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Historical marker will honor World War II Naval training at UNC

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U.S. Navy cadet Powell Huitt (left) stands at an entrance to the UNC Navy Pre-Flight School in 1943. Huitt attended the flight school during World War II.
Photo Courtesy of Parker Huitt.

An N.C. Highway Historical Marker honoring UNC's World War II U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School will be placed on the corner of Franklin Street and Raleigh Street on Sept. 30 to recognize the war efforts made by UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill.

Parker Huitt, the grandson of U.S. Navy cadet Powell Huitt, who attended UNC's pre-flight school, said he put in a request for the highway marker in Chapel Hill.

“Four-plus years ago, I did some research, and I submitted an application to the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, which is a part of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources," Huitt said.

Nicholas Graham, a University archivist, said the U.S. government commissioned the pre-flight school in 1942, months after the United States joined World War II. Four other U.S. Navy pre-flight schools were established in the country around the same time. Compared to the other stations, UNC housed and trained the most cadets — roughly 20,000.

Graham said the program was a six-week intensive course to train cadets and prepare them for flight. 

"It was a lot of physical conditioning, and also beginning to learn what they would need in order to become Navy pilots," he said.

The training was physical and prepared cadets for all possible outcomes, which included training them in skills beyond aviation, Huitt said.

This flight school had a tremendous impact for both UNC and Chapel Hill, Graham said. During the war, UNC saw a decrease in enrollment numbers, and establishing the pre-flight school brought in large sums of people.

The federal government decided to establish a pre-flight school at UNC due to its large campus and many resources. Huitt said some of the resources UNC provided to the pre-flight school were large dining halls, solid infrastructure, many open fields and extensive wooded areas where cadets could train their aviation skills. He added that UNC constructed additional buildings after the school was established.

Several public figures also stepped down to join the Navy during World War II and spent time in Chapel Hill during their training, including Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and future presidents George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford — bringing more attention to the efforts made by UNC to help the Navy.

The UNC Pre-Flight School was among the first stations to commission Black servicemen, who were transferred to the campus as members of the Navy's B-1 Band — the first band to allow Black soldiers a general rank in the Navy.

The United States also commissioned a pre-flight program at the University of Georgia. According to the UGA Libraries, their program also opened in 1942, with roughly 18,000 cadets passing through the pre-flight school.

Steven Brown, a retired archivist at UGA, said in an email that most veterans he has spoken with over the years have been proud of their achievements, but hated the pre-flight programs.

"They were designed to screen out all but the toughest and most determined and the training was brutal," he said.

Huitt said he requested the marker because he wanted to make sure the stories of those who attended the pre-flight school do not fade into obscurity, since he thinks the community can continue to learn from them.

"And then also, it helps us remain thankful for the sacrifices that they make, and all the veterans make, as we hope for a more peaceful world," Huitt said.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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