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By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

We continue our story of young William James Gregory and his path from Trousdale County to becoming a colonel in the United States Air Force!

James had managed, with the help of TCHS Principal Irby Pullias, to secure a place at Middle Tennessee State University. In 1938, it was called Middle Tennessee State Teacher’s College.

Mr. Pullias had contacted a good friend who was a dean at the school and got James into a new program that would allow him to work on campus for his tuition.

Submitted photo
William James Gregory is shown here in his uniform as a cadet in the Army Air Corps.

The program was one of many created by the government to help pull the nation out of the Great Depression, one of the worst economic crises in our nation’s history. Under the direction of the National Youth Administration, the program helped young men and women attend college.

In the book written about Gregory, he is quoted as saying, “We didn’t get much money for it – twenty-seven cents an hour – but enough to pay tuition, room rent, and board, and have a little left over for incidental expenses, and that was all that mattered.”

As it turned out, fellow Hartsville natives Charles Brown, Haynie Bastian and Frank Sheppard were also in the program!

Young James was no slacker. He took to college like a duck to water, making good grades and joining campus groups and activities. He and a friend hitchhiked to the World’s Fair in New York City!

At the end of his sophomore year, James saw a notice for students with a couple of years of college experience to apply for a summer program through the U.S. Navy. It would let a fellow serve on a ship and get some Navy training, but just for the summer. It was hoped that this would interest young men into joining.

James signed up and was accepted and sent to New York City and from there to a place you may have heard of – Guantanamo, Cuba! Then off to the Panama Canal, followed by a return to the East Coast. Back in port there, he and the others finished the summer scraping barnacles off the bottom of the boat!

While all of this was happening, the nation was beginning to prepare for war. Everyone had a sense that it was just a matter of time before the USA would be pulled into the European conflict.

Now that he was back for his junior year, another program caught his eye! The Civil Aviation Authority had created the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

The sky beckoned and William James Gregory accepted the invitation!

If we went to war, the nation was going to need pilots for what was actually a new innovation – airplanes! Between June 1939 and June 1942, 42,000 men were trained through this program and James was one of them.

James was a little wary at first, but his taste for seeing the world was already under his belt. He found that he liked riding the skies and looking down on the world below, and he was surprised to find that he had a natural talent for it. He could feel like he and the plane were one.

Then another chance came to James.

In February 1941 the Army Aviation Cadet Program sent a team of examiners to the school to sign up young men for a student pilot training program. This would be more advanced than the two-seater planes that James was now flying. Also, it meant a commitment to the Army Air Corps over attending the teacher’s college.

James had taken all the school had to offer in the way of flying classes. And he wanted to learn more and to fly bigger planes.

He took the exams and physical offered by the Cadet Program and then waited to hear if he had been accepted. It would mean leaving the teacher education program at Middle Tennessee. When the letter did arrive telling him of his acceptance in the program, he decided to go with it.

In August 1941, he and two good friends and fellow flying students, William Neely and Breezy Foster, found themselves at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., enlisting in the Army Air Corps. Little knowing that in three months we would be plunged into war!