If you've ever looked skyward and wondered how a large metal object could fly, you’re not alone. Yet, flight was the focus of a naval school that brought thousands of men to Saint Mary's College to learn aviation warfare in World War II.
After the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. military was facing a shortage of naval aviators. During the Japanese strike, over 2,000 Americans were killed and millions of dollars in military assets, such as planes, cruisers and destroyers, were lost. The Navy established four pre-flight academies in the United States and chose college campuses because they had the space and the necessary resources to run such an operation.
On February 27, 1942, Navy Secretary Frank Knox sent a telegram to Saint Mary’s College stating that the campus had been selected to host one of the pre-flight establishments. Roughly six months later, the population at Saint Mary’s exponentially increased and the campus was a fully functioning military training site.
All military personnel understand the importance of training and executing their day-to-day tasks with 100 percent of their effort. Local resident and retired Captain Bob Mull was a Navy pilot for over 25 years, flying A-4 and A-7 jets. “During my training I learned how to be safe, efficient and deadly in the sky,” he says.
While Bob is too young to have graduated from the Navy flight school at SMC, he understands the importance of such programs. “We worked hard every day to ensure that we were the best at what we did – that’s how we were trained, and that’s why we were the best.”
The patriotic duty that Saint Mary’s carried out by accommodating the Navy contributed to the United States’ World War II effort, and helped the country re-establish aerial dominance. Saint Mary's benefited as well, since the Navy built infrastructure for the school and persuaded the East Bay Municipal Utility District to pipe water to the new campus. Until that time, Saint Mary’s water supply came from Lake Lasalle, a small body of fresh water located behind Assumption Hall. However, the Navy was not willing to depend on the lake to supply their soldiers with water and persuaded EBMUD to do something they had been hesitant to do - spend the money to pipe fresh water to the rural environs of Moraga.
With a consistent supply of fresh water on campus, the Navy began to allocate resources from Lake Lasalle for other projects. They began to pump silt from the bottom of the lake to flatten the land at the front of campus. The beautiful athletic fields on which Saint Mary’s student athletes have fought vigorously would not be here if it were not for the naval occupation. It's something student athlete Alex Starr appreciates.
“I have played lacrosse for Saint Mary’s for four years now and have spent many hours on the fields at the entrance of campus. I would have never guessed that the Navy was responsible.”
As the years have passed, the dust has settled on much of the rich history of Saint Mary’s. Now, as the College celebrates its sesquicentennial, it’s a fitting time to remember this chapter in its long history. Along with a tradition of producing proactive contributors to society, Saint Mary’s is one of the few colleges in the United States to have played this kind of role in national security.
By Robert Sidney Mull III '14