Living Columns & Blogs

Who were the Nittany Lions that served in World War I?

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I after spending more than two years attempting to maintain a fragile neutrality. The nation’s first major overseas conflict saw the largest mobilization of American manpower to date and a retooling of economic and educational institutions to meet wartime needs. Among the millions of Americans who flocked to the colors were more than 2,200 Penn Staters who joined either the military or service organizations such as the YMCA.

Among this number were more than 200 former Nittany Lion varsity athletes. While the majority of them served in the U.S. Army and were assigned to the infantry, artillery or engineers, some, such as 2nd Lt. Thomas A. Jones (1914, wrestling), helped pioneer armored warfare while others, like Capt. Edgar A. Wilcox (1909, baseball) and Pfc. Harry C. Jester (1915, basketball/track), were assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service or enlisted in Penn State’s Ambulance Service sections.

While 18 elected to enter the U.S. Navy, a similar number sought to join the newly established U.S. Army Air Service. Among the first to earn his wings was Richard S. Davis (1916), a former football and track athlete. Initially flying with the French, he tangled with the late Manfred von Richthofen’s (The Red Baron) Flying Circus and downed two German aircraft. Writing to his mother in July 1918, Davis related that “we got in several mixups and I am not sure whether I got a Hun or not ... well it was a thriller.” Moving to a training role later that year, Davis earned a commendation from overall American Commander Gen. John J. Pershing for his efforts as an instructor.

On the ground, former Nittany Lions took part in every major American campaign from aiding in stopping the final German offensives in late spring 1918 to the grinding, attritional fighting of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that fall. During the latter campaign, two lettermen won the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in combat. The first went to Capt. Henry McG. Smith, who was badly wounded during an attack on the village of Malancourt while the second was awarded posthumously to Capt. James M. McKibbin for attempting to rescue a wounded soldier while under fire.

Of the eight former athletes to die during World War I, the most famous was Levi L. Lamb. A three-sport star at Penn State (football, wrestling and track), he dominated on the wrestling mat and only lost two matches in four years. Entering the U.S. Army in 1917, he was killed in action on July 18, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne. In recognition of those Nittany Lion athletes who served as well as to mark the centennial of the American participation in World War I, the Penn State All-Sports Museum has opened a special exhibit entitled “Field to Front: Nittany Lions at War, 1917-1919,” which will run through April.

OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — offers more than 140 courses this semester. Ken Hickman, who has been the director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum since 2006, will lead a course on “Field to Front: Nittany Lions at War, 1917-1919” in March. To receive a free catalog for the upcoming spring semester, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu. 

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