By William Bruce, UNC Asheville Emeritus Professor of Psychology
In the autumn of 1927 the junior college that would become UNC Asheville came to life in borrowed space, on one floor of the newly constructed Biltmore High School. The founders hoped to build a separate campus for the college soon, but the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed put an end to those plans. For the next 12 years, the college would survive in part by sharing space in public school buildings.
By the winter of 1939-40, Biltmore College was operating in the South Wing of the David Millard School building near downtown Asheville. The weather that January was “freakishly cold” - Asheville recorded 3 degrees, while residents in the Reems Creek Valley reported readings as low as 10 degrees below zero. Buried pipes froze solid, and families struggled through days without running water.
February brought bad news for the college. There would no longer be room for the college at the Millard building. Seventh and eighth grade students were already present, and their parents petitioned the school board to add another year, for the ninth grade there. The Board granted the request. As Biltmore College Dean Charles Lloyd informed the Asheville Citizen-Times, no plans existed “at this time” for a new location for the college. This was a serious problem.
As Lloyd began looking for a new place, another concern was looming. Would a new world war engulf the United States? The newspapers were rife with predictions, bombings and battles. Armed conflict was underway among Russia and Finland; Japan and China; Germany and France; Germany and England.
If war came, what would happen to the college?
Lloyd was probably as able as anyone to calculate the possibilities. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vanderbilt and something of a polymath, by age 54 he had taught courses in world history, German, French, English and calculus, and written a well-received book on the English language. Lloyd likely knew that in a national mobilization many young men in college would leave to enter the armed forces. Some of the young women might do the same, while others would defer college in favor of work. Of a near certainty, enrollment would drop.
At that time, about three-fourths of the budget for Biltmore College was funded from student tuition payments - the only stable income for the school was a $5,000 yearly payment from the City of Asheville. The young institution had no endowment, no cash reserves, no property to borrow against to tide it over a financial shortfall.
In short, a deep drop in enrollment could force the closing of the college.
That January, the Asheville Citizen-Times published an Associated Press story reporting that more than 1,200 students in colleges across the country had reached the solo stage of flight instruction in the new Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). The U.S. Congress had authorized $5 to $7 million per year to support the training of college educated pilots who could be available for military service in the event of war, and to stimulate the small aircraft industry.
Could Biltmore College participate? Obviously, a college with no operating location could not submit a credible proposal. Lloyd’s first priority would be to find new quarters.
Luckily, a nearby school had both space and a pressing need for revenue. The Asheville Normal and Teacher’s College (ANTC), located on the present-day site of Memorial Mission Hospital, had lost church support. Lloyd persuaded the ANTC leaders to share their campus with Biltmore College. The Dean negotiated a two-year lease providing classrooms, a shared library, laboratory space in a basement, lockers and other facilities. Biltmore College would pay $3,000 for the first year of the lease.
Lloyd could now turn his attention to the possibility of training pilots. Participation in the CPTP might place the school in the pathway of the substantial federal funding that was beginning to flow for national defense. Also, aviation was still a new, world-changing technology. Could teaching young people from the area to fly bring something as precious as revenue to the school - a deepened sense of community pride and ownership?
With a location secured, Biltmore College could mount a strong application. E.B. Mann, the chairman of physics and mathematics, agreed to undertake new courses in navigation and meteorology. Mann was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who held a doctorate in physics from Cornell University where he had taught for seven years. Henry Fisher, an Asheville attorney and a pilot himself would teach the rules of civil aviation, basics of aircraft operation and the history of flight. The A. & H. Flying service at Asheville - Hendersonville Airport would provide hands-on flying instruction.
As marks of college quality, Lloyd could reference recent awards. An original play written by drama student Eileen Smith was recognized as “best in division” at the statewide drama competition in Chapel Hill in April, while Drama Instructor George Tidd Jr. wrote the “best original play performed at the Festival.” Bluets, the college literary magazine, was recognized with a First Place award among junior colleges in a national competition by Columbia University in both 1939 and 1940.
The Civil Aeronautics Authority rapidly approved the Biltmore College proposal.
Student Pilots Take to the Air
By October of 1940, 10 student pilots were flying with an instructor pilot in a yellow Piper Cub airplane fitted with dual controls. The program created keen community interest. The Asheville Citizen-Times wrote an editorial praising the students as pioneers in the arriving age of aviation, published a feature story with photographs and profiles, and frequently reported on their progress. At the airport, Dean Lloyd watched the students flying, and went up with the instructor for his own first-ever airplane ride.
The presence of Miss Lola Freeman was especially noted. A recent graduate of St. Genevieve of the Pines, she was working as a stenographer while she took the Pilot Training Course at Biltmore College. The other nine students, who were all men by mandated quota, included recent Biltmore College graduates Marcus Galyean and Claude Debruhl.
The newspaper photographer posed Freeman in the cockpit knitting, and captioned the photo “Miss Lola Freeman utilizes a few minutes before her lesson is scheduled to begin to catch up on her knitting, but Instructor Paul N. McMurray catches her in the act and scowls disapproval.”
Undeterred by gender stereotypes, Lola Freeman finished the course first, and became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in Western North Carolina. Seven of the men also earned licenses.
At several historically black colleges, African Americans were using the CPTP to break down barriers based on prejudicial stereotypes and beliefs. At the TuskegeeInstitute, CPTP Instructor Charles Anderson took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt up for an hour-long flight. The resulting photograph, published in newspapers across the country, vividly refuted racist assertions then in circulation that African Americans were incapable of piloting airplanes.
Tragically, Biltmore College Dean Charles Lloyd suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while working at the college, and died a week later in November of 1940 at age 54. Little more than one year later, the Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,400 Americans and brought the United States into World War II.
The Pilot Training Program rapidly increased in pace and numbers. Military service was required of all trainees, and women were no longer accepted. Biltmore College continued teaching the ground school courses and coordinating the program. By the end of 1942, the first full year of war, a college official reported that 115 young men had entered the program, 100 had completed it, and all 100 were serving in the armed forces.
We do not know the total number who participated, nor even a majority of their names. In 1986 the National Archives authorized the destruction of the records of the CPTP, including the lists of student pilots, when “not needed for administrative purposes.” However from a variety of other sources we can report that some of the Biltmore College students served with great distinction, and others with great sacrifice.
Biltmore College Flyers Serve, Sacrifice in WWII
The war department highly valued basic flying skills in all members of combat air crews, for what one writer called “obvious reasons.” The Biltmore College students
flew as pilots, copilots, navigators, gunners and other air crew members. A number of students and one member of the faculty gave their lives serving on military aircraft.
James Patrick Hodges, an Eagle Scout and Biltmore College student, flew 48 missions as copilot of the B26 Bomber “Louisiana Mud Hen.” On December 23, 1944 Hodges and his crew flew in support of the hard-pressed Allied ground troops during the Battle of the Bulge. A direct hit from anti-aircraft fire broke away the left engine, and the plane went down with the loss of life of all on board. A photographer captured the last moments of the flight, in a famous image of air battles in WWII. Hodges was 20 years old.
In addition to James Hodges, the lost air crew members from Biltmore College we have identified so far include George Smith and Robert Lee Smith, Junior; George Welling Tidd, Junior; Duke Marion Paul; Hoyt Acker Junior; Fred Holcombe; Marshall Gravatt, Junior; James Griffin, and James Earnest Morgan, Junior. As the war unfolded, their deaths were reported in the pages of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Talented Biltmore College student actress, playwright and Bluets author Eileen Smith suffered the loss of her two brothers, George and Robert Lee, and her drama teacher George Tidd - all in the period 1941-1943. Smith enlisted herself, serving as a cryptanalyst - a code breaker. After the war she re-enlisted and entertained the troops serving in the South Pacific with her comic acting talents. Today she rests in a place of honor in the Arlington National Cemetery, Captain Eileen Smith Bell, U. S. Air Force, d. December 26, 1999.
Some Win Special Honors
Raymond F. Myers graduated from Biltmore College and became a U.S. Navy pilot. He served in the Pacific, flying a fighter plane from the carrier ship USS WASP, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) - the same award presented to Charles Lindbergh in 1927 by the President of the United States. He returned home to Asheville and married Lola Freeman, who continued to fly with the Civil Air Patrol. In retirement, the two married pilots would live in a home on Sunset Mountain in Asheville.
Three others were honored with Distinguished Flying Crosses - Albert Boyd, Daniel V. Ebbs, and Detmar Hubbeling. Boyd was the president of the first class of students at the college in 1927. He was serving as Engineering Officer at the Hawaiian Air Depot at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. After the war he set a world air speed record, and became the founding commander of the US Air Force school for test pilots. His Air Force career earned a place of honor in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Dorothy Post Hoover graduated from the college, completed the CPTP in South Carolina, and became the first woman in Greenville, S.C. to earn a pilot’s license. She learned to fly the larger, more powerful and complexmilitary aircraft at Avenger Field, Texas and became a member of the WASP - the Women Airforce Service Pilots. She trained young male glider pilots for the Normandy invasion - pulling the gliders on low-level flights at night - and towed aerial targets for ground crews to fire at with live ammunition. One WASP pilot was killed towing those targets.
In 2009 the members of the WASP were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their WWII service, “the first women in history to fly American military aircraft.”
Wartime Biltmore College Faces Falling Enrollment
Enrollment at the college did drop to survival-threatening levels in 1943 and 1944. In July of 1944 just 11 students would graduate - 10 women and 1 man. The Pilot Training Program also ended that July, as provided by the authorizing statute.
The Asheville Citizen-Times wrote that many of the colleges, “…particularly the small ones, have been saved from wartime extinction by this government program.”
The college also survived by gaining community support. When the location at ANTC was no longer supportable, the County provided a building free of charge. When the school was on the brink of closing, the City of Asheville added $2,500 to the budget. A prominent Asheville attorney, Robert Lee Smith joined the Board of Trustees and led a drive to raise $15,000 to carry the school through 1945, the year of transition from war to peace.
After the war, Smith - the father of Eileen Smith and her lost brothers - joined with other leaders in asking the community for contributions to pay for a permanent home for the school. The community responded with more money than had been sought. The college purchased a storied mansion with 27 acres of land on the crest of Sunset Mountain. The college would operate in this spectacular setting for 12 years.
The community voted in 1958 and again in 1961 for major bond issues to support the college. New land in North Asheville, roads and new buildings became the physical foundation for the present-day University of North Carolina at Asheville. Today the school has a home campus of more than 365 acres.
“Well Done, Come Home”
In 1943, the student poets of Bluets published an issue with five gold stars on the cover and these lines within:
More than 200 alumni of Biltmore College are now in service. Many will return, but these five will not. The five gold stars on the cover are a symbol…the hills keep watch, saying ‘well done, come home.’
Author Note: Sources with added notes and images are available on request. My grateful thanks to Joe Urgo and Jim Canavan for encouraging this effort to rediscover the stories of service and wartime sacrifice by members of the UNC Asheville family, and to Colin Reeve and Gene Hyde of the UNC Asheville Ramsey Library Special Collections and University Archives for invaluable guidance and assistance. Any mistakes are all mine!
Please send any added information about any service in the armed forces by members of the UNC Asheville family, as well as any corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!