'Winning Their Share'
WTI students, faculty support World War II efforts
by Nicole Staron, library operations public services coordinator
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, there was probably little reason to believe that it would have much of an impact on the small town of Williamsport. Unbeknownst to many, however, Williamsport had already made a name for itself nationally because of one man and his plan for the community.
George H. Parkes, director of Williamsport High School's vocational program and later Williamsport Technical Institute – both predecessors to Pennsylvania College of Technology – can be considered a visionary in his day because of the Depression-era Williamsport Plan, which customized training for the positions available at Williamsport-area plants. But his impact went far further than helping the unemployed during the interwar period: It later helped fuel the war efforts of the 1940s.
"On May 10, 1940, the world rocked with the realization that a nation of skilled technicians was about to smother an ancient and cultured civilization under an avalanche of scientific thought and mechanism." These were the resounding first words in the brochure "Vocational Training for Defense," which was distributed by the Emergency Training Commission and Williamsport School District in 1940 to make those within and around Williamsport aware of the immediate and important changes that would be happening at Williamsport High School to help the nation in its war efforts.
That year, school staff had to make immediate changes, including forfeiting their summer vacations, in order to alter a curriculum previously focused on retraining unemployed men and women, changing the focus to defense industries, especially the ever-important metalworking trades. In addition to the change in curriculum, the workload itself became more intense, as students now spent a minimum of 40 hours per week in their classes.
"A nation of skilled technicians was about to smother an ancient and cultured civilization under an avalanche of scientific thought and mechanism."
The school's weekly publication, The Newsletter, noted that instructors were reprimanded for letting their classes out even 15 minutes early. Additionally, students who were absent without reason were not permitted to return to class until the absence was investigated. In the meantime, wait-listed students attended classes in their place. Training was so important for the war effort that Parkes made several mentions in The Newsletter of students and instructors both ensuring that they were spending every minute of their time on the most efficient and productive tasks, opposing any kind of busy work and unnecessary, menial tasks.
The school continued to work with important government agencies: the National Youth Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Department of Public Assistance, the State Employment Service and others.
By 1941, when the vocational program was established officially as Williamsport Technical Institute, the school's successes had become much more apparent, both locally and nationwide. According to a Williamsport Sun article in October of that year, the institute was deemed one of the city's largest assets due to its ability to train 3,000 individuals for defense industries within a six-month period. In a separate article, the Sun reported that within seven short years, Civilian Conservation Corps enrollment in the national defense courses nearly doubled what it was when the classes were first offered in 1934. In fact, the use of WTI facilities for war training was so important that by November 1941, 10 new machines had arrived on campus in support of a course that was requested by the U.S. Office of Education in the interest of national defense.
In February of the following year, the Grit newspaper reported that the U.S. Office of Education sent the institute one of the largest pieces of equipment it had ever received – a boring mill – valued at around $5,000.
The achievements of WTI were not only recognized by the federal government, but were also praised in national journals, which in turn helped further those successes by bringing in new students. Upon initial defense-course offerings, young men began traveling to Williamsport from the anthracite coal regions in Pennsylvania and even New York City. By 1941, however, talk of the programs at WTI had traveled so far that one youth, upon reading about the progress of vocational training in Williamsport in a national journal, decided to leave his home in Alaska to study at the institute.
In addition to the influx of male students from far and wide in the 1940s, WTI saw an increasing number of women enrolling in its courses. A 1941 Williamsport Sun article, titled "Young women swap knitting bags for tool kits as the nation prepares for defense," outlined how WTI allowed women to break from traditional roles and move into more male-dominated areas, such as aviation, instrument repair, drafting and architectural drawing. Two such women, the article notes, were disabled due to infantile paralysis. WTI was able to provide them with a vocation and, more importantly, livelihood, despite their disabilities.
An article later that year emphasized the importance of women in the Red Cross Motor Corps taking weekly classes in the institute's auto mechanics shop. The goal of the course was for women to be able to repair a car without outside help, a job that they undertook with pleasure and pride.
The biggest step forward for women, however, occurred in January 1942, when all defense training work at WTI was opened to women on the same basis as for men. Although preference was still given to unemployed men, according to a Dec. 23, 1941, Williamsport Sun article, Parkes recognized that women should be trained in order to avert a possible labor shortage, should the men be wholly absorbed in the war.
The war program at Williamsport Technical Institute was terminated in June 1945, according to a Gazette and Bulletin article that year. Despite having existed for only a few years, the WTI defense-industry program excelled, in part because of the full support of the faculty and staff, but also because of the strong and selfless youth who wanted to do all they could to assist during the war. The administration at WTI had set very high standards for its students – a quality that was praised by civic and government officials – but continued to accept strong applicants regardless of where they came from, their gender or their physical disabilities.
Those students then worked hard to excel in their programs at a time their country really needed them, giving so much of themselves that some even volunteered their spare time to help rush the completion of one of the school's new buildings, Unit 4, in 1942.
This building, the school's new machine shop, was especially important to the war effort, because this is where emergency orders were sent for jobs that were needed for local war plants. The March 30, 1942, issue of The Newsletter announced, "Word has been received from the government that Unit 4 must be prepared for a large new war assignment in two weeks. This is a big and entirely new development, the nature of which is confidential."
The article's ending statement – "The boys are winning their share of this war!" – refers to those who volunteered their time to rush completion of the project and couldn't have been more true.
From students in the commercial art and technical illustration classes who designed posters to aid in the country's defense, to radio communications students who found important work aboard naval ships, to students working on intricate aviation instruments, the Williamsport Technical Institute was able to help its young students, men and women alike, to defend their country with honor and pride. ■