 a.m.
      "Never really lost, just stored in an unlikely place." I'm in the process of going through our basement storage in the local history archive. This great story will make me look at everything twice...who knows what I'll find!
    • Quote 2
      Frances Starling Boesch said on July 3, 2011 at 3:09 p.m.
      Thank you to any one that represents our country in the Armed Forces. We could not live FREE , if it were not for you and others in years past that fought for our freedom. Being part of the UT family makes you even more special!
    • Quote 2
      Karen said on July 1, 2011 at 7:44 p.m.
      Inspiring, informative, very well written article... thanks!
    • Quote 2
      Frances Starling Boesch said on July 1, 2011 at 5:02 p.m.
      I can't believe I have never heard this before now. Makes me wonder what else I don't know! Ineed to do some homework on UT history.
    • Quote 2
      Steven B Thompson said on July 1, 2011 at 3:52 p.m.
      I am from Ft Hood TX and I am also a Military Veteran as well as a Longhorns fan through and through. I knew that UT has been a university of many firsts and prides itself on patriotism, but I never knew the University had ever done anything like that and I am proud to know that they did and are making efforts to preserve that history.
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