As the nations of the world embroiled themselves in the “Great War” in Europe and across the planet, the people of the United States sought to remain out of the conflict but realized that they needed to be prepared in case the fighting should find them. Recognizing the value of peace through strength, the US Congress passed a National Defense Act in 1916 that authorized Federal support for a Reserve Officers Training Corps in colleges (Senior ROTC) and high schools (Junior ROTC or JROTC).
The history of Cretin-Derham Hall's JROTC began in September 1917 when the Cretin High School director, Brother Justinus Elzear, requested support from the Minnesota National Guard to train students in military drill and ceremony. Br. Justinus’s inspiration came from the national burst of patriotism during World War One, a general trend of military training throughout the country, and previous experience with a Lasallian military school in Missouri. That first year, the student body resembled a typical group of recruits one might come in contact with at any basic training. The cadets lacked uniforms, equipment, and even the faintest notions about military customs. Lieutenant Bronson West and Sergeant John Tierney seized the opportunity and drilled the students one hour a day formally implementing military exercises into the curriculum.
The young men greatly improved. In the summer of 1918, the school’s band started developing the skills needed to accompany cadets on the march. Based on the success of this trial program, Brother Elzear received approval from his superiors and officially requested a JROTC authorization from the War Department that August. When the first uniforms arrived in October 1918, the cadets not only looked high class but acted it as well. The 390 cadets were so precise in their drill that they and the 40 instrument marching band marched a few weeks later in the St. Paul Thanksgiving Day parade celebrating the end of the Great War. Today, the Cretin-Derham Hall community continues this parade tradition in the Annual Fall Review.
Army inspectors arrived in December and approved the school’s application for membership in JROTC. Cretin High School passed its first Federal Inspection and received orders authorizing it as a unit of the Reserve Officer Training Corps in February 1919, making our program one the earliest JROTC schools in the United States. Cadets received rifles to drill in the fall of 1919 and officially organized a rifle team in 1922 to participate in shooting competitions. The precision drill team began soon thereafter. By 1926, the Corps had grown so much that Cretin temporarily moved from 6th and Main to the old Webster School on Laurel and Mackubin while a new school was built. The increased size also authorized a Cadet Colonel to serve as the leader of the Corps. In 1928, the cadets marched in a full military formation over three and a half miles to the current campus location at Hamline and Randolph.
During the 1929-1930 school year, the War Department established the Honor Unit rating as its highest award for performance during the annual Federal Inspection. Our JROTC unit earned this rating every year until 1971 when a higher category was instituted: Honor Unit with Distinction. Cretin-Derham Hall continued its unbroken record of merit remaining an Honor Unit with Distinction until this designation ended in 2014 to be replaced by the JROTC Program of Excellence rating which still allows the unit to wear the Gold Star as its symbol. From 1930 until today, we have retained the highest award of excellence for the Annual Inspection.
For many years, the Raider Brigade was the largest JROTC program in the country. Even after JROTC became an optional course at Cretin, it remained popular. When Cretin and Derham Hall High Schools merged in the fall of 1987, JROTC continued to provide leadership opportunities for young men AND women. The first woman earned the Cadet Colonel’s rank in 1997. Today ladies make up about 10% of the Corps and are visible in all levels of the organization. While the rifle team, precision drill team, and color guard still compete, we also maintain an honor guard, regulation drill team, flight club, and orienteering team. There are numerous opportunities for developing leaders to challenge themselves and grow.
The Raider Brigade continues to show its excellence by developing young people to become better citizens and leaders. Today, our JROTC cadets serve in several different ways. We participate fully in Junior Achievement’s initiative to teach Kindergarten through fifth graders about entrepreneurship, work readiness, and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs in local schools. We serve at several events to support our school. We volunteer at our churches, school and neighborhoods to make the community stronger. We routinely send graduates on to the Service Academies or College ROTC to continue their leadership development in preparation to serve in the Armed Forces.
If you or someone you know has any stories or memorabilia from the history of JROTC that they would like to share, contact the Development Office or one of the instructors.