Who Were The Very First Peace Corps Volunteers?

I found an old document, a pamphlet really, published by the Peace Corps with a letter from Bill Moyers, then Associate Director for Public Affairs. The pamphlet has a date of November 1, 1961 [Moyers’ letter, which is with the pamphlet, is addressed “FOR YOUR INFORMATION and dated November 8, 1961.

This ancient Peace Corps document is the “Descriptions of the first 9 projects, including purpose, training, Volunteer skills needed, technical qualifications of Volunteers, and information about the taining officials.” In his letter, Moyers adds, “Since this edition of PROFILES was prepared, three additional projects have been announced. They are Thailand, Maylaya and Sierra Leone.” Moyers sums up, “I hope you will find the PROFILES helpful in providing you with specific information about the work of the Peace Corps overseas and of the role it is playing in the struggle for economic and social progress among the developing nations thorughout the world.”

For the purpose of information and, perhaps amusement and recollections for those who served in these projects, here are the countries, the training sites, and dates of the first nine projects.

About 98% of the PCVs who went into Training in the very first years of the Peace Corps went to train on college campuses. Peace Corps Training was moved into host countries in the late ’60s because it was thought that would be more “real,” and it was a lot cheaper for the agency to train overseas and not house Trainees on college campuses and in dormitories around the U.S.

This list of the Very First Training Groups in the summer of ’61 might be a trip down memory lane for some readers of this blog. [It will be interesting to see what these RPCVs might remember, and might post as comments on this site about their early Peace Corps Training. Write back.]

Also, this Moyers’ document might “set in stone” the actual dates of those first projects and settle who was first where and when! which, of course, is a constant argument among PCVs who went overseas during the first summer of the Peace Corps. Have you ever met a Colombia I Volunteer, for example, who didn’t introduce himself and then quickly add, “I was the first Volunteer overseas.”

Now we know Ghana I Volunteers were the first Volunteers to land in Accra, the capital of Ghana, on the afternoon of September 1, 1961. But the FIRST VOLUNTEERS to go into Training were Colombia, June 25, 1961 [Rutgers] and Tanganyika, June 25, 1961 [Texas Western College, El Paso, Texas] so giving the time changes….the first Volunteers were Colombia I…..so, I guess, we will have to listen to all those Colombia guys telling us how ‘they’ were the first Volunteers, at least to go into Peace Corps Training.

Congratulations and now be quiet.

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  • I’m glad to finally learn that my group, Ghana-3, was the second, not the first technical project fielded by the PC, in early 1963. We were all geologists.

    We arrived a few months after Ghana-2, a secondary teaching project, and together we would meet the venerable Ghana-1, which John Coyne has described, when they finished their tours and assembled in Accra.

    Ghana-1 teachers, for the most part, had joined the PC from established teaching jobs in the US, and averaged about eight years older than both Ghana-2 and Ghana-3, who tended to be fresh out of undergraduate (with notable exceptions).

    At the reception, and bunking in the PC hostel in Accra, we got to meet these “first” PCVs, who also would become the first RPCVs. What impressed me was their quiet, mild-mannered maturity, sense of purpose and sense of accomplishment. Strangely, they didn’t seem to say very much, and I still remember that. They were quiet, and sort of transcendent.

    These volunteers had been out in the field for two years before anyone else, and if nothing else, answered the big question of how many PCVs would actually make it through two years. The feared failure rate for all reasons, including death, ranged as high as 50%. When my group embarked, nobody had ever come back, and this remained a huge and sobering question. But it was already answering itself. And there in Accra we and the PC found that, at least for the Africa projects, a non-completion rate of less than 2% had become the standard.

    I was not yet 23 years old at that time, and had the advantage of coming from a multi-lingual and multi-cultural experience. But I had a feeling that these early PCVs were heroes. They’d broken new ground. And the PC staff in Accra, headed by George Carter, who would become a role model for me, seemed both very human and also larger than life. I came away with the realization that there were big shoes to fill, and I certainly wanted to live up to it.

    But, interestingly, there was a profound sense, not of heroics, but of reality, inculcated by Carter, and a realization, as these Ghana-1 “veterans” were departing, that suddenly it NOW was on OUR shoulders, and success depended on each of us. George made it clear that he couldn’t do it for us. There seems to be a connection between inspiration and exceptional effort. Records indicate that Ghana-2 and Ghana-3 met “the standard”.

    With the tragic times, and the Vietnam War, I would later find myself in another place, meeting “veterans”. It was Fort Jackson, SC, and I was in Casual Company. Our job was to process Vietnam returnees back to the States. What I remember is the same quiet maturity and composure among them. But notably lacking was the sense of accomplishment I had seen with Ghana-1 “vets”. Few of these army “vets” were very certain of themselves. Unlike Ghana-1, these “vets” needed a forewarning of what was going to greet them. That was part of my job.

    I remember guys standing there as I typed their transfer orders. There might be a Purple Heart or Bronze Star alongside their Vietnam Service and National Defense ribbons. I never asked what they did, and few spoke of it. Just like the Ghana-1 people said little of what they had done. I just typed away, describing unit citations and heroism as if it were little more than having passed an algebra class.

    But what sticks in my memory is the looks on the faces. A remarkable similarity for these very disparate groups. Veterans have a look about them that’s unmistakable.

    Many years later I would read about the NPCA’s banner crusade to distance itself from anything military, including even cross-over benefits. It was John McCain’s benefits legislation they wanted to take away from PCVs, and dissociate all of us from — regardless of what we thought. I remember thinking at the time “What sort of elitism is this ?” And I remembered how similar the faces were. When people have answered their country’s call and served honorably, be it PC or a branch of the military, they have an unmistakable look about them. Policy-making, be it the US Gov’t, the PC, or the NPCA, seems to be the preserve of those who theorize about heroism, and who never have seen that “look”.

    Good for Ghana-1 ! ! !

    John Turnbull NMPCA Santa Fe

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