By: Nicholas Broadbear, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2017, History and Criminal Justice, Bloomington
While fighting men and women have toasted victory for as long as alcohol and hot food have been available, American armed forces have often taken these celebrations to a special level.
Theodore G. Gronert wrote a piece in 1933, featured in the Indiana Magazine of History, noting that men and women often found reasons to make merry even if there were no victories to celebrate. During the relative peace of the 1850s, the militias and state guards of Indiana seemed to exist as much to participate in parades and fine dinners as they did to provide any sort of common defense.
In 1857 a militia known as the Indianapolis Guards participated in a parade and celebration with several other nearby companies; the men certainly had a good time, as a journalist covering the event noted that “…two of them at least fainted” after spending time in a saloon. (1)
Though the idea of a “military ball” might bring to mind Marines in dress blues and guests garbed in black tie or evening gowns, Indiana University Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets and the active-duty service members who train them have taken this tradition and made it all their own. While Indiana University students had been able to receive some form of military training as early as 1840, the National Defense act of 1916, which established ROTC programs nation-wide, led to an expansion of military sciences at Indiana University.
ROTC took a place of prominence on campus in the 1930s and 1940s, as patriotic sentiments and the growing threat of war encouraged more students than ever to continue their military training past the one-year introduction required of men. These conditions all contributed to the Military Ball serving as one of the premiere student events of each school year. Women campaigned for a chance to be named Military Ball Queen, much like the Queen that is selected during Homecoming today.
Those attending the Ball would find that no expense had been spared. Cadets and cadre (the military officers assigned to the ROTC unit as trainers) would arrive dressed in their most formal uniforms, while all guests would likewise be dressed to the nines.
As the candidates for Military Ball Queen arrived with their escorts they would find an aisle of sabers leading them up to the stage, where the winner would soon be announced. After a meal had been served, toasts offered, and award winners selected, the real entertainment would begin. One cannot have a Military Ball without a dance floor, and the eager guests would find plenty to dance along to thanks to live music provided by the likes of the Gus Arnheim Orchestra.
Sometimes going late into the night, the annual Military Ball was an event to cherish. After 1964, when protests by Indiana University students led to the end of the ROTC requirement for incoming male students, the pomp-and-circumstance that had been such a trademark of the Military Ball declined. However, the traditions espoused and established all those years ago live on in the celebrations held every year by both Army and Air Force ROTC. Whether toasting victory, honoring the military men and women who have served before them, or simply building a sense of community and camaraderie, the formal events held by Indiana University’s ROTC cadets serve as an important part of every year for those involved.
1. Gronert, Theodore E. “The First National Pastime in the Middle West.” Indiana Magazine of History 29, no. 3 (September 1933): 171-86.