Thurlow Pitts calls 1942 a “big year,” greatly understating the whirlwind 12-month period in which he graduated from college, received a commission in the United States Naval Reserve, attended the Naval Academy and married Betty Knowlton.
Pitts was part way through his senior year at the University of Maine when the government issued a general order allowing college seniors to stay in school until they graduated.
A member of the Class of ’42, Pitts recalls graduation day in Orono and numerous ROTC students graduating in uniform.
“Many of them were on duty later that afternoon,” he said in a recent interview.
Hoping to put his degree in mathematics to good use for his country, Pitts took a different approach to his military service.
Aware that the Navy was eager to enlist college graduates with extensive science and mathematics backgrounds, Pitts headed to Boston to apply for a program that offered officer training and advanced courses in meteorology to those accepted.
He was accepted into the program, and in August he was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. His orders came at the same time. He was to report immediately to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., for a training program in weather forecasting. There was no time to return home to Stonington from Boston.
“I gulped, took my oath and got on a train to New York,” Pitts said.
At Annapolis, Pitts and his fellow officers would complete a two-year academic course in 11 months.
In October, he wrote to Betty Knowlton proposing marriage. She accepted, and they set a date to be married in December when Pitts was on leave and in Stonington. They were married Dec. 21 at Knowlton’s home in Deer Isle, rather than ask the local parishioners to “warm up the church on such a cold, snowy day,” Pitts said.
They were married for more than 50 years until Betty’s death in 1992.
As 1942 drew to a close, Pitts returned to Annapolis to finish the advanced weather courses he was taking. He graduated from the Annapolis program on July 3, 1943. He had received his active duty assignment before graduation.
Pitts recalls the commander coming into the room while he and his classmates were working on weather maps.
“I’ve got good news for you guys,” the commander said. “You’ve got a choice of duty assignments — Atlantic or Pacific.”
Pitts wanted to be stationed in the Atlantic to be closer to home and his wife, but he ended up in the North Pacific. At graduation, Pitts was promoted from ensign to lieutenant, junior grade. During the war, he served at two land-based Navy air stations. The first was at Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, part of the Aleutians.
In late December 1943, Pitts was assigned to Amchitka Island in the Western Aleutians, where he was officer in charge of a joint Army-Navy weather station. After about three months, he was sent back to Dutch Harbor to take charge of the weather station there. The Navy weather forecasters played an important role in the war, providing vital information for patrols and transport flights.
“In those days, weather was much more of a problem,” Pitts said. With radar in its infancy, patrols leaving the air stations needed to know what the weather would be at their destinations, often as much as 1,000 miles away.
Pitts’ duty also brought him in contact with America’s Merchant Marine ships as they traveled from the West Coast to Russia with supplies.
Pitts said the operations worked well because at the time Russia and Japan were not at war with one another, so the Japanese couldn’t do anything to the Russian ships. Those ships would stop in the Aleutians to refuel, but the Russians were prohibited from coming into the U.S. naval bases.
Pitts did meet a Russian officer, however, when the officer was allowed on base to undergo an emergency operation at the hospital.
“He was the only man on the merchant ship,” Pitts said of the Russian captain. “His first mate and crew were women.”
In December 1944, after 19 months in the Aleutians, Pitts received his stateside orders. He would be assigned to the Squantum Naval Base Air Station near Boston.
Pitts was placed on inactive duty in December 1945, but he didn’t receive a formal discharge from the Naval Reserve until sometime in the 1950s.
“That was standard procedure,” he said. “They didn’t want to lose a grip on us.”
He came home to Stonington about 10 days before Christmas 1945.
He was looking forward to January and graduate school at the University of Maine when he heard about a vacancy in the principal’s position at Stonington High School. Pitts was hired for the job during an emergency meeting of the school board and told to start on Jan. 21.
“I had outgrown my civilian clothes and borrowed a suit for the first day of school,” he said.
That day, his wife traveled to Ellsworth and bought a couple of suits for Pitts.
“I got back into the civilian groove quickly,” he said.
Pitts enjoyed the job and stayed on as principal in Stonington until 1953. That year, he was chosen from among 23 applicants for the principal’s job at Ellsworth High School, a job he kept for the next 17 years.
Though proud of his military service, Pitts, 85, is always quick to point out that America’s “Greatest Generation” included many people, not just those in uniform.
— James Straub