Military training was first introduced to the old “Central University” in Richmond, Kentucky in 1892. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was officially established on the campus of Eastern Kentucky State College in 1936.
Eastern Kentucky University was one of the first campuses to apply for an ROTC unit. The unit at Eastern became only the third Senior ROTC in the state, following units at the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky State Teachers College. In early 1936 the Department of the Army approved a field artillery unit for the Richmond Campus. The Army provided Eastern with three officers and $85,000 worth of equipment. Captain W. Ford, a Field Artillery officer, took over as the first commander until he was replaced by Major Charles Gallaher later in 1936. With rising war tensions in Europe enrollment in ROTC increased in the unit’s two batteries. The ROTC program began adding more activities for Cadets to partake in including a pistol team and the annual Military Ball.
In March of 1937, the Military Science Department, with the aid of the Art Department, received approval from the Headquarters Department of the Army for the school patch. It consisted of a maroon silhouette of Daniel Boone standing at the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains; the shield is a background of white. The patch is still proudly worn by Cadets today.
Eastern commissioned its first 11 officers in 1940 into the reserves. 1940 also saw enrollment grow to 250 men in three batteries. In 1941, six Eastern Cadets were picked up by the Army Air Corps for flight training. In early 1943, the Army met with university officials to discuss bringing a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps unit to the Richmond campus. During the year all ROTC students were eventually called into service. In March, 300 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) arrived on campus. The unit at Eastern was officially known as ‘Army Administration School, 3589 Service Unit, WAC Branch No. 6’. The unit trained secretarial personnel in six to eight week courses. By early 1944 more than 1600 women graduated from the school. In September 1943 an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) was brought to campus to teach basic courses in engineering. By 1944 around 450 men finished the course. Due to the personnel requirements of the war both the ASTP and WAAC were pulled from campus in mid-1944. The impact of the Army’s programs at Eastern was widely known to the local community. Campus newspapers show that most photos contained soldiers in training and the military provided nearly $10,000 a month to the campus which aided in keeping it from falling in disrepair. Beatrice Dougherty, class of ’45, stated “During one summer when ‘civilian’ campus enrollment was small we coeds appeared as only a few tiny specks of brightly colored dresses amid a sea of olive green uniforms.” Of the more than one thousand men and women from Eastern who served during the war eight graduates and 45 former students perished in support of combat operations. Another four men from Eastern survived prison camp life and came home.
The ROTC program took a brief hiatus after World War II ended but returned to campus in 1946. In 1948, 35 Cadets received their commissions as Second Lieutenants. During the 1950s, Eastern typically commissioned an average of 40 new officers each year. The ROTC program changed from a field artillery unit to branch-general training unit. In 1955, the Pershing Rifles formally accepted EKU’s chapter as company R-1. By the end of the decade, many of the traditions that Eastern Cadets still partake in, such as the Military Ball and the numerous parades, were firmly established.
In 1963, after the assassination of President Kennedy, Eastern held special memorial services; including a parade in which 1,300 Cadets marched downtown. With the turmoil of the 1960s affecting nearly every college campus in the nation; ROTC enrollment declined but the University President at the time, Robert Martin, pressed hard to make the ROTC program a premier part of the Eastern community. President Martin made the ROTC program mandatory. He stated “It teaches our young men- freshmen and sophomores- a greater appreciation of citizenship, and its many, many obligations.” While many other universities saw antiwar demonstrations in the period, Eastern students were holding blood drives for the troops and editorializing its support of them. The Vietnam War slowly began to affect the campus as more alums were wounded or perished in combat. 1LT John Hanlon, class of ’64, earned a Silver Star for leading his troops to safety while he was partially paralyzed. Streets on campus were later named in honor of Hanlon and Paul Edwin VanHoose, another alum who perished in the war. After the war, many veterans returned to school at Eastern. Mandatory participation in the ROTC program became a hot button issue into the late 1960s. President Martin finally conceded and dropped the requirement to one year in ROTC and later made it optional participation again. Throughout all the turmoil, the ROTC program remained strong, second only to Texas A&M. In October 1969, nearly 800 Eastern students gathered in the Ravine and the names of the dead from Vietnam were read.
After the shooting of students at Kent State in 1970, it touched off disturbances at other local universities; in some cases even ROTC building were burnt down. A trustee at the University of Kentucky allegedly remarked, “You don’t have to worry about this happening at Eastern.” The ROTC program often led the nation in enrollment from 1976 through 1984; the joint programs at Union College and Cumberland College helped boost the numbers at Eastern. During this time ROTC also began to offer more opportunities to women. The first female Cadet Brigade commander, Jackie Truesdell, took over in 1983. In 1986, the ROTC program ranked fourth in size among the 52 programs in the region. In 1990, ROTC celebrated its 50th anniversary of the first commissionees by having six members of the 1940 class return to campus. Enrollment in the ROTC program remained strong and increased in the wake of Operation: Desert Storm. Michael Prater commissioned as the 2,000th Eastern graduate to receive a commission in 1993.
Since 9/11, Eastern has responded to the threats to homeland security. Many of the academic programs taught on campus such as forensics, fire science, and homeland security have taken on deeper and added meanings; Eastern has become one of the top colleges in the country for veterans; and more and more Eastern students continued to answer the call of duty. To date the Army ROTC program at EKU continues to strive for “Leadership Excellence” and produce top notch officers.
Today, the “Colonels Battalion” continues to stand for Leadership Excellence and the long tradition of being one of the best ROTC programs in the nation.
*Much of this information was gathered from “A History of Eastern Kentucky University: The School of Opportunity” by William H. Ellis.
Learn about the insignias worn by students in EKU’s SROTC program.