In the mid-1880s, nearly 40 years after Xavier's founding, a now-familiar sight emerged on 16th Street: boys in military uniform.
With the Civil War in recent memory, America was on the brink of another age of increased military conflict, this time abroad. At first, drill instructors were officers of the National Guard. Later, the Jesuits conscripted a United States Infantry instructor, Captain John Drum. Captain Drum organized the Regiment into companies, each headed by a cadet captain.
In those early years, cadet drills and exhibitions took place at the neighborhood armory, with bayonets and sabers flashing and lively competition abound. By the 1890s, the Regiment added a fife and drum corps, and cadets began marching in public parades and public holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day. In 1897, the Xavier corps participated in the dedication of Grant’s Tomb. The Regiment became a mandatory part of Xavier's curriculum in 1895.
By the turn of the 20th century, the corps was still a small part of the Xavier experience, but its importance would soon grow. Xavier would send many of its men to serve in the military. At least eight Sons of Xavier served in the Spanish-American War, and many more would go on to serve in the First World War. Nearly 1,000 Xavier men answered the United States’ call to arms as officers, generals, colonels, lieutenants, majors, chaplains, and more
In the 1920s, as Xavier grew, so did the Regiment. The Regiment expanded from three to four battalions in 1924, and a new system was established that gave Regiment officers more responsibility in school discipline. Throughout the 1930s, the Xavier Regiment gained notability for the success of its Rifle Team and Bugle Corps, which often traveled to entertain parade-goers, orphans, and other groups.
From the beginning of America’s involvement in the Second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Xavier contributed to the war effort. One of the 2,500 casualties at Pearl Harbor that day was Navy Ensign Robert N. King 1932.
With the outbreak of the war, Xavier—along with the nation—underwent many changes. During the war, military science, now known as Junior ROTC, expanded, even adding a pre-flight aeronautics class for seniors. Xavier accelerated its program of study to prepare students for military service. Juniors close to military age were encouraged to attend a summer preparatory course before enrolling in the military thereafter. The school, for the first time, offered graduations in August, February, and the springtime.
Some 1,471 Xavier men served in the armed forces throughout the war. Fifty-four gave their lives. Historian Helen McNulty wrote in 1957 that “It is believed that no high school in the United States made a greater contribution in manpower and effort during World War II than Xavier High School.” After the ear, President Harry Truman sent Rev. John W. Tynan, S.J. a personal note of gratitude for Xavier and shared his hopes that Xavier would “carry on.”
One of Xavier’s many appearances in America’s many stories of the Second World War came years later, in 1953, when a class ring of a Xavier alumnus, a pilot shot down over Japan in May 1945, was returned by a Japanese farmer to the student’s mother in Brooklyn.
It is believed that no high school in the United States made a greater contribution in manpower and effort during World War II than Xavier High School. Historian Helen McNulty
When the 1960s arrived at Xavier, the unstoppable force of countercultural zeitgeist met the immovable object of strong Xavier tradition. Questions of social and economic inequality rang through the halls and on the pages of Xavier’s student newspaper. But the main challenge of the 1960s at Xavier came with the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
With the escalation of war, antiwar sentiment also escalated. Many young people, especially, felt they should not be sent to a war they did not support. These debates were especially relevant at Xavier, where students in uniform had become targets on their commutes to school. To this day, alumni of that era vividly recall being jeered, spat upon, or having one of any number of items thrown at them on subways, buses, or city streets.
Wartime tensions came to a boil at Xavier in 1971, when President William Wood, S.J. announced that the Regiment would become optional. Xavier would no longer be the “Jesuit military school” of Manhattan, shedding the reputation it had held for nearly eight decades. The decision had been first considered at a New York Province meeting in 1967, with reports that perceptions of the Regiment were so negative that students were leaving Xavier.
Four years later, the decision manifested, and to much backlash. Parents and alumni sent Fr. Wood angry letters, and the alumni news bulletin was alive with debate.
When the Class of 1975, the first since in 80 years for which the Regiment was optional all four years, entered Xavier, the school was an immediately different place. By the time members of the class graduated, around 30% of students remained in the Regiment. Students in the Regiment no longer wore their uniforms every day, but only on drill day. Moreover, school discipline changed. Whereas JUG was once an extra set of drills in the quadrangle, it became more traditional detention—cleaning desks, writing assignments, and clerical work. Students no longer disciplined other students, either.
Within the Regiment, however, the change was not all negative. Those who remained were there by choice, and the discipline and spirit of the program remained strong as ever. In the decades since, Xavier’s Regiment has continued to earn high marks on official examinations, and its extracurricular teams—from academics to drill, rifle, and Raiders—continue to impress at tournaments. The Regiment has been a Gold Star Honor Unit with Distinction (the highest honor a JROTC unit can achieve) continuously since 1993.
Today, the position of Cadet Colonel is still among the highest honors of leadership a Son of Xavier can earn during his time as a student. After more than a century of evolution and change, the Regiment has carried on in the 21st century, and will continue for generations of Xavier men to come.