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Column: Junior college prepared pilots for WWII

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opinion Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WORTHINGTON -- A Worthington boy was telling his dad about Pearl Harbor as they drove home from the cemetery on Memorial Day. He had watched a Pearl Harbor DVD he said. "The Japanese missed our carriers, but we had no way to fight back. We weren't ready for a war."

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I said nothing. I believe many Americans would tell a similar story. In truth, the United States was quite ready for a war. No one guessed an attack was coming at Pearl Harbor, but many were guessing an attack was coming.

I have an 8.5- by 11-inch sheet of paper, a copy of one part of a Daily Globe front page from October, 1940, 14 months before the Pearl Harbor attack. In that 8.5- by 11-inch space, there are three war stories. American people were indeed thinking of war, focusing mostly on Germany and Europe.

One of the three stories reports that Minnesota could expect a bigger share of the defense contracts that were being awarded to U.S. Industries -- contracts for guns and ammunition and uniforms and vehicles. A major general flew to Minneapolis to report, "Minnesota has been completely surveyed and a report has been made of the state's productive capacity ..." Minnesota was getting ready for war.

The second of the three war stories -- the big story of the day -- was that 2,600 serial numbers were posted in the Draft Board Office in the Nobles County Courthouse. A number was assigned to every Nobles County man between the ages of 21 and 36 for a nationwide draft, the first peacetime draft in American history. Men could stop by the courthouse and learn their number.

The draft was a lottery. To begin with, the local draft board would have nothing to say about who would go and who would stay. All the numbers for all of the men in the nation were being forwarded to Washington. Numbers were to be drawn from "fish bowls" by blind-folded officials. If your number was drawn: "You're in the army now ..." It was very different from the Powerball lotteries.

The third of the three war or preparedness stories in the Daily Globe that afternoon was from Worthington Junior College. The newly-formed Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) said eight of the 10 young men from WJC who were learning to be pilots would have their solo flights "by the end of the week."

The role played by Worthington Junior College in preparing the nation for World War II seems largely forgotten. It is one of the most vital programs ever undertaken by the college.

Jack Lysdale was the instructor. The classroom was the large metal hanger building on the sod runway airport one mile north of the Oxford-Humiston intersection. The City of Worthington moved a small storage building to the airport to be used as Lysdale's office. The young men of WJC were training in a Piper Cub, and they were burning 150 gallons of gasoline a week. A second plane was to be sent to the airport.

It was 37 years since the Wright Brothers flew an airplane for the first time -- 22 years since Eddie Rickenbacker became a World War I flying ace, 13 years since Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Now the young men of WJC were preparing themselves to fly the fighter airplanes and bombers that would fill the skies of World War II.

Before they could fly solo, the junior college students had to log eight hours at the controls of their Piper Cub with Instructor Lysdale taking notes and giving them pointers. The young men, most of whom came to the airport on bicycles, took off in their little prop-driven airplane, circled over Worthington and then came in for a landing on the long grass runway. They were pursuing their studies so diligently and working so hard that a decision was made to install a second gas pump at the airport, "and maybe even a third one," before the end of the year.

The Worthington students were learning their trade. In a short while they would become the young airmen flying B-17s over Europe, B-25s and B-29s over Japan and the fighter escorts that accompanied the bombers.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column runs on Saturdays.

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