Moorhead’s WWII Air Cadets

clay county histories

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

Guarding the gates of MSUM

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, all but a few male students in the college town of Moorhead joined the armed forces. Admission at Moorhead State Teachers College (now MSUM) plummeted from 683 in 1940 to 214 in 1943. The school made up for the lost students by doubling as a training camp for the US Army Air Force. MSTC was one several colleges across the nation chosen to give further instruction to air cadets after they completed basic training.       

From March of 1943 to June of 1944, soldiers of the 346th College Training Detachment of the Army Air Force shared a campus with the mostly-female Dragon student body. Dorms and classrooms became barracks and guards patrolled the perimeter of campus.   

The cadets got a mixture of military training and a college education in Moorhead.  History professors focused on the causes of the war along with the geography of warzones in Europe and previously-unheard-of Pacific islands.  English professors taught cadets to write military reports.  Phy Ed class was more basic training.  Each cadet completed 10 hours of flight training at Fargo’s Hector Field under the supervision of Barney Lamm and his civilian pilots.  Unlike college, slacking students in the 346th were subject to military discipline.      

The cadets came from all across the country in squadrons of 100 men each.  The college taught up to 5 squadrons at a time, each on a 5-month rotation at the campus.  In total, 1600 air cadets passed through MSTC during the war.

New Yorker Bill Palma joined the Army Air Force in 1943. After completing basic training, he was sent to Moorhead for further instruction. He and 16 others slept on bunkbeds in a Weld Hall classroom.

He liked the town. “The people were so good that you’d start to walk uptown and the cars would stop and say ‘I’ll give you a ride,’ wherever you were, especially knowing that we were from the college,” Bill recalled. “I was here for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, and the bulletin board always had signs on there, ‘Come to dinner,’ looking for soldiers to come to dinner on Sunday.”

One evening at the Moorhead USO (the basement of what is now RiverHaven Events Center, aka “the Old Usher’s”) Bill met a USO volunteer and Moorhead State student named Elizabeth Christianson. He learned that she played piano for the Moorhead Teachers College Glee Club, so he joined that choir even though he “couldn’t sing a note.” The two spent whatever time they could together until he was shipped out in February of 1944. Palma spent the rest of the war training air crews stateside.

After the war, Bill Palma returned to that college town, or probably more accurately to that college girl. Bill and Elizabeth married in 1947. Bill got a job at International Harvester, first as a diesel mechanic and eventually as the regional service manager. He served the city of Moorhead as a city councilman and a member of the Parks Board and Charter Commission.

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