COLUMN: Colgate Darden – Part 2: College and War

Published 6:21 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

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By Robert N. “Bob” Holt
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Darden’s college experiences and his service in World War 1 are appropriately taken together because they intersected in a unique way. Once again, most of the material presented here is courtesy of the book “Colgate Darden: Conversations with Guy Friddell” published in 1978. 

In 1914, Colgate Darden wanted to attend the College of William and Mary based on the recommendation of his close friend from Courtland, Will Shands. His father said Darden was going to the University of Virginia (UVA) — end of discussion. To get to Charlottesville, he traveled by boat to Newport News and by train the remainder of the way. Darden lived in a rooming house off campus with twenty-five boys.

His father, being politically astute, decided which courses he would take. Both he and his father read the Norfolk paper every day and often went to the courthouse to observe the activities there. He joined Phi Gamma Delta but soon lost interest as he felt excluded. He enjoyed his college days, but felt he did not know how to study. Darden reported that he was the first student from Franklin High School to attend UVA. Latin was his most difficult subject, often spending five hours a day preparing for class. He also enjoyed playing football and baseball after classes for fun.

After two years in college, Darden felt a need to do something patriotic, so he joined the American Field Service in 1916 driving an ambulance in war-torn France. The United States had not entered World War I yet; his service was to aid the French effort that was facing “an assault on Western Civilization” from the Germans. The French had aided the American troops at Yorktown during our Revolutionary War helping us defeat the British forces, and he felt a need to assist the French as payback. Darden indicated that in the pre-World War I era there was tremendous patriotism across America. We had a wonderful life and Americans felt a need to pass that to other countries. Germany intended to create a world empire, and it was our duty to help stop them.

Attached to a French infantry unit and driving an ambulance, he saw firsthand the horrors of war. Seeing bodies of soldiers and transporting those seriously wounded had a profound effect on him. During this time he contracted malaria and spent several weeks in a military hospital.

The United States entered the war in early 1917. Colgate Darden had an interest in aviation and decided to go to pilot training as a naval aviator. He returned to the United States for flight school, earned his wings at Pensacola, and returned to France as a Marine pilot flying the standard biplane designed by the Wright brothers.

The war officially ended on November 11, 1918, however a wartime episode would affect him in one way or another for the remainder of his life. Seventeen days before November 11, he was sitting in the gunner’s seat of a two-person biplane when as it taxied down the runway, the wheels of the plane hit a berm at the end of the runway causing the plane to hit the ground nose first and flip over. The pilot was killed and Darden was thrown from the plane. He had a dislocated back causing temporary paralysis and was found unconscious. He was recovering from his injuries as the war officially ended and remained in various naval hospitals into 1919.

After his initial recovery, he entered law school at Columbia University in New York City but had to drop out due to back pain. Darden returned to Franklin where he spent one year teaching history at Franklin High School.

As a war veteran, he received benefits which allowed him to finance and earn three college degrees over the same period of time. UVA gave him some credits due to his service in the military, and he completed the requirements for a BA in 1922. He then returned to Columbia and earned a master’s degree in public law as well as a general law degree which allowed him to practice law in Virginia. However, before he started his law practice, he was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship to attend Oxford University in England. There he specialized in international law and learned of the extreme influences military power had on society. Having seen the devastation of war, he always sought a peaceful solution and was excited to see serious discussions on proposals such as the League of Nations and later the United Nations. 

Next: Service in the Virginia General Assembly and U.S. Congress

Robert N. “Bob” Holt, a Franklin native, is a retired professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina. He holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral studies degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets. His email address is