“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.