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The 311th Training Detachment: A saving grace during WWII

As torpedoes ripped into U.S. Navy boats on Dec. 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor, shockwaves were sent across the United States. When droves of men enlisted or were drafted, colleges across the nation felt the implications that World War II would have on higher education. With declining enrollments, how would schools, such as The College of Idaho, keep from withering away like autumn leaves?

After hitting a semester-high enrollment of 442 students in the spring of 1940, the C of I had graduating classes of 42 in 1942, 32 in 1943 and 16 in 1944. In 1945, you could count every graduate on a single hand.

A saving grace came in the form of the 311th Training Detachment.

On Feb. 1, 1943, the C of I was selected as one of 80 colleges to be included in the Army Air Forces Training Program. The first group of 125 men arrived on campus March 3, with 123 more arriving April 1. The contract with the Army meant $125,000 of money infused into the College (the average U.S. salary was about $2,000), though not all of it was profit.

“As for the College, there is little question that the income from the military presence meant survival,” wrote C of I Professor Emeritus of English Louie Attebery in his book The College of Idaho 1891-1991: A Centennial History.

But this wasn’t the College’s first foray into an aeronautical program. In fall 1939, The C of I was one of 500 schools chosen to have a Civilian Pilot Training program, subsidized by the federal government. Students took course work toward attaining a pilot’s license with “no military or other obligations,” but they could obtain a three-year appointment as a second lieutenant in the reserve air corps.

Fast forward four years, and the national need for airmen led to the 311th being stationed in Caldwell. The aircrews took courses in history, geography, English, medical aid, civil air regulations and physical training at the College before receiving further training to become pilots, navigators and bombardiers elsewhere.

Cadets were encouraged to become familiar with and adapt to every phase of military, flying, academic, athletic and social activities.

“Needless to say, we needed no encouragement in regard to the latter,” said an editor in the 311th Training Detachment yearbook, First Call.

But cadets and college girls were kept separated, except during Open Post on the weekends. Then they enjoyed dances, choral recitals, fireside picnics or a milkshake at Quasty’s.

During the week, it was back to work learning to fly, staying in shape and preparing to go to war.

“With admiration, we looked up at the B-17’s which sailed high above us. We envied those boys—and hoped—and hoped,” reads a line in First Call.

Though a liberal arts curriculum and military regulations didn’t always mesh, then-C of I President William Webster Hall wrote:

“The main thing is that the job was done. It was education by short-cut, education by remote control, education by contract, but it accomplished its purpose. The professors are proud that they have done the Army’s job. But they are more than ever aware that the Army’s job is not their job.”

And just as the 311th made an impact on the C of I, the inverse also was true. As stated in First Call, soldiers recalled:

“An all-night bull session in the Dewey Palace…and that unforgettable evening we first went star-gazing with a Caldwell girl. Memories such as these will keep us going when we are overseas, and later, bring back that old twinkle in our eye when we’re bouncing a couple of kids on Daddy’s knee.”

The program concluded by late spring 1944, with all remnants of the 311th gone by June. While a military presence was not ideal, the College did its part for the war effort, and in return was able to keep its doors open until the war ended in fall 1945. And those doors stay open today for all students to come, so we can see what they can do.

*Information for this article was gleaned from the book The College of Idaho 1891-1991: A Centennial History by C of I Professor Emeritus of English Louie W. Attebery; archived editions of the Coyote student newspaper and the 311th Training Detachment yearbook, First Call.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars and 14 Marshall, Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College’s beautiful, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.