Fighting Gators: Military Training at the University of Florida

Group of male and female ROTC students from the 1950s looking at a missile while a man with a pointer stands on a ladder above it
Submitted by Carl Van Ness, Curator of Manuscripts and Archives and University Historian


Southern colleges and universities have a long association with our nation’s military past. In antebellum days, the region was dotted with military academies that catered to the needs of the South’s slave-owning aristocracy. That martial spirit persisted in southern academia after the Civil War. Oddly, though, the University of Florida’s military traditions are rooted in the Morrill Act of 1862, a distinctly “Yankee” innovation. That act required land grant colleges to include military training as part of their curriculum.

Florida’s first land grant college, the Florida Agricultural College, opened in Lake City in 1883. For the first twenty years, military discipline and rules governed the lives of its male students. The men drilled three times a week, woke to reveille, ate in a mess hall, and wore cadet uniforms. A commandant posted to the campus by the War Department enforced the military code of conduct. Those found guilty of infractions were confined to barracks or worse. Military discipline ended in 1903, the same year the college became the University of Florida. Compulsory military training, however, did not end until 1969.

What passed for military training in the early years was largely restricted to parade drilling and occasional rifle practice. At the urging of President Andrew Sledd, the University of Florida added elective coursework in military science in 1909.  In 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act, which established today’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The University of Florida has the distinction of being one of the nation’s sixteen inaugural units.  The War Department assigned additional officers to the faculty and the number of course electives increased significantly. Students who completed the ROTC course could apply for a commission in the Officers’ Reserve Corps. ROTC took on a new significance in the Cold War Era. An Army ROTC unit before World War II, the Defense Department added Air Force, Navy and Marine training. Today, ROTC graduates are called to active duty immediately upon graduation.

Fighting Women Gators

The Florida Agricultural College became coeducational in 1894. Some of the women who entered that year asked to drill alongside the men. President Oscar Clute responded with the creation of a volunteer women’s company. The company lasted for only a few years.

The Defense Department brought women into the armed forces in 1948, the year after women were admitted to UF. Women’s ROTC units formed at UF in the 1950’s. The Defense Department abolished gender specific units in the 1970s as opportunities for women in the armed forces expanded beyond so-called support missions.

Blueish photo of women in 19th century military clothes holding rifles
A Company of Volunteers, 1895, Florida Agricultural College
Women in 1950s militar attire walk in parade formation in an outdoor space
Members of Angel Flight on parade at the battalion drill field now occupied by the O’Dome and the O’Connell Center parking lot. Angel Flight was the UF WAF component of Air Force ROTC.
Close up of line of people wearing 1990s camo casual military attire
Coeducational ROTC members in the 1990s.

Gators on Horseback

UF’s ROTC unit was one of the first to include artillery training. The first guns were horse drawn, World War I era, French 75s. ROTC housed the guns, caissons and horses in the Artillery Barn where Van Fleet Hall and the O’Connell Center are now located. The members of the artillery unit also formed a Polo Club.

Soldiers on horseback in open field. University bulidings and palm trees are behind them
Artillery Unit on parade at the University of Florida, circa 1935.
Polo game in progress in an open field with palm trees in the background
Polo team in a Homecoming match with Auburn.
Group of about 25 men on horseback in military attire in front of a barn
Artillery unit outside the Artillery Barn

UF During the World Wars

During both world wars, the all-male University of Florida saw its enrollment plummet and the campus became a military camp. Militarization was brief during the first war. Soldiers and sailors arrived in the spring of 1918 and an armistice was declared on September 11.  Orders to decamp came just before Thanksgiving and the University transitioned to civilian control in the middle of the semester.

Militarization during World War II had a much greater impact. Hundreds of soldier-students from across the nation were assigned to the University of Florida. The largest unit was the 62nd College Training Detachment, Army Air Force. 3000 air crew trainees came through the program, which included ten hours of flight instruction at Stengel Field situated where the Butler Plaza Shopping Center is today.

Man in WWI era military attire on a white background. He is holding a hat
Jackson McDonald, a WWI trainee at the University of Florida, returned after the war to earn his degree in engineering.
Students in a 1940s classroom with teacher at blackboard. There are maps in the room and a globe on the table.
Army Specialized Training Program participants take a class in meteorology, 1943
WWII era planes. One man in uniform with a harness is in the foreground
Airmen at Stengel Field in Gainesville, Florida

Compulsory military training at land grant colleges was common, although not mandated by federal law. At the Florida Agricultural College and at the University of Florida, military training was initially required of most able-bodied men for the entire four years. Graduate students were excluded, as were foreign students, students with prior military service, and students with medical exemptions. Seniors were exempted in 1920 and, gradually, juniors and sophomores. The last mandatory group was the freshman class of 1969.

Mandatory military training was mostly drills and rifle practice. At certain times, all of the companies would assemble for a parade accompanied by the military band. Shown here are the battalions on parade at different times in our history.

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