Rifles, Rocket Launchers, And Machine Guns: My Stint In High School R.O.T.C.

Words: 2,965

Today’s Pontificate –   Lock & load!  That title above raise an eyebrow?  Remember my previous post about guys swimming naked as a phys-ed requirement in the Chicago Public Schools (HERE)?  Here’s another culture shock absurdity (by our modern scruples)  to dazzle the senses and leave you in wonderment and awe.


 

The above tranquil picture of my high school, Willian Howard Taft High School, seems very innocent enough, in that quiet and peaceful neighborhood of Chicago’s far northwest side.  A predominantly white, middle class neighborhood of stately Victorian homes with very uncommon large yards for an urban area, and many of those homes tracing back to the 1890’s in what was once the incorporated suburb of Norwood Park, and is now simply one of many Chicago annexed neighborhood communities such as Ravenswood, Humboldt Park, Jefferson Park, Hyde Park, Edison Park.  Norwood’s homes, with their ample manicured yards and wide avenues under a canopy of maples, was a popular place to settle when back in the 1960’s the late former Mayor, Richard J. Daly mandated city employees must live inside the city limits.  In those days the tranquil Summer routine of chirping birds and a barking dog was broken only by the occasional transistor radio with Jack Brickhouse or Harry Carey bringing you the latest play-by-play of a Cubs or Sox game… and the distant muffled hum of a lawn mower, or the occasional loud rush from a commercial jetliner on the overhead flight path to O’Hare for a landing.

But few today recall what used to be going on in the subterranean bowels of that school… from 1939 when the school was built, until 1969… year of my graduation.  As you walked into one of the regular looking classrooms from the back entrance to the building.. the one marked ROTC.. (for Reserve Officers Training Corp), you would see to your left the typical arm-desk chairs lined up as if for class, with the speaker’s podium in front of the blackboard.  To the right of the entrance into the classroom was a door leading down two flights of stairs into a basement.  At the bottom of those stairs directly in front of you was a very large room.. cement walls, concrete floor.  At the far end was sloped heavy sheet metal wall with the Taft logo painted on it, from floor to ceiling and traversing the immense width of the room.  To the immediate right of the large room was a heavy metal door… the kind a bank might use at the entrance of a vault.  To be sure it was a “basement” but it looked far more like a military bunker.

If you had the proper combination you could open that metal door… and inside you would find mounted in wooden gun racks… thirty M1 Garand rifles, two Browning Automatic Rifles (BAR machine guns), and a M1A1 rocket launcher (bazooka).. all REAL World War 2 era weapons.   These were not rubber mock-ups or reproductions.   It turns out that the large room with the huge metal plate in the back, a bullet stop, was a shooting range.  This was the heart of ROTC training for the decades before I got there.  Now, to understand what all that was all about.. and what the hell were weapons like this doing inside a school, of all places, given what we know today about  guns in schools… we have to start at the beginning.  Oh.. to be clear, we had no live bullets but rather blanks for ceremonial purposes (although bullets could be purchased anywhere).  Also, by the time I had gotten there use of the firing range as a… firing range… was off limits due (only) to the apparent unsafe condition of the backstop not deflecting bullets properly (as a freshman I recalled hearing the military instructor tell about him and another guy having fired a number of live rounds from Garands into the backstop, only to have a couple rounds ricochet back to them… thus indicating the backstop was too dangerous for shooting live ammo).  Those weapons, by the way, were in fact all chained with padlocks and the firing pins for all those weapons were (presumably) locked up separately with the key with the military instructor.   A military instructor, you ask?  No certified teacher?  Trust me.. all this gets even better.

Here’s some pictorial content to provide some context on what these weapons were like.

When we think of our current society.. all we can do is be aghast and ask, “What the hell in gawd’s name is that kind of stuff doing inside in a public high school???  Were they nuts, or something???”  Well.. nuts or not.. it all started with a federal government reflecting a different time and mood of the country.  What’s equally amazing is that all this “gun stuff” under the auspices of the high school ROTC was continued through the decades… for our school, up until 1966.  Here’s where it all started.

One of our local parades showing the color guard and ARMED honor guard (one circled.. not me). Imagine teenagers walking through the streets today carrying operational weapons provided by their school… blank ammo or not.

It’s very important here to cite a difference in the two variants of “ROTC” itself.  the first is the military prepatory  as part of college.  My elementary school and high school buddy and future “best man” at my wedding, was in high school ROTC with me and in fact he became the cadet commander or our corp by our senior year.  When he went on to college he signed a contract with the Army that they would pay for his college as long as he went all four college years taking college ROTC, and upon graduation he would enter active duty as a commissioned officer.  This concept hails way back to 1862.  The following clip is from Wiki…

The concept of ROTC in the United States was created by Alden Partridge and began with the Morrill Act of 1862 which established the land-grant colleges. Part of the federal government’s requirement for these schools was that they include military tactics as part of their curriculum, forming what became known as ROTC.

Again, honor guard firing weapons in front of the school during a flag raising ceremony. Keep in mind, family homes were directly across the street.

As the years went on the  ROTC program was modified in a number of ways but the essential idea was a kind of officer prepatory program to satisfy military needs and create a solid officer corp.  Again, Wiki….

Another root of the modern ROTC program comes from the “Plattsburg Idea”. In 1915, Major General Leonard Wood instituted the Citizen’s Military Training Corps, the first series of training camps to make officers out of civilians. For the first time in history, an attempt was made to provide a condensed course of training and commissioning competent reserve line officers after only a summer of military training. Over 5,000 men arrived at Plattsburgh in May 1917 for the first of the large training corps. By the end of 1917, over 17,000 men had been trained. By the eve of its entry into World War One, the U.S. had a prepared corps of officers including one of the earliest Plattsburgh graduates, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. During the 1930s, there were ROTC programs in some larger city high schools (Memphis, TN; Charlotte, NC; Kansas City, MO; New Orleans, LA).

Did you catch that last sentence?  Apparently by time my high school was built, 1939, the Chicago Public School system was including junior ROTC (now called JROTC), even to the point of installing weapons vaults and indoor firing ranges in the basements of new school construction.  One has to keep in mind the general political mood of 1939 was neutrality from the (Nazi) affairs of Europe, but the government felt a need to prepare “just in case”.  More Wiki…

The US Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) is one of the largest character development and citizenship programs for youth in the world. The National Defense Act of 1916 established organized JROTC programs at public and private educational institutions. In 1964, Congress expanded the program to all military services and changed from active duty to shared support from the services and schools.

As congressionally mandated by Title 10 United States Code, Section 2031, each military service must have a JROTC program to “instill in students in United States secondary educational institutions the values of citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.” JROTC’s mission, “To Motivate Young People to be Better Citizens”, is the guidepost for the program’s success.

The U.S. Army’s JROTC program currently operates in more than 1,700 public and private high schools, military institutions, and correctional centers throughout the United States and overseas. Approximately 40% of JROTC programs are in inner city schools, serving a student population of 50% minorities. As JROTC students (Cadets) progress through the program, they experience opportunities to lead other Cadets. A major component of the JROTC leadership and citizenship program is female Cadets. Female Cadets make up 40% of the Cadet population. The JROTC faculty is led by nearly 4,000 instructors who are retired from active duty, reserve duty, or National Guard Army service. Instructors are trained and qualified in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act 2007 to teach and mentor approximately 314,000 JROTC Cadets annually.

There were no females who took ROTC classes in my four years, although female students were allowed.  What was the inducement to take ROTC class in high school?  Well, one major reason I mentioned in my previous post about swimming naked in gym class.  The other incentive, more passive and future-looking upon graduation, is that you could enlist in the Army or Air Force and receive one stripe… or an elevated paygrade to E-2 (Airman First-Class).  Typically when someone enlisted they were an E-1, no stripe (Airman Basic).  The stripe would be awarded at the end of basic training.  So high school ROTC gave you a slight pay advantage.. and a rank higher than your basic training peers.  The presumption was that you had already been taught some level of military discipline and respect for the chain of command in high school.

Author’s Personal Fun Fact –  I was 20 years old when I reported for basic training… not the usual 18 or 19 year old of the day.  I had decided not to acknowledge my completion of high school ROTC and receive my stripe.  You see, basic training in any of the services would be difficult enough.. even though I was entering the Air Force and they had an easier program.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine me showing up with one stripe.. and then being made the subject of all kinds of drill instructor object lessons because I would have likely been the ranking trainee.  All I wanted to do was melt into the background of olive drab fatigues.  That was one of the best decisions in my young life at the time.

An actual ROTC class session with chairs set up on a portion of the firing range, with the metal backstop to the rear.

From what I could piece together between those days and now… high school ROTC was to engage students into the rigors of military discipline, military bearing, military knowledge, and functions of the chain of command.  As I indicated above, we had a regular classroom like any other in school, except for the basement firing range and weapons armory.  Class duration was the same as any other class schedule in those days.  I am sure during the pre-war years (WW2 that is) and post war years and Korea, the daily class instruction was far more rigid.  In my day… well… it was a rather devil-may-care kind of operation.  We had zero physical training of any sort.  We did have lots of marching practice…. we learned how to assemble and disassemble all the weapons (for whatever reason, as they were all outdated technology at the time)… but in between all that much of the time was like your typical study hall class period, especially if the military instructor was not at class that day.  We all supervised ourselves; no subs.  We simply listened to the upper classmen who were our cadet officers.  There were no class books, no formal course of study.  To get an “A” in the class all one had to do was show up breathing.

The Military Instructor

Somewhere in the past the original policy was likely a shared responsibility for administering to ROTC classes between the school districts and the military.  In my four years we had three military instructors.  These fellows were typically retired Army NCO’s, generally staff and master sergeants.  I suspect they were paid by the Army as a kind of post retirement job.  But as instructors they were required at all times to wear their Army uniforms in and around the school.  Us students were required to wear our uniforms only on Fridays… which presumed we were to be “inspected” during Friday class on how well we kept our appearance.  But for the most part these guys took retirement very literally and seldom got into anything even relating to “teaching”. The two I knew never mixed or socialized much with the regular teaching staff.  Often the instructors would simply give orders to the cadet officers to pass on to us in the rank-in-file.  Amazingly, we generally followed orders given to us… in the classroom… and while wearing the uniform on Fridays.  Infractions meant push-ups.  Typically the instructor held no teaching certification, no formal schooling… and answered to no one from the board of education.  But the military instructors were generally accountable to a city-wide Army officer of higher rank.  We would see that person maybe at a school competition.  Competition, you ask?

A high school ROTC “battalion” (a single school) typically had three units within the rank-and-file.  There was a “D&B”.. drum & bugle unit… made up of ROTC students as a military marching band outside of the usual school marching band for sports events.  Then there was the color guard and honor guard.  The honor guard, seven guys, fired the gun volleys at outside ceremonies (this unit was discontinued when the weapons were removed in 1966.. more on that in a bit).  The color guard were the usual four that carried the flags at indoor and outdoor ceremonies and PTA meetings.  But the larger group most of us strived to serve in was the “Drill Platoon”.  When I first entered high school I got into this unit right away and served all four years.  Essentially it was a platoon of 48 that demonstrated their skills at military appearance.. and perform military marching maneuvers.  For my first two years this included using rifles.. and doing all those nifty and impressive flipping-rifle demonstrations.  The school district would set up intra-mural competitions between high schools on how all these units functioned.  Generally parents and friend and family were invited to attend.

Think of our Drill Platoon doing the same displays as in the movie “Stripes” (above).  The moves “razzle dazzle” and “Queen Anne salute” were typical rifle-flipping demonstration moves.  We were far better in our performance than Bill Murray’s platoon, but we were nothing compared to a Marine drill unit, of course… like in the opening of the movie, “A Few Good Men”.  I should point out that much of our unit practice, from simple marching to demonstration moves, was done down in the basement rifle range.  The flat wide open area allowed for indoor practice when the gym was being used.

Actual Drill Platoon exhibition with weapons. I am second from right. This was in the school gym.

Our Drill Platoon the year after guns were taken away. (Note the military instructor at the bottom.)

In The End…

I personally didn’t think high school ROTC was military enough for me as it seemed more a dodge to have an easy class and avoid the physical stresses (and swimming embarrassments) of phys ed.  It certainly seemed a dodge for retired military instructors.  But there were times that we did shine for our school like the sports teams, while in Drill Platoon competition.  There was of course a medal awarding ceremony each year.  A fair number of private and civic organizations had medals for ROTC students for various combinations of academic and military-like achievement (In 1969 I was awarded the Chicago Tribune Silver Medal.. for something I can’t remember now).   I was in a number of Chicago city parades down Michigan Avenue as well as the usual parades in Norwood Park for Memorial Day, July 4th, etc.  It was fun.  Now high school JROTC includes a fair number of Navy JROTC units across the country, as well as Army and Airforce.  I would guess any use of weapons for training purposes is likely through a nearby base where students can go for more hands-on training as part of their curriculum.

The Guns-in-School Honeymoon Ended

Sometime in the middle of my sophomore year we heard that one of the inner city high schools had a robbery, and someone made off with their armory contents; some 20 M1 Garands and their BAR (machine gun).  Keep in mind, this was 1966/67 when the civil rights unrest and anti-war demonstrations were burning up a number of cities.  The rise of militant groups, etc.  So while these weapons had no firing pins, those could be easily acquired.  Apparently the Chicago Board of Ed. decided that the era of this kind of weaponry in public high schools was over… and all our weapons were removed.  (A similar restriction happened with the wearing of presentation/decorative sabers by cadet officers at formal ROTC functions.. like military balls… color guards… in 1965, when more than once someone got hurt doing idiotic sword fighting).

Oh well… gone are the good old days of guns in schools.

Again.. believe it, or not.

Author’s Note:  Since the 1960’s gun values have skyrocketed and the value of military weaponry from WW2 is right up there as well.  Conservatively the value of an M1 Garand of the type we drilled with back in the day is about $1,000 each…. with prices going up from there depending on original WW2 era wood stock, point of manufacturer, wear and tear, etc.  That means those 40 Garands today would be worth $40,000+.  That single BAR would be near $20,000 by itself.  Back then no one was keeping track… and guns went cheap.  I would likely guess that the first weapons issued to ROTC schools was probably surplus Springfield bolt actions from World War 1.  The weapons we had likely were supplied following the Korean Conflict.

Now what?

5 Comments

  1. beetleypete

    We had something very similar here. Though mostly at expensive private schools and universities, and certainly not at the type of secondary school I went to in London in 1963.. They supplied most of the officers who were killed in their thousands during WW1.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Officers%27_Training_Corps
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Reply
    • Doug

      That was very interesting, Pete. Amazing how similar the programs, ROTC and OTC, were to each other… at least as it related on the college level. And, yes, the sheer pompous idiocy of the senior military leadership of all countries involved in WW1 that just fed soldiers to their deaths by the thousands… well, millions actually. The 25,000 Brits in one day at the Somme.

      Reply
  2. lobotero

    I was even in high school a radical….I protested against ROTC…I still do not think it belongs in high school…..there is military schools for those that want the experience. chuq

    Reply
    • Doug

      I agree with you, chuq. I think the concept was obsolete for high schools by WW2. But fear motivates a society.

      Reply
      • lobotero

        Yes and usually in the wrong direction…..chuq

        Reply

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