by Thomas DeShong, Project Archivist
World War II witnessed the rise of the United States as a global superpower and the establishment of a new world order. Historians, amateur and professional alike, devote their entire lives to studying the complexities and intricate details of “The Good War” including its battles, politicians, military commanders, causes, effects, etc.
While seeking to comprehend the broader historical and social implications of World War II, we sometimes forget how these events impacted the life of an individual. Activities that we might take for granted, such as teaching and learning in a peaceful collegiate setting, were dramatically altered in a nation at war. Over the past few months, I have processed two small but fascinating collections concerning Baylor University during World War II. As a result, I have come to appreciate the sacrifices made by some of Baylor’s faculty and students during that time.
Merle Mears McClellan was one such remarkable faculty member. Merle had earned a double major in history and science from the University of Texas in 1917 and had taught for years in the Gatesville area. Following the death of her husband William, she earned her Master’s degree in 1941 at Baylor University where she taught various history courses over the next few years. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Baylor University President Pat Neff appointed Merle as the university’s Armed Services Representative in the spring of 1943. In this role, she acted as a liaison between the university and the military.
Reflecting on her experiences, Merle was one of the few women who had been appointed to such a task. In explaining why Neff had chosen her, she wrote, “He said, ‘You are a mother of one son in the Pacific. Your normal reaction would be to send everyone to help him fight. So if you say a boy is entitled to exemption no one on the McLennan Co. Draft Board will question your decision. Furthermore, I know you and I know the Baylor boys will get everything to which they are entitled.”
In BU Records: Armed Services Representative (#BU/12), we catch a glimpse of the positive influence Merle had on the students she had mentored and advised. The entire collection is comprised of correspondence, most of which was written by Baylor students to Merle after they had moved on for advanced military training or had been deployed to fight overseas.
In the second collection, BU Records: Army Specialized Training Program (#BU/13), we find graduation programs and rosters for the Army Specialized Training Program Unit #3857 with headquarters at Baylor University.
The United States government initiated the Army Specialized Training Program in 1943. In an effort to develop educated and well-rounded military officers, the U.S. War Department worked in cooperation with various colleges and universities across the nation to create an appropriate curriculum. After persistent negotiations by Baylor University President Pat Neff, Baylor was approved as a training site on April 1, 1943. Students who enrolled underwent rigorous training, both physically and intellectually. The program ultimately ended in 1944, however, with the Allied invasion of Europe. The military needed all available men and women for the final offensive.
These materials, although small in scale, pay homage to Baylor University students who sacrificed a normal college experience for service to one’s country. They also attest to the significance of faculty members who provided encouragement and direction at a time when the world was enveloped in chaos. If you are interested in World War II or how life at Baylor University was affected by the war, I encourage you to come on down to The Texas Collection!