Donorians and the Good WILLmington Mission

Donora citizens participating in the Good WILLmington Mission at Bluethenthal Field

Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora.

—W. Michael McCabe, Regional Administrator of the Mid-Atlantic Region, United States Protection Agency, 1998.

Tucked inside a horseshoe curve of the Monongahela River twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lies the once industrial powerhouse town of Donora.  The 2010 United States Census counted 4,781 residents in Donora; in 1948, however, approximately 14,000 people called Donora home—except for one week in late November when a national tragedy sent 40 of its citizens to Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina.

Donora’s industrial roots took hold in the early 1900s—at first the site of a wire plant, rod plant, and steelworks, and then a zinc works.  Donora’s continual industrial growth, especially after World War II, made it one of several important small “steel cities” along the Monongahela River as it wends from the coalfields of northern West Virginia through what became known as “The Mon Valley” before reaching Pittsburgh to help the Allegheny River form the Ohio River.

With industrial growth came constant pollution. I grew up sixty miles east of Donora in Johnstown—another small steel city—in the 1960s and early 1970s.  During these years I also spent many, many days visiting my grandparents in Bridgeville thirty miles northwest of Donora.  I can still remember the horrible smells from the Koppers chemical plant there if the wind blew in the wrong direction, and the drive back to Johnstown through Pittsburgh with smoke billowing steel mill furnaces towering right next to the “Parkway East” interstate highway.  And though not as bad as the infamous 1940s when Pittsburgh often saw streetlights burning during the day, the 60s and 70s still had their fair share of air pollution.  It’s funny, however, that while growing up in western Pennsylvania I never heard about “The Donora Death Smog” of 1948; that is, until a few weeks ago when I saw the Hugh Morton photograph above, made in Wilmington, North Carolina—and came to learn something about my own regional heritage.

On Wednesday, October 27th, 1948 an air inversion formed above Donora, trapping a deadly smog over the city.  Many people became seriously ill. By the time rain dissipated the inversion on Sunday, 19 had people died, and between 4,500 and 7,000 (estimates vary) had been afflicted in some way.  The negative health affects of the smog, however, lasted well beyond those few days, especially since the air was usually polluted to some degree, inversion or no. The Death Smog of Donora quickly became front page national news.

Bird's-eye view of Wrightsville Beach, N.C. circa 1940s

After reading this news in Wilmington, North Carolina, L. C. LeGwin approached his friend Bill Broadfoot with the proposition that Wrightsville Beach had a lot of what Donora did not—fresh air and sunshine. Broadfoot was president of the Wilmington Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce), and LeGwin proposed that they invite fifty citizens from Donora for an all-expenses-paid week to Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. Broadfoot made a proposal to the Jaycees, which it approved, and on November 2nd—only two days after the sickening smog lifted—Jaycees secretary John H. Farrell called Donora’s mayor with the invitation.

A week later, doctors in Donora had a list of citizens most in need of help.  Volunteers and donors in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach stepped up with free medical care, dinners, concerts, bakery goods, eggs, cereal, milk, vegetables, ice cream, pier fishing, laundry and dry cleaning, haircuts, newspapers, and more.  Government regulations, however, prevented airlines from providing free flights.  After a telegram appealing to President Truman (who was vacationing after his successful reelection in Key West, which included a brief two-hour stop at Cherry Point and New Bern, also photographed by Morton on November 7th) lead to a plea to the Civil Aeronautics Board.  After a few days more of bureaucratic resolve, the C.A.B. issued an exemption that permitted a round-trip flight on Capital Airlines—with one of its two hubs at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin twenty miles upriver from Donora—for a $2,000 fee to be paid by the Jaycees through fund raising.  Finally on November 18th—a week before Thanksgiving Day—a plane donning “Good WILLimgton Mission” especially painted on its side landed at Wilmington’s Bluethenthal Field.

The Pennsylvania guests, or “Donorians” as the Wilmington Morning Star dubbed them, stayed in heated homes and apartments around the Lumina (the large building seen left of center in the above bird’s-eye view of Wrightsville Beach). The week’s activities were many and, needless to say, Hugh Morton and camera were often in attendance.  The Wilmington Morning Star published five Morton photographs during that week, including one very similar to the image below made on Friday, November 19th when the Donorians rode in a motorcade to Orton Plantation. The photograph’s caption noted that their tour was “personally conducted” by Billy Broadfoot and Mrs. Betsy Sprunt. (The Sprunt family owned Orton Plantation from 1884 until selling it in December 2010.)

Donora smog victims at Orton Plantation

A second photograph’s caption exclaimed, “Donorians See First Moss”—to which I can attest that Spanish Moss is not native to western Pennsylvania—as Cesare Valreri “adorns” Elizabeth Chiedor with the natural garland gathered during their tour of Orton Plantation.

Donorians See First MossThere is a detailed account of the festivities held during the Good WILLmington Mission in chapter twelve, “Escaping Donora’s Deadly Smog” in the book, Wrightsville Beach: The Luminous Island by Ray McAllister (2007). Among their activities, a photograph of their tour of Airlie Gardens on Saturday, November 20th is neither in the newspaper nor in the Morton collection.  A Morton photograph made during a dinner at the Trail’s End restaurant appeared in the November 23rd edition of the newspaper; the negative is in the Morton collection, but it is deteriorated.

Donate to Donora fundraisers

An image similar to the “Donate to Donora” photograph (above) depicted Jaycees treasurer Tom James and president Billy Broadfoot raising money for the chartered air flight during the gala farewell party at the Cape Fear Armory on Wednesday night.  (The gentlemen in the picture above are unidentified.)  The published version didn’t appear in the newspaper until Friday morning, however, with the headline “Feed the Kitty”—published politely, perhaps, after the visitors had returned because the newspaper said they were still short $1,400 to cover the cost of the flights.   The photograph below also ran in the Friday newspaper, although cropped as a tight vertical centered on Wilmington mayor pro tem James E. L. Wade and his farewell kissers.

Donorians giving goodbye kisses to mayor pro-tem Wade

The Donora Smog Museum emblem touts, “Clean Air Started Here October 1948.” I find myself wondering about the connection between the Donora Smog and Hugh Morton’s later efforts to document photographically the harmful effects of acid rain in mountains forests. There may not be a direct connection, but the experience may have been one of those small stepping stones along the way to Morton’s campaign against acid rain, which culminated in his award-winning (CINE Golden Eagle, 1994) film, “The Search for Clean Air” narrated by Walter Cronkite.

“I Too Am Glad I Was There.”

Note from Stephen: Today’s post from JACK HILLIARD is presented in honor of NASA shuttle Discovery’s last mission scheduled for lift-off today, but postponed until Wednesday.

It is a cloudy, warm January afternoon on a sandy cape area east of Walt Disney World in Central Florida. It is a place where the Banana River winds its way through thick marshes. . . where you may see herons and pelicans . . . manatee and alligators . . . eagles and egrets. As you lift your eyes toward the horizon, in the distance stands the mighty Saturn V (pronounced “five”) Rocket . . . all 363 feet of it fueled and ready to fly. You are at NASA’s Complex 39 Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center. Within the next six hours, Apollo 14 will begin America’s fourth trip to land a man on the lunar surface. The Mission Commander is Astronaut Alan Shepard. He was America’s first man in space about ten years earlier. The Command Module is called “Kitty Hawk” and is piloted by Stuart Roosa. The Lunar Module is called “Antaries” and is piloted by Ed Mitchell. All three men have spent time in the simulator at the Morehead Planetarium on the UNC campus.

As I stand there on the bank of the Banana River, I remember the handwritten sign on the planetarium door that said “No Class Today.” That was March 2, 1960 and students in Harvey Daniell’s Astronomy 31 Lab did not meet in the Morehead Planetarium that afternoon. The reason, America’s Mercury Astronauts were taking classes in celestial navigation in the planetarium simulator. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the astronauts in the Planetarium that day was Commander Shepard.

Launch Complex 39, the nation’s first operational spaceport, ranks as one of history’s great engineering achievements. Three and a half miles from Pad A at the press site, several hundred media personnel have gathered including Hugh Morton. (I was not aware that he was there at the time). As always, he not only documented the Apollo launch, but went to an adjoining location, where several special NASA guests were gathered at the VIP site. Among those guests on this day . . . Vice President Spiro Agnew [left center in photograph below], the future King of Spain, Juan Carlos [far right] and his wife Princess Sophia . . . Henry Kissinger, US security advisor to President Richard Nixon . . . America’s first man on the moon Neil Armstrong [right center], and Hugh O’Brian, movie and TV star. (Editor’s note: NASA bestowed Hugh O’Brian its “Freedom Through Knowledge” Award in 1971.  And is that Caspar Weinberger in the upper left?—Stephen)

As the countdown proceeds toward the scheduled launch time of 3:23 PM, a bank of clouds moves over the space center. Then, a brief shower. The countdown is at T-8 minutes and holding. We wait 40 minutes for the clouds and rain to move out of the area. Then at 3:54, comes the familiar voice of NASA’s Jack King: “This is Apollo launch control, we will resume the count at 3:55 PM.” A cheer goes up from the assembled media.

Nothing can prepare you for the sights and sounds of a Saturn V launch. Films and television are simply inadequate to convey the awe and power of the experience.

The countdown proceeds smoothly during the next eight minutes. Then at 4:03 PM on January 31, 1971, the fire and smoke of the Saturn V’s first stage becomes visible. Another cheer from all the viewing areas, even before the staccato roar of the engines is heard. (That’s a neat, unique thing about seeing a Saturn V launch in person. You see the cascade of smoke and flame long before you hear the sound of the engines, which takes longer to travel the three and a half miles. We’re use to seeing a launch on TV where the microphones are located on the launch pad and the sight and sound are together.) Finally, the Apollo 14/Saturn V rocket lifts off and is on its way to the moon.

As I stand watching this awesome site of Commander Shepard and his crew flying to the lunar surface, it of course never crosses my mind that 18 years later on June 16, 1989, I would have the honor of meeting Alan Shepard when he and four of his fellow Mercury astronauts gather at the Morehead Planetarium to celebrate several anniversaries . . . the 30th anniversary of the U. S. space program, the 40th anniversary of the Morehaed Planetarium, and the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing. When I finally get a chance to shake his hand, I tell him that I was at the Apollo 14 launch.  He says, “that was a great day . . . I’m glad you were there.”

Me too.

Loafer’s Glory, or happiness in the hills

I want to go back to Loafer’s Glory and have another cup of coffee in the small diner there, look out the windows at the wooded hills, maybe while away some time “just sittin,” as the mountain folk say. Watch the play of light and shadow on the mountains and perhaps discreetly observe the people as they come and go.

Thomas James Martin, 2001

In my last post, I mentioned a messy box of roll film I found, previously overlooked, in the stacks. As dirty and jumbled as the box was, I assumed it would be filled with, shall we say, less-than-premium examples of Hugh Morton’s work. I was (at least partially) wrong. Among the many rolls of the Morton sons’ high school basketball games I found shots of Terry Sanford’s 1961 inauguration as NC Governor, Kerr Scott at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, and Billy Graham preaching at “Singing on the Mountain” in 1962, among other high-quality scenes.

I also found an intriguing roll of 120 film depicting a North Carolina destination with which I was unfamiliar — a very small community in the NC mountains called “Loafer’s Glory.” To quote Mr. Martin again, “Loafer’s Glory is a wide place in the road in the mountains of western North Carolina. At last count less than a hundred souls live in the community, but at least there is a caution light marking the spot on NC Highway 226 where it it intersects NC 80 of this ‘gloriously’ named town near the Tennessee border perhaps 50 or 60 miles west of Asheville.” (Be sure to read the entirety of Martin’s lovely article on the importance of taking time to “loaf”).

According to a resource on Mitchell County Place Names, Loafer’s Glory “is probably Mitchell County’s most famous named place. Located at the bend of the river about three miles north of Bakersville, Loafer’s Glory was reputedly coined by the women of the community, who took a dim view of the men’s habit of ‘lollygagging’ on the porch of the community soter, rather than working.”

Hugh Morton appears to have visited the community sometime in the 1950s-early 1960s, on his way to or back from a “hillbilly festival” taking place in the middle of the road (the two shots below are on the same roll of film as the Loafer’s Glory images). The road signs for highways 64 and 28 in the bottom image would indicate a location of Highlands, NC, which then leads me to the distinct possibility that these are shots of “Highlands Hillbilly Days.”

According to Anthony Harkins’ Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the Hillbilly Days were held each August between 1951 and at least 1957 — “participants dressed as hillbillies and participated in beauty contests, as well as the more traditional pursuits of wood chopping, square dancing, and ballad-singing” (263).

Can anyone verify this? Is this, in fact, “Highlands Hillbilly Days”? And, have you ever loafed in Loafer’s Glory?

A “wee bit” of Scotland in NC

“Brawny athletes, delicate dancers, noisy bagpipe band parades, rocking Celtic music and a spectacular highland setting makes this colorful celebration of Scottish culture the ‘best’ highland games in America . . .” (or so says the visitnc.com website).

The 55th Annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were held this past weekend in MacRae Meadows, at the base of Grandfather. The continuing popularity of the Grandfather Games is perhaps the most visible indication of a long history of Scottish settlement and the continuing influence of Scottish culture in the North Carolina Mountains. In our latest Worth 1,000 Words essay entitled Scottish Heritage at Linville, anthropologist CELESTE RAY explores these traditions and the role of the Morton family in attempting to maintain them. (Did you know, for example, that Hugh Morton’s mother and brother Julian began the development of “Invershiel,” a replica 16th-century Scottish village in Linville?). Read Ray’s essay to find out more.

And finally, for those of you in the Wilmington area, I’d like to offer one last reminder of our Worth 1,000 Words event this coming Monday. Details below; hope to see you there!

Monday, July 19, 5:30 p.m.
New Hanover County Public Library, NorthEast Branch, Wilmington
Information: Paige Owens, powens@nhcgov.com, (910) 798-6327
Speakers:

“A Great Day in Mudville,” or the Loss of ‘The Boss’

NOTE FROM ELIZABETH: This past Monday, Morton images of the New York Yankees’ 1979 visit to Chapel Hill just happened to come up in our scanning queue. As I added images of George Steinbrenner to the digital collection, I chuckled to myself about those silly Seinfeld plotlines featuring The Boss. So, I was very surprised and saddened to learn of Steinbrenner’s death the very next morning. I asked our resident sports expert Jack Hilliard to write this tribute post.

It was the second Tuesday in July — the day of the “Midsummer Classic,” the 81st Major League Baseball All-Star Game. A time when baseball celebrates the best players in the game . . . but the sad news from Tampa, Florida on the morning of July 13, 2010 was that a giant of the baseball world had died. George M. Steinbrenner III, owner of the New York Yankees, died at 6:30 AM of a massive heart attack, nine days after his 80th birthday, and 14 hours before the first pitch of the All-Star Game in Anaheim, California.

He was loved my many, hated by a few, but ignored by none. Steinbrenner once told a reporter for USA Today: “I’ll never have a heart attack. I give ‘em.”

In the thirty-seven and a half years Steinbrenner was “The Boss,” the Yankees won 7 World Series Championships, 11 American League Pennants, and 16 American League East Titles. Over the years, his practice of firing and hiring, re-firing and re-hiring made him famous, or perhaps I should say infamous. In his first 23 seasons,  he changed managers 20 times (including dismissing Billy Martin on FIVE separate occasions!). In 2006, he turned the day-to-day operation of the Yankees over to his sons, Hank and Hal. On April 13, 2010, Yankee stars Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi privately presented him the first 2009 World Series Championship ring. He was “almost speechless” . . . almost.

George Steinbrenner was no stranger to Chapel Hill and UNC. His daughter Jennifer is a 1981 graduate of Carolina, and on three occasions between 1977 and 1981, he brought his Yankees to play the Tar Heels in Boshamer Stadium.

The game on April 3, 1979, is the game many remember as “A Great Day in Mudville.” On that day 7,000 Tar Heel partisans jammed into Boshamer, filling the 2000 seats and the grass-covered embankment along the first base line, lining the fence around the stadium four and five deep, and filling the balconies of the surrounding dorm. Due to rain, the start of the game was delayed and the end came early. And there, in the middle of it all, was Hugh Morton, cameras in hand.

Morton documented the action on the field and also visited with his friend Clyde King, Yankee pitching coach and scout. (King was a North Carolinian from Goldsboro, and during the 1982 season became Steinbrenner’s third general manager, going 29 and 33 over the last 62 games of the season. Some of the players thought he was a spy for “The Boss.”)

Tar Heel native Jim “Catfish” Hunter was the hit of the party.  A good time was had by all . . . well, almost. Steinbrenner’s Yanks won the game 9 to 4.

The next time you visit the new and improved, rebuilt Boshamer, notice the entrance courtyard. It is named for the Steinbrenner family — the result of a one million dollar donation by George Michael Steinbrenner III.

When future baseball historians write about the events of July 13, 2010, the 81st Major League Baseball All-Star game will not be the lead story. The loss of “The Boss” will.

Celebrating Bill Friday

William C. Friday, “the man whose name is synonymous with North Carolina higher education during much of the 20th century,” (according to a UNC Arts & Sciences article), celebrates his 90th birthday today. Friday served as President of the UNC system for three decades, and a more respected figure in the UNC community would be hard to identify. (Today’s Herald-Sun features a charming interview with Friday in which he discusses the past and future of the UNC system).

As Bill Friday was a close friend and frequent photographic subject of Hugh Morton’s (as well as a key player in the donation of Morton’s portfolio to UNC-CH!), A View to Hugh offers this brief and inadequate tribute to his remarkable lifetime of public service.

To the left is a lovely portrait Morton took in April 1995. The images below show Friday with President John F. Kennedy at University Day on October 12, 1961 (cropped); Friday with John Chancellor and Terry Sanford at the groundbreaking for the National Humanities Center in April 1977; and Friday, again with Sanford, viewing Morton photographs shortly before Sanford’s death, in January 1998.

The public are invited to attend an open house hosted by UNC and the UNC General Alumni Association today from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Carolina Club at the Hill Alumni Center. (If you can’t attend the birthday celebration, greetings may be sent to the Friday home at 521 Hooper Lane, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514).

“Some of those holy rollers really cut shines…”

This past Sunday, the joyful hordes descended on MacRae Meadows at the base of Grandfather Mountain for the “Singing on the Mountain” gospel festival, just as they have done every year since 1925. If you read this blog, you know that we’re all big fans of Hugh Morton’s evocative photographs of the “Sing” throughout the years. From the wonderfully-bearded Shelby Ever Gragg, to George Pegram, Johnny Cash, “Happy John” Coffey, Robert Harris, Jerry Falwell . . . they’ve all been to the Sing, and Hugh Morton was there to photograph them.

For more information on the Sing (and some choice quotes, such as the title of this post), please have a look at our latest WORTH 1,000 WORDS essay by authors DAVE HANEY and LISA BALDWIN entitled The Singing on the Mountain. Haney and Baldwin (recent exports from Appalachian State University to the faraway lands of Black Hills, South Dakota), offer unique interest in and perspective on the topic as traditional musicians themselves. Enjoy!

New essay, and upcoming events!

Today’s first order of business is to proclaim the availability of our newest Worth 1,000 Words essay, written by plant ecologist ALAN S. WEAKLEY and entitled Hugh Morton and North Carolina’s Native Plants (one of which can be seen at left). Weakley, Curator of the University of North Carolina Herbarium, a department of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, brings a unique perspective to our essay project as a scientist who worked closely with Hugh Morton on projects related to plant conservation at Grandfather Mountain. Please take a few minutes to read and respond to Weakley’s reflections.

Secondly, and speaking of Worth 1,000 Words, we’d like to announce two upcoming Morton Collection events, FREE and open to the public, to be held in Wilmington on July 19 and Boone on August 10. Further details available on the Library News and Events blog here. If you’re in the area, we hope you’ll take this opportunity to come say hi to those of us who work on the collection, as well as to hear from and chat with some of our essay authors. See you there!

The many faces of the past

As Susan Taylor Block notes in her recent essay, the port city of Wilmington, NC is known not only for its mansions, azaleas, and beauty queens, but also for its powerful, enterprising white men including Pembroke Jones and Hugh MacRae, grandfather of Hugh Morton.

A darker, lesser-known, and certainly lesser-discussed chapter of Wilmington’s history is that of the 1898 race riot, the only instance in American history of an elected government being overthrown. Spearheading the violent uprising was a group of elite Wilmingtonians, strong opponents of the “fusionist” coalition, strong believers in the supremacy of the white race . . . and outspoken among them was Hugh Morton’s grandfather, a young Hugh MacRae.

Four years ago this week, the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission (a state-appointed panel tasked with studying the rebellion and recommending reparative actions) released its official report, available in full here.

Back on the occasion of the 1998 centennial, historians David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson put together a seminal volume about the events entitled Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy. While they learned much about MacRae’s role in the uprising, they never put a face to the name — that is, until Hugh Morton’s photographs became available online.

What Cecelski and Tyson discovered when they looked into that face is the topic of our latest Worth 1,000 Words essay, entitled Hugh MacRae at Invershiel.

We hope you’ll take some time to read this thoughtful exploration, and to consider the many layers of meaning that can be hidden in a single portrait. Let us know what discoveries you make.

An infamous day…campus prepares for war

Note from Elizabeth: We hope you enjoy another post from JACK HILLIARD, in honor of Sunday’s 68th anniversary of the commissioning of the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School at UNC-Chapel Hill on May 23, 1942. (For more information on this topic, see Janis Holder’s Worth 1,000 Words essay).

Regarding photos of the Pre-Flight School, please see the NCC Photo Archives Pre-Flight School Collection (a few photos from which appear in this post). You’ll note that photographer(s) for this collection are not known. Could one of them have been Hugh Morton? It seems possible, as Pre-Flight School photos in the Morton Collection are scarce, and at least some Pre-Flight photos have been credited to him (e.g., in this pamphlet).

December 7, 1941: many readers across central North Carolina turned directly to the sports pages when their Sunday edition of the Greensboro Daily News arrived on that cold morning. The lead story was the annual high school all-state football team, and leading the team was a 17-year-old junior from Asheville’s Lee Edwards High named Charlie Justice. High school football was huge in North Carolina, but professional football wasn’t, yet. Even so, on the back page of the sports section was a mention of the Washington Redskins playing the Philadelphia Eagles in the final game of the NFL season, and Redskins owner George Preston Marshall would once again stage a spectacular halftime Christmas show.

This Christmas game always filled old Griffith Stadium with families, politicians, and military personnel from the District and northern Virginia. Seated high up in the press box were Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich and Associated Press reporter Pat O’Brien. Shortly before the 2 PM kickoff, O’Brien received a puzzling-three-word telegram from his editor downtown — it said, simply, “Keep It Short.” About that same time, the public address announcer began a series of announcements: “Admiral W.H.P. Bland is asked to report to his office at once.” “Captain R.X. Fenn of the United States Army is asked to report to his office.” The announcements continued . . . Joseph Umglumph of the FBI,  Joaquim Eilzalde, resident commissioner of the Philippines . . . Secretary Stimson and Secretary Knox call the White House. A second telegram arrived at O’Brien’s desk. This one solved the puzzle: “The Japanese have kicked off. War Now!” At 2:26 PM, the Mutual Broadcasting System interrupted the radio broadcast of the game with a bulletin telling of a Pearl Harbor attack. The world would never be the same.

Back in Chapel Hill, UNC Sophomore Hugh Morton, who had recently won the “Carolina Intercampus Council” award, stood ready to document a campus preparing for war (however, his formal education would be interrupted a year later when he joined the Army).

Even before the Pearl Harbor attack, UNC President Frank Porter Graham had offered the University’s help in the event of war. In 1940 Graham said the University would offer “all its resources to the nation for the defense of the freedom and democracy it was founded to serve.”

Graham’s first priority was to lobby for a Navy Pre-Flight Training School on the Chapel Hill campus. It would be one of four such schools nationwide that prepared future pilots for aerial combat. With the help of alumnus, newspaper editor, and former Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, UNC became one of the four. The Navy announcement came in February, 1942 and on May 23, 1942 the official commissioning was held in Kenan Stadium with Daniels delivering the keynote address — 68 years ago this Sunday.

The University renovated ten dorms, expanded Woollen Gym, and built a new infirmary, recreation center and athletic field. Alexander Hall became administrative headquarters. The Pre-Flight School had its own weekly newspaper called “The Cloud Buster,” and Orville Campbell was the associate editor.

On May 28th, the first group of 242 cadets arrived on campus. Every two weeks, 300 more would arrive until a quota of 1,875 was reached. The cadets ranged in age from 18 to 27 and each cadet received $75 per month. The training day was from 5:30 AM until 6:15 PM 6 days a week, and consisted of two hours of strenuous physical activity, two hours of classroom work in Caldwell Hall, and athletic training in swimming, basketball, football and boxing.

There was some free time, and entertainers like Ronald Reagan, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra with Helen O’Connell, and Kate Smith came to the campus to entertain.

The athletic talent at the Pre-Flight School was outstanding. The baseball team featured the legendary Ted Williams, and defeated Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees in July 1943.

Kenan Stadium became home to the Pre-Flight Cloudbusters football team. In April 1942, there was a young Ensign physical fitness instructor named Gerald R. Ford. Thirty two years later he would become the 38th President of the United States. Another future President came through the program as well. His name: George H.W Bush.

On November 5, 1944 The Cloudbusters hosted The Commodores from Bainbridge (Maryland) Naval Training Station. Coaching on the sideline that day for the Cloudbusters was a young Lieutenant named Paul W. Bryant. He would lead the University of Alabama to six national titles during the 1960s and 1970s, and would be known as “Bear” Bryant. Leading the Cloudbusters at quarterback was Otto Graham who would lead the Cleveland Browns to 7 pro championships in the 1940s and 1950s, and leading the Commodores was a 20-year-old from Asheville, NC. Two years later he would return to Kenan and during the years 1946 to 1949 would rewrite the UNC record books. His name: Charlie Justice.

When the War ended, the campus returned to normal. The US Navy Pre-Flight School at Chapel Hill was decommissioned on October 15, 1945. Some of those Pre-Flight buildings still stand and remind passersby that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill adapted to serve the country during its “most critical crisis.”

–Jack Hilliard