Duke's Military History
History blends with the contemporary era as Duke continues to honor those who served and continue to serve.
The Office of Student Veterans will continue to update and highlight Duke's history with the military-affiliated community, however, if you wish to learn more, please visit the Duke University Archives. Below are some of the historical places and programs on campus that highlight Duke’s historic connection to and respect for military service.
Location: (36.007396, -78.916891)
Formerly called Alumni Memorial Gym, Brodie Recreation Center on East Campus houses a commemoration to Duke students who fought and died in World War I.
As early as 1917, there was momentum at Trinity College (later to become Duke University) to build a new gym to replace The Ark, the only campus gym at the time. Administrators decided to pause plans and fundraising until the end of the war. After the conclusion of the war, an alumni meeting in 1919 merged the appetite for a new gym with a community desire to commemorate the Trinity students who had served in the Great War. Twenty-two alumni and President Few unanimously decided to move forward with a new memorial gym that would include inscriptions of the Trinity men’s names who had fallen.
The Board of Trustees officially approved the construction in October of 1921. The cornerstone was laid in fall 1922 with “James H. Webb, GrandMaster,” marking the beginning of the construction. The gym was finished in late 1923.
As visitors entered the gym into a rotunda, they saw “1026” engraved on the right side, marking the number of Trinity men who served in WWII. On the left, a plaque lay with the names of the 21 Trinity men who died in the war.
Since its completion, the Alumni Memorial Gym has been renovated and expanded multiple times to become Brodie Gym. The plaques and engraving persist to this day and can be found on the second floor above the main entrance.
Location: (36.005773, -78.935353)
Out front of the Duke Medical Center and the Duke School of Nursing sits a sculpture of an injured soldier, a nurse, a physician, and a corpsman. Stephen H. Smith sculpted this piece to honor the contributions of the 65th General Hospital - a medical unit housed at Duke - during World War II. The sculpture was dedicated on 26 October 2002. For greater detail and geographic coordinates of the sculpture, read here.
The efforts of the 65th General Hospital both aided the war effort and impacted Duke. An Army Reserve Unit during WWII, the Army frequently activated members of the 65th. First to train at Fort Bragg, then to Worcestershire, England, and later to the North African theater. The 65th was then ordered to East Anglia to help with the growing number of casualties from the 8th Air Force. The 65th General Hospital also served as an evacuation and general hospital. In all, the 65th treated over 17,000 inpatients and 30,000 outpatients. The members of the 65th did this while maintaining only a 0.4% mortality rate.
A dedicatory plaque can also be found in the foyer of the Duke University Medical Center. This plaque is dedicated in honor of the graduates of Duke University School of Medicine who died in World War II. They include: Walter E. Brown (1939), William W. Green, III (1944), John F. Kincaid, Jr. (1942), and Robert E. Seibels, Jr. (1944).
Students from the School of Medicine continue to serve in our Armed Forces today.
Location: (36.002094, -78.939995)
At 1530 on 17 September 1993, the wall between Duke Chapel and Duke Divinity School was officially dedicated as Duke’s World War II memorial. The ceremony included a color guard comprised of Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy Duke ROTC Cadets and Midshipmen. Duke students, alumni, and faculty attended this sacred commissioning as the wall that held the 244 names of Duke alumni who were Killed in Action was unveiled.
This dedication occurred in conjunction with the 50th class reunion of the class of 1943. Yet, interest around creating a World War II began in 1991 with the 50th reunion of the class of 1941. Since a WWI memorial already existed in Memorial Gym (now known as Brodie Gym), WWII Veterans sought a way to honor their fallen comrades. The site outside of the Chapel was then approved in 1992 and, one year later, the memorial unveiled.
Honoring the memorial wall that lines the Memorial Quadrangle did not stop in 1993, however. Though it began as a wall to remember those killed in WWII, the site continues to be updated through the U.S.’s most recent conflicts. As such, ceremonies are still held for and near the memorial wall to this day. In 2009, Duke held a formal program for Memorial Dedication and Ceremony to honor the most recent Duke alumni fallen in service to their country. 54 more names were added to the wall. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Duke alum, Eric K. Shinseki, gave the memorial address. The wall also continues to serve as a backdrop for commissioning, promotions, and Veterans Day ceremonies.
Next time you are walking between Duke Chapel and Duke Divinity School, pause to sit on the stone bench in the Memorial Quadrangle or read the names on the wall that runs adjacent.
Duke’s physician assistant program, the first of its kind, began with four Navy Corpsmen as the sole members of the first cohort and class.
In 1964, there was a national shortage of nurses, and Duke looked for creative ways to fill the gap between physicians and nurses in the Duke University Medical Center. The idea of a physician assistant position was born and Duke looked to create a program for training this new role. Two professors in the Department of Medicine decided that that Navy Corpsmen with previous medical training would make excellent candidates given their experience. Of the four men recruited to begin in 1965, three graduated from the program in 1967.
The Duke University Physician Assistant webpage has a fuller history of the inception of the PA program and the inclusion of servicemen.
Additionally, Duke has a rich history and connection to wartime. Read more about WWII below.
In 1939, the United States once again found itself engaged in a war which required the support of the entire nation. Though an academic institution, this second world war affected Duke, too. Veterans began to comprise the classrooms, female students actively supported the war effort, and even conscientious objectors found a purpose and home at Duke. The contributions of these women and men were celebrated both then and now through ceremonies and commemorations.
The largest wave of undergraduate student veterans came to Duke in 1946. They were a combination of students returning to Duke after having left to serve as well as first-time college students. Nearly 60% of the 430 new freshmen in Trinity were veterans. A Chronicle article from 17 January 1947 reports Duke professors expressing that “The veterans generally proved to be serious, hardworking students” and that “‘One of the fine things about most veterans is that they really want to learn...They manage to get across to the instructor that he mustn’t let them down.’” The same sentiment rings true of the veterans at Duke today.
To support the student veterans and war effort, Duke modified its programs. The university created the “War Training Program.” It offered accelerated programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Near the start of the war in 1942, Duke founded a War Advisory Council to “aid students in
need of guidance with reference to how they may most wisely fit themselves for their place in the war emergency.” This council advised students on how
to best help the war effort given their knowledge and talents. Thus, the university was committed to preparing its students to serve their nation. Staff also contributed to this preparation as over 100 faculty and administrators were called to Washington, DC to do “essential work in connection with the war effort.”
Various council and Department of Defense-funded programs further institutionalized the Duke-Military connection. Lastly, the Duke Council for American Defense held committees on defense, resources, and student activities. These all actively researched the intersection of university life and national defense (details published in the “Report of the Activities for the Duke Council for American Defense,” May 1, 1941). The Women’s College also directly contributed to the institutionalization of this Council. In August 1942, the Army Finance School ( https://www.finance.army.mil/) was moved to Duke. WWII also brought Navy ROTC to campus (to link: https://nrotc.duke.edu/).
Though some Duke women likely would have fought in WWII, records also document the on-campus contributions of female Duke students to war
efforts. In the early 1940s, Dean Alice Baldwin, Dean of the Women’s College, appointed a central committee to coordinate defense activities in the college. This committee sought to consolidate the activities of the two major support organizations - the British War Relief Society and the Red Cross of the campus. Dean Baldwin oversaw curriculum development which included classes that would directly contribute to the war effort. This manifested as
the American Women’s Voluntary Service (AWVS), led by Dr. Katherine Jeffers.
By Spring 1942, the AWVS offered courses that would support its goals of training “women in home and civilian defense activities, so that they will be
equipped to render efficient service under the Defense Council.” These included: First Aid, Home Nursing, Basic Nutrition, Child Care, Air Raid
Protection, Defense Training Course, Techniques of Personnel Administration, Instructor’s Course in Physical Fitness, and Motor Repairs.
Moreover, efforts like the AWVS were not limited to Duke. Rather, deans from women’s colleges throughout the region gathered to discuss how the women could explicitly support WWII. The Red Cross and the College Organization (for) General Service became two additional ways that women were encouraged to serve their country during the war years of the 1940s. Yet, even though many of the young women and men at Duke supported the war, some at the university found themselves philosophically opposed.
Those opposed to war for philosophical or religious beliefs are known as conscientious objectors. During WWII, service options were provided to those
who refused to fight. One of these options, the Duke Civilian Public Service Unit 61, existed at Duke hospital. Persons assigned here worked under
civilian leadership and worked primarily with mental health and psychiatric patients. As one article in the N.C. Medical Journal explains, “Conscientious
objectors in WWII became an integral part of the Duke Hospital workforce.” This was so because hospitals experienced shortages of medical
professionals due to the draft. Conscientious objectors would fill that void. Though not combatants, these women and men provided invaluable service both in giving medical care and filling voids caused by WWII.
Duke University understood the momentous contributions made by students, faculty, and staff throughout WWII. Because of this, the university held numerous celebrations to commemorate the service given. These included “A Celebration Commemorative of Our Nation’s Heroes” in July of
1942, an Independence Day event in July of 1943, and observing V-E and V-J Day in 1945. Most notably, the University held a “War Day” on 15 May 1942. “War Day” was a day “dedicated to the participation of the University community in the service of the nation.” In doing so, the University honored
those who, directly and indirectly, support the war effort, both at home and abroad.
In total, over 7,000 Duke alumni served and over 200 died fighting in WWII. Their legacy lives on in Duke’s history.