Vandy Goes to War

Vandy Goes to War, an exhibition highlighting the dramatic effects of two world wars on Vanderbilt’s campus, are on display in the Central Library lobby through Oct. 16, Reunion and Homecoming Weekend.

“Vanderbilt became involved in World War I in late 1917 when then-Chancellor James Kirkland issued the first decree to require military training on campus for all male students,” says Sara Sterkenburg, coordinator of exhibitions for the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries.

Vanderbilt Board of Trust minutes documenting this decision can be viewed at the exhibit, among other artifacts that include a 48-star flag, patches and accoutrements from uniforms, and war correspondence.

“The Student Army Training Corps was established, transforming Vanderbilt into a military post and attracting an influx of student soldiers, many of whom were sent to the warfront in Europe,” Sterkenburg says. She notes that enrollment dropped by 20 percent, requiring remaining faculty to condense their courses.

Among the students spotlighted is Irby “Rabbit” Curry, a hero of the 1916 football team and an All-American. He died in aerial combat over France on Aug. 10, 1918.

A campus map from the World War I era shows Curry Field as the location for football games. The current medical campus did not even exist yet. The exhibition also features a rich collection of World War I-era sheet music that would have been popular with the campus community.

“A lot of transition [took place] on campus between the first and second world wars, with the campus doubling in physical size and almost doubling in terms of student enrollment,” Sterkenburg says.

Fast-forward to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. The draft pulled a vast majority of students and faculty to the battlefield for World War II. More than 4,500 alumni served in every branch of service and theater of operation. The demand for medical professionals pushed Vanderbilt to offer accelerated degrees that ran year-round, often graduating multiple classes each year. Many Vanderbilt medical and nursing graduates joined the 300th General Hospital Unit in Italy that saved thousands of lives.

Enrollment of male students in the College of Arts and Science dropped to 40 percent below the prewar level. The Law School almost completely collapsed, reunions were eliminated, and yearbooks were barely finished.

“The high enrollment of women kept the university stable during World War II,” Sterkenburg says. “Women played leading roles in organizations like the Red Cross, planted victory gardens, and stretched monthly ration coupons.”

World War II ended in 1945, and a campus map from that period forward reflects rapid growth in areas such as dormitories and classrooms.

Sterkenburg notes that the university’s ROTC units have been strong partners in providing pertinent information about various materials in the exhibition and in developing educational programming.