The U.S. Navy Comes To Iowa City – 1942-1944.

Did you know that the United States Navy once had a large training school here in Iowa City?

Hard to believe, isn’t it – since the nearest ocean to Iowa City is about 1,000 miles away! But thanks to long-time, Iowa City-based aviation pioneer – Paul B. Shaw – when World War II broke out in 1941, the United States Navy immediately contacted him to help lead one of the most important aspects of the war effort in the Pacific – training qualified pilots.

Aviator Paul Bacil Shaw was born to Charles A. and Mary E. Smart Shaw on July 3, 1896 in a two-room log house in Rose Hill in Mahaska County, Iowa (see map below). It seems that little Paul grew up loving mechanics, and like most kids growing up around the turn-of-the-century, anything that had an engine and made loud noises attracted his attention! His earliest school years were spent at Hawkeye Country School in Mashaska County, and at age 15, he attended William Penn Academy in Oskaloosa. That’s when he bought his first motorcycle!

In 1919, Paul – age 23 – moved off to the big city, taking a job in Cedar Rapids as an automobile mechanic at W.H. Morse & Co. – a dealer in Essex (below left) automobiles. In 1922, he moved over to Hutchings Motor Co. – the Cedar Rapids Buick (below right) dealership – as a salesman, and then, to Borschel Motors in 1924.

But all along the way, it wasn’t just cars that captured Paul’s interest – it was that bigger, faster machine – the aeroplane – that truly called to his passions.

Did you know that the very first “successful” flight in the state of Iowa occurred on October 13, 1910 in Iowa City? Captain Tom Baldwin brought his aeroplane – The Red Devil – to town for a three-day flying demonstration – an event that brought hundreds of curious spectators to the Farmer’s Fall Festival held at the Iowa City fairgrounds. Read more here.

After learning to fly in 1921, Paul Shaw spent all of his off-hours as a barnstorming pilot. Barnstormers were pilots who flew throughout the country, selling airplane rides and performing circus stunts. The famed Charles Lindbergh first began flying as a barnstormer – the first major form of civil aviation in the history of aviation. As it turned out, Shaw’s love of flying also led to part-time service during the 1920’s as a Linn County deputy-in-the-sky, where he conducted manhunts from his cockpit after bank robberies. In a 1983 article written by Iowa City historian Irving Weber, Shaw speaks of some of his adventures from those early days in the Iowa skies…

1928 was a big year for Paul B. Shaw. In June, he started Shaw Aircraft Company, and in November, he married his sweetheart – Oma L. Moffett of Cedar Rapids. And since his buddy, Dan Hunter had established himself as the main flight trainer/barnstormer in Cedar Rapids, Shaw quit his job at Borschel Motors, took his wife and his fledgling company to Iowa City – becoming Iowa City Airport‘s first fixed-base operator – which basically meant that Shaw was the operations manager – handling fueling, maintenance and hangars for all non-commercial planes.

(C-0088) Air Mail Flight Cover postmarked on August 1, 1928 in Iowa City. From Iowa City to San Francisco – CAM 18 – Boeing Air Transport.

Now, you must keep in mind – from the very beginning – the 1920’s and well into the early 1950’s – Iowa City was the major airport hub in Iowa – not Cedar Rapids (see airmail route maps above & below). So, with Paul Shaw coming to Iowa City in 1928, this cemented our city’s prominent place in U.S. aviation history – with all the big name barnstormers (Charles Lindbergh and others) coming through town – along with this new, crazy idea of flying U.S. mail across country – which truly blossomed during the late 1920’s & early 1930’s. Read more here.

The Iowa City Airport has a long history. It all began around 1915 with an open plot of farm land – a cow pasture owned by W.J. Benjamin – located southwest of the city. The spot had become a popular landing place for any young soul who was brave enough to take a bi-plane up into the sky. Benjamin’s land was popular for local pilots, you see, because – unlike much of Iowa City – it was flat as a pancake, and clear of trees and obstructions. Which brings us to…
(L-0016) The first full-transcontinental air mail flights in the United States began on September 8, 1920 – with Iowa City being the one stop for fuel between Chicago and Omaha. Read more here.

In 1939, just as Iowa City was celebrating its Centennial, Paul Shaw and pilot W. L. Guthrie teamed up with the SUI College of Engineering and the Civilian Aeronautics Authority (CAA) – a U.S. government-sponsored organization that focused on training new pilots across the country. You see, Europe was already at war, and many U.S. leaders – including President Franklin Roosevelt – knew that it would be in America’s best interests if we began training young men to be pilots – just in case. And as you can see from the Iowa City Press-Citizen (above), the new CAA Civilian Pilot Training Program began in November 1939 – with twenty students from SUI showing up at the airport for the first course.

A female first! Let’s hear it for Paul Shaw & SUI – the 1939 class of student pilots in Iowa City included Betty Johnson of Red Oak, Iowawho was obviously following in the footsteps of the world-renowned Amelia Earhart.

As it turned out, the CAA program was highly successful, with the young men (and one brave woman – SUI’s Betty Johnson) who completed the full course being snatched up immediately for pilot jobs with the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy or private commercial airlines. Interestingly, one of those young people in Iowa City who expressed serious interest in the new CAA Civilian Pilot Training Program was a SUI graduating senior by the name of Kinnick. You might have heard of him?

In December 1939, America was still two years away from entering World War II, but nevertheless, as the situation in Europe turned bleak, the United States government started getting its forces up to speed. Part of that effort included major public relations campaigns to encourage young men to choose the military as a career option. The U.S. Navy Department saw young Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman winner from Iowa, as the prototype for the kind of young man it wanted to recruit, so during Kinnick’s stay in New York City that December to collect his Heisman Trophy (December 6, 1939), the Navy hosted Kinnick on a flight around the city. On that flight, the Navy’s Captain Ramsey interviewed Nile for a promotional radio spot to be aired in support of Naval recruiting efforts. Below, from the archives of the Heisman Trophy Committee, is the actual transcript of that 1939 radio spot…

The irony of all this, of course, is that after one year of Law School at SUI, Nile Kinnick really did become a Naval Aviation Cadet. Sadly, on June 2, 1943, Nile died during one of his training missions when his plane crashed off the coast of Venezuela. You can read more here. Which brings us now to…

Suddenly, on December 7, 1941, the United States was drawn into World War II, and now, Paul Shaw’s CAA Pilot Training Program in Iowa City was no longer just a governmental sidelight, but an integral part of a pipeline for training young men who could step into the war effort, piloting war planes on the western front – the islands of the Pacific.

(L-0018) University of Iowa Field House & Armory  – April 15, 1942 CommissioningNavy Pre-Flight Training School preparing for war. Cadets were given three months of rigorous physical training and instruction in basic aerial navigation and communications before entering Paul Shaw’s pilot training school. Keep in mind that the U.S. Air Force didn’t come into existence until 1947 (after WWII), thus the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were in charge of recruiting & training pilots for the war effort.

By April 15, 1942 (see pic above), the U.S. Navy had stepped in at four major university campuses – SUI in Iowa City, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, and St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California – forming U.S. Navy Pre-Flight Training Programs that were second to none. And over the next twenty-seven months (May 1942-August 1944) the SUI campus had several thousand young men coming and going – all in process of being trained to be pilots for the U.S. Navy.

Most training classes in the program’s three-month course work were held in the SUI Field House (above left), while the students lived in the nearby Quadrangle Dormitory (above right). Of course, once the 3-month pre-flight training was accomplished, actual flight lessons were held at the Iowa City Airport, under the direction of Paul Shaw and his well-experienced aviation team (see pics below).

With most university campuses emptied out due to the huge number of young men who dropped out of school in order to enlist in the armed services, college sports suffered nation-wide during the war years. But at SUI, things were vastly different. With the influx of young men from all over the Midwest attending the Navy’s Pre-Flight School, there were plenty of talented, young football players who had both the time and interest to play football between their classes at SUI. The famed Minnesota Gopher football coach – Bernie Bierman – was commissioned by the Navy to coach physical education here in Iowa City, and beginning in the fall of 1942, the Iowa Seahawks were formed – playing some of the best football in the country. Read more here. (Below) Wow – the Navy’s Pre-Flight School even had a 45-member Seahawk band!

(Below) The weekly newsletter SpinDrift kept students up-to-date with campus events.
During the War years, the Navy Pre-Flight School set up a separate postal station to accommodate the extra amount of mail coming in and out of Iowa City. Here are three postal covers postmarked in Iowa City at the Navy Pre-Flight School Postal Station. Below – (JP-084) and (P-0124)
As the war effort deepens, this April 1943 edition of The Iowa City Press-Citizen covers the story of how Paul Shaw’s Pilot Training School will be expanded in the months ahead.

Amazingly, from 1942 to 1944, Iowa City’s aviator – Paul Shaw – and his twenty-two flight instructors, four flight supervisors, four mechanics, five linemen, five office workers, and, oh yes – forty-one aircraft – trained 2,500 pilots – all an intricate part of the Iowa City-based U. S. Navy Pre-Flight School. The first class at the School began May 28, 1942 with 242 Cadets, with the second class beginning on June 11, 1942 with another 242 Cadets. As the war began to come to an end, the last cadets entered the school in Iowa City on May 11, 1944, closing the school in August, 1944.

As we said earlier, Paul B. Shaw moved to Iowa City with his wife – Oma L. Moffett – in 1928. The 1940 U.S. Census indicates that the couple had one son – Laurance R., (1930), and the family lived at 232 S. Dubuque Street in an apartment above a storefront (see pic below).

Over the years, the Iowa City Press-Citizen published several articles about Shaw and his 35 years at the Iowa City Airport (1928-1973) – in 1953 (below center), again in 1983, when Irving Weber wrote a feature article (below left/right), and in 1986, when Shaw released a self-published book – Early Flying in Iowa.

Paul B. Shaw passed away, at age 96, on October 26, 1992, while his wife – Oma Lucille Moffett, died June 22, 2004, at age 99. Both are buried at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Iowa City. As best we can tell, their one son, Laurance R. Shaw, of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, died in December 2008.

Here’s a big salute to Paul B. Shaw, his family, and the Shaw Aircraft Company! One amazing story…

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Barnstorming, Wikipedia

Paul Basil Shaw & Oma Lucille Moffett Marriage -1928,

Paul Shaw 1939, Iowa City Public Library

Pilot Training Students Begin Flying Lessons, Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 16, 1939, p 1

Iowa City Municipal Airport field, 1939, Iowa City Public Library

From the Vault: Nile Kinnick’s radio spot with the U.S. Navy, Chris Huston,

Paul Shaw family – 1940 census,

232 S. Dubuque Street, Iowa City, Alan Light,

Shaw Aircraft Co. To Expand Operations May 15, Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 8, 1943, p 1

U. S. Navy Pre-Flight School – Iowa City, Iowa – 1944 photos,

Iowa Pre-Flight Seahawks football, Wikipedia

45-piece Navy band of the U. S. Navy Pre-Flight School at Iowa City, University of Iowa Digital Library

U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School – Iowa City – The Spindrift,

Shaw Trained 2,500 Men, Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 13, 1953, p 18

Paul Shaw, Iowa City Airport, Facebook

Paul Shaw’s flight school reunion this weekend, Irving Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 1983, p14

Author captures early flying skills, Joanna Beers, Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 18, 1986, p 15

Time Machine: Planes and automobiles, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 5, 2016

Charles A. Shaw, Find-A-Grave

Mary E. Smart Shaw, Find-A-Grave

Paul Shaw, 96, Iowa City Press Citizen, October 28, 1992, p 10

Oma Lucille Moffett Shaw, Find-A-Grave

Laurance R. Shaw, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Obituary 2008,

Paul Bacil Shaw, Find-A-Grave

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