Colby kept young pilots in school during World War II

wwii-webAs one of the oldest liberal arts college in the nation, Colby has been present through
many significant events in United States history. Just as they greatly impacted the country as a whole, large-scale wars also found their ways to Colby’s relatively isolated campus. Though the College has stood through many different wars, the first of which was the Civil War, the college was particularly involved in World War II. During this time, the military used Colby as a training base for potential members of the Air Force; those who attended the special academy were also considered to be Colby students, and took classes that earned them college credit. Additionally, according to an article that appeared in The Echo, the school began to integrate more military-minded classes into its general curriculum. From articles produced by The Echo from 1940 to 1945, it is evident that World War II had a very significant effect on the
Colby population.

An article that appeared in the March 3, 1943 edition of The Echo states that Colby was a preliminary stop on the way to flight school: “The Army men who began arriving at Colby on Sunday are to be called ‘students’– not cadets or soldiers. Here at Colby they are attending what is technically a pre-pre-flight school which is the second of the four training centers at which they will be stationed.” The article goes on to describe the path for these students, which included basic training, pre-pre-flight school (which occurred at Colby), pre-flight school, and then, eventually, flight school.

This arrangement was also convenient for Colby students who wanted to be involved in the war. A pair of articles that appeared in The Echo in October of 1940 detail the experiences of Colby student Jack Kitchen. After completing two years at Colby, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. According to one of the articles, he first “passed a stiff physical examination” before heading to “preliminary war training in military drill at the Toronto training school.” The article goes on to detail the on-campus activities Kitchen would leave behind, like his position as vice president for the DKE fraternity and his involvement in various intramural sports. A week later, on October 9, 1940, an additional article in The Echo states that Kitchen completed his preliminary training and had begun his pre-flight training at Mt. Hope.

Kitchen’s story highlights a point of conflict for young men who felt compelled to fight in the war. To become involved, they were required to put their college careers on hold, without the certainty that they would be able to complete it if and when they returned. Though this was a great personal sacrifice for many, it appears in The Echo that this was almost expected of Colby students at the time. The October 2, 1940 article concludes with the passage, “Jack Kitchen is one of the first of our students to enter the service of his nation in this war. The coming months will see many more stepping forward to help our country in its crisis. It seems unfortunate, that our men should be forced to interrupt their college training to go to war, but we know that no matter what the call may be, Colby men will be faithful to their trust and they will be found in the front line
of service.”

In light of this complication, the military program at Colby took on a very practical role. In an Echo article from February 24, 1943, the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission Paul McNutt was the subject of a news article with the headline “McNutt Urges Colleges to Justify Existence” followed by  the subheadline “Also advises men to stay in college.” For McNutt, the war was of great importance– but so was the education of the youth. These two seemed separate, yet colleges provided arenas where the two could merge. The article mentions a plan McNutt had put together to accelerate this shift: “he wanted to see every one of America’s 1,700 colleges utilized in the war effort, but that under the present Army-Navy plan for training men in the colleges only about 500 institutions would be included. McNutt stated that his plan which aims at using all colleges for training necessary civilian as well as military personnel would soon be presented to Congress.” By adjusting its curriculum to better suit military tactics and by providing accommodations for additional students, Colby provided a space where young people could both attend college and fulfill what was perceived as their civic duty by training to serve in the military.

Despite its isolated location in central Maine, Colby has managed to be at the forefront of national issues. Though it is not widely known, during World War II, Colby served as a stop on the military track for pilots. It allowed students who wanted to serve in the war to hold on to their education and college experiences for as long as possible, avoiding situations like Kitchen’s. A hero at the college, Kitchen left school to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force; a task he completed with success, yet in the process he left behind friends, extracurriculars, and formal college education. Though the rest of his experience and life upon returning to Colby is not known, Colby’s addition of the pre-pre-flight school program during the wartime period both made the transition from school to military easier for students, and brought World War II onto the Colby campus. Furthermore, it allowed students who wanted to fulfill their civic duty to remain in school for as long as possible,  which made education attainable for many students during the war.

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