A Campus Transformed: UNC During the Second World War

Commentary By Josh Harper

In 1940, Americans still hoped that the United States might remain neutral in the ongoing struggle being fought in Europe and Asia.  In the event that the United States did enter the conflict, however, University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham had determined that the institution should support the war effort.  A former officer in the Marine Corps during World War I, Graham announced even before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that the University would offer “all its resources to the nation for the defense of the freedom and democracy it was founded to serve.”  Following Pearl Harbor, students and faculty emulated Graham’s patriotism, and the Chapel Hill campus was transformed into a military resource furthering the war effort.

Graham’s mission began with lobbying for a Navy Pre-Flight Training School at UNC.  It was to be one of four such schools nationwide that prepared future pilots for the rigors of aerial training. The Training School was the largest of several military training programs at the campus that also housed a Marine unit, a Navy ROTC program, an Army geography and language study program, an Army Air Corps meteorology program, and a Navy V-12 pre-midshipman academic program designed to give a modicum of college education to recent high school graduates who were prospective naval officers.  In addition, the chemistry department received increased funding for war-related purposes, and the language department started courses in Russian and Japanese. The military presence at UNC even included 360 French cadets, smuggled out of their homeland following its surrender to Germany. Among them was the son of the famous French general and future president Charles de Gaulle.

By war’s end, roughly 18,700 men had trained at UNC.  Their presence helped keep the University open when civilian enrollment was low.  A number of the trainees, including George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford, later achieved political fame.  Notably, Ford was in two plane crashes at Horace Williams Airport; in one, he was the pilot.  Another future president, Ronald Reagan visited Chapel Hill as a celebrity performer.  None of these future politicians were then as well known as another Pre-Flight Training School attendee: Ted Williams.  While at UNC, Williams, a star outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, led the Carolina Cloudbusters, the UNC Navy club team, to victory over the New York Yankees.  Other athletic talent included future College Football Hall of Fame coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant; future Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard; one of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen,” Lt. James Crowley; and future National Football League star Otto Graham.

Cadets at UNC maintained a daunting schedule of classes and activities. On a typical day, Pre-Flight program students trained from 5:30 a.m. until 6:15 p.m. (six days a week).  Each day included two hours of strenuous physical activity.  One grueling fourteen-mile march even resulted in the death of the program mascot, a dog named “Ensign Brown.”  In their free time, cadets enjoyed life as much as possible. Girls were bussed from Woman’s College in Greensboro (today the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) for parties at Woolen Gymnasium that featured the nationally renowned Navy B-1 Band, an ensemble famed not only for its musical talent but also for being the first black band in the U.S. military, in an era when African-Americans in the Navy were usually restricted to assisting cooks in the dining halls or loading and unloading ships.

When UNC president Graham pushed for the temporary militarization of the institution, he stated that his goal was “to help our citizens equip and train themselves in the shortest possible time, to be of the greatest value to the nation, in its most critical crisis.” After the war ended, UNC again became a university that was primarily civilian in character.  The ROTC armory and other buildings originally constructed for military purposes, however, still stand and remind passersby that the University adapted to serve the country during its “most critical crisis.”