The University of Kentucky Army ROTC program has a rich history dating back to the founding of the institution in 1865. The university began as one of eleven institutions established under the strict guidelines of the Merrill Act. In its earlier years it was known as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky. Although the A. and M. College was at first a part of Kentucky University (now Transylvania University), it was the beginning of what would become the University of Kentucky. One of the provisions of the Morrill Act was that military training would be required for all students, so every student at the A. and M. College automatically became a cadet. These students were, of course, not cadets under the ROTC program, and the military training at the land grant schools was not intended to produce officers. The School of Military Tactics was one of the original eleven schools at the A. and M. College; William E. Arnold was the first Commandant.
In 1882, the A. and M. College had moved to the present location of the University of Kentucky, and the main part of Buell Armory was finished in 1901. The Armory was officially named for General Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Union forces at Perryville and a member of the A. and M. College board of trustees, but the building was more popularly called the Gymnasium because it housed the college's exercise center. The Armory proper was on the first floor of the central part of the building, and the second and third floors contained offices, the Trustees Room, Alumni Hall, and halls for literary societies.
As the cadets entered the new century, they modernize their appearance and weapons to keep up with current military practices. In 1907, Commandant Burtt traded in the old "Trapdoor Springfield" rifles for 250 bolt-action Krag Jorgensen rifles. The next year saw a much-needed change in uniforms; instead of the old cadet gray, the students would now wear olive drab uniforms identical to the Regular Army's, with the exception the collar insignia would read "KSC." The Commandant, in the same year, began the training of a cavalry troop so the cadets could have all three arms of the service represented.
As Europe became embroiled in World War I, the future of some cadets at Kentucky State College was uncertain. The program of military training had never been intended to produce officers, although some graduates had enlisted and secured commissions on their own. Some cadets had joined the Kentucky National Guard while they were in school under a program that would allow them to serve during the summer; in September 1916, some of these students were not allowed to return to school but were kept at Fort Thomas in northern Kentucky for additional training. It was obvious to many that the United States would not be able to avoid the war in Europe, and the time was ripe to start producing a trained officer corps in case the country needed great numbers of officers quickly.
In 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act which provided for a Reserve Officers' Training Corps at colleges and universities to provide the military with a ready pool of trained, college-educated officers who could be called to active duty in time of war. The University of Kentucky (no longer called Kentucky State College) was not slow to follow the provisions of the act. On March 22, 1917 the Army ROTC was established at the University of Kentucky.
Through World War I and World War II, the demand of officers had increased. The University of Kentucky Army ROTC program rated in the 30 percentile amongst other university ROTC programs nationwide due to the high demands for properly trained officers. In January 1942, all cadets in the Advanced Course were required to join the active Reserves. Approximately 65 new lieutenants a year were commissioned during the war, though there were other officer producing programs available. The Army Enlisted Reserve Corps on campus allowed students to finish their degrees before entering the service. Members could be in ROTC and enter as a lieutenant; many also secured slots for Officers' Candidate School (OCS). The aftermath of World War II affected ROTC at Kentucky in much the same way as it had after World War I. The specialized training programs were disbanded, so that ROTC remained the only military training program on campus. In 1947, Air Force ROTC was formally installed on campus. Advanced Course enrollment increased to about 450 cadets, largely due to the fact that veterans were permitted to enter the Advanced Course as long as they had been on active duty for twelve months.
The Vietnam War had a profound effect on ROTC at most universities and colleges. Many students and some faculty at Kentucky questioned whether ROTC belonged on the campus. Even though new programs such as ROTC Basic Camp at Fort Knox were instituted and a 1969 graduate reported that cadets still proudly wore their uniforms on campus, the nationwide feelings of many people against the war hurt ROTC. . In 1963, the ROTC Basic Course had been made optional instead of mandatory for all male students, and this factor also decreased enrollment. As troop withdrawal from Vietnam began and the war became more unpopular on the home front, feelings against ROTC increased. Regardless of the feelings and doubts, UK ROTC cadets continued to graduate, commission, and many served with honor in the Vietnam War.
The late 1970s saw a renewed interest in ROTC at the University of Kentucky. As the stigmas attached to the Vietnam War faded, more students were attracted to ROTC. In 1964, Congress had passed the ROTC Revitalization Act, which provided scholarships for outstanding students and raised the monthly subsistence allowance for Advanced Course cadets. Increasing numbers of students decided to take advantage of the scholarships and other rewards ROTC had to offer. The Kentucky program took another step forward with the addition of cross-enrolled schools. Under the cross-enrolled program, a local college or university near an existing ROTC unit may also offer the ROTC program to its students. Basic Course classes are taught at the cross-enrolled schools by cadre from the host institution to receive their instruction and training. The program offered ROTC access to several smaller schools which could not support a host unit of their own.
The War on Terror resulted in increased interest in UK’s ROTC program. Program participation saw steady growth throughout the early 2000s. In 2007, the Cadre from Wildcat Battalion (Army) and Detachment 290 (Air Force) formed a partnership. Together, the programs created an ROTC Living Learning Program inside Blanding Tower Resident Hall, hosted joint Military Balls, Commissioning ceremonies and other events. The first Joint Commissioning featured the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Glenn “Mike” Mullen as the guest speaker. By 2010, the Battalion took to social media to assist with communicating to parents, Alumni and the community. In 2014, all Cadet summer training was consolidated at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The Leader Training Course (Basic Course) became Cadet Initial Entry Training and the Leader Development Advanced Course transitioned to the Cadet Leader’s Course with emphasis placed on developing leaders for the 21st Century who thrive in complex, chaotic situations and environments.
In 2016, the Army ROTC program celebrated its 100 year anniversary. The University of Kentucky Army ROTC enjoyed its highest commissioning numbers since 1989 with over thirty Cadets earning the gold bars of Second Lieutenants. On March 22, 2017, the Army ROTC program celebrated 100 years at the University of Kentucky. Since inception, the University of Kentucky Army ROTC Commissioned Officers have served honorably in every major conflict of the United States including WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, Kentucky’s flagship ROTC program at the University of Kentucky continues to build upon the legacies of the past, preparing, educating and inspiring leaders for the 21st century.
For more information on the history of the US Army Cadet Command, go to http://www.cadetcommand.army.mil/history.aspx