The last of four posts written for “WWI and Champaign County” of the Town & Gown Speaker Series, a collaboration between the Student Life & Culture Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives.
Research for this post contributed by Maggie Cornelius.
Besides ROTC and SATC, the Department of War instituted another military training program at the University of Illinois during World War I. The School of Military Aeronautics (SMA) was not a permanent addition to the University, but its activities preoccupied the campus during the latter years of the Great War.
In March 1917, the Daily Illini reported on this development: “The aviation section of the military department of the United States has become active during the present crisis and is desirous of interested students at all the universities in aviation.” To meet the nation’s need for pilots in time of war, the federal government commissioned six U.S. universities to open aviation schools. Illinois was the first American university to offer its facilities and resources to the government to aid the war effort.
In a telegram and letter dated April 3, 1917, University President Edmund J. James offered the University’s support to the president and the nation in the inevitable conflict ahead: “I hereby volunteer for any service in which I may be of use. In this situation, there can be only patriots and traitors.” James received a response from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s office on April 5th; Wilson declared war against Germany the next day. The War Department selected Texas, MIT, Cornell, Ohio State, California, and Illinois as aviation school sites. That spring, twenty-five cadets arrived on campus for training under the direction of U.S. military Captain George W. Kraft, replaced in October by Major William F. Pearson.
Due to the brief time period between President James’ offer of service and the beginning of training, the School of Military Aeronautics was not fully equipped when the first cadets arrived. Nevertheless, the University mobilized to provide the necessary facilities for SMA, organized by Dean of the College of Engineering Charles R. Richards. The Armory, which had been built in 1914 to house University sports, conventions, performances, and exhibits, adapted to house aviation cadets, instruction space, and aviation equipment. Campus eventually designated other buildings for SMA, including the YMCA, the New Women’s Residence Hall, Bradley Hall, the Gymnasium, the Physics building, woodshops, the Highway Lab, the Electrical Engineering Lab, and the Engineering Hall. Besides providing an excessive amount of space, the University also provided SMA with drill instructors.
Despite being christened an Aviation School, the SMA was classified a “ground school,” meaning cadets would not gain flying experience until they graduated to an air school. Illinois’ ground school sought to accomplish three main objectives:
- Teach candidates military duties and develop soldierly qualities.
- Eliminate mentally or morally unfit individuals as officer material.
- Provide necessary preliminary training in the use of machine guns, wireless telegraphy, the operation and care of aeronautical motors, air plane maintenance, principles of aerial tactics, cooperation with other branches of the service, and the fundamental principles of cross-country and general flying.
Training consisted of eight weeks of classes: three in military drill and discipline and five in technical instruction. Faculty from the Engineering Department assisted the instruction. SMA equipment included an airplane, one hydroplane, motors, repair machinery, wireless outfits, and machine guns. By mid-June, SMA had 200 cadets, mostly seniors and recent college graduates. On July 14, 1917, the first squadron of twenty-five students graduated in preparation for air training school.
Edward “Dwight” Brauns, a 1917 SMA graduate, corresponded with his mother while training in the fall of 1917: “Dear Mamma, Three Hips, a lot o’ Hurrays and about a thousand Rose yells!! I’m going to College again!..am expected at the U of Illinois on Saturday. My chin’s in the clouds, I don’t see anything but the tops of the buildings!” Once at the School, Brauns was “housed and fed splendidly in the YMCA.” Later he reported that “The work seems to be getting heavier as the school gets older. New material is added and of course they can’t see fit to drop any of the old.” Undeterred by the excessive work load, Brauns eventually graduated and served in France.
Despite the short life of the School of Aeronautics at the University, “the moral and courtesy of the entire school improved rapidly until soon the institution was spoken of as a second West Point.” During this time, SMA expanded its curriculum to instruct observers, bombers, and fighting observers, eventually graduating 2,691 cadets. The School of Military Aeronautics operated for eighteen months, training cadets until the Armistice in November, 1918.