Hilo Peace Corps Training Center: 1962-1970

Peace Corps training in Hilo, Hawaii began with arrival of 88 trainees in June 1962 bound for the North Borneo/Sarawak. The organizers of this first Hilo Peace Training Program had little knowledge of North Borneo and Sawarak and only a vague idea of what the Peace Corps Volunteers would be doing when they reached their assignments (see here and here). Nonetheless the program was considered to be very successful, and Peace Corps Washington soon issued contracts for two additional training projects in Hilo in 1962. The Hilo Peace Corps Training grew by leaps and bounds over the next few years and become the primary training center for PCVs going to Asia, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, India, Korea, Micronesia, Tonga, Soma, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, and Fiji. All told, there were 110 training projects and almost 7,000 PCVs trained in Hawaii from 1962 to 1970. During the late 1960s, there were generally about a dozen Peace Corps training projects every year at multiple sites in and around Hilo.

There were many reasons for the success of the Peace Corps Training Center in Hilo, including the enthusiastic support of state officials. The 1963 report on the joint training project for North Borneo and Sarawak II and Thailand IV, includes letters from (and full-page pictures of) the Governor of Hawaii, the president of the University of Hawaii, and the Executive Officer of the County of Hawaii (encompassing the Big Island) praising the success of Peace Corps Training Center. Peace Corps training contracts to the University of Hawaii were announced with fanfare by Senator Daniel Inouye and Congressional representatives. The same report includes clippings of numerous newspaper stories on the comings and goings at the Peace Corps Center and also feature stories about Peace Corps staff and trainees. 

The location of Peace Corps training on the Big Island was partially fortuitus--there was a branch of U of Hawaii there with available staff and facilities, but it soon proved to the defining feature of the program. The rich diversity of people and also the topography, flora, and fauna of Hawaii were thought to similar to Asia. Local schools, government agencies, and people were welcoming of Peace Corps staff and trainees and eager to help. Many trainees had their practice teaching in local schools, were apprenticed to extension agents, and even home stays with families. 

The leadership and staff were also exceptional. John "Jake" Stalker (UH associate professor of history) was the first director of Peace Corps training in Hawaii and oversaw the expansion of Peace Corps training facilities, including a number of abandoned schools in the countryside near Hilo. George Bracher, the longtime medical director of the Peace Corps Training Center, labeled Staker as the "idea man" of Peace Corps training  (see p. 6) who came up with the idea of "transition training" in Waipio Valley where Peace Corps trainees experienced primitive living conditions, including bathing in a local stream and slaughtering barnyard animals.

PCVs who trained on the Big Island affectionally recall the warmth of welcome extended by the local Hawaiian community who frequently invited trainees into their homes and hearts. Following their service, many RPCVs settled in Hawaii, especially on the Big Island, and organized Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Hawaii, one of the most active affiliates of the National Peace Corps Association.  Returned PCVs in Hawaii have been primarily responsible for two very memorable videos of Pace Corps Training in Hawaii.

      • Sending Aloha Abroad (RPCVs Hawaii). This documentary film is the untold story of thousands of American volunteers who lived and trained in Hawaii prior to overseas Peace Corps service, and often settling there after their experience (30 minutes)

      • Peace Corps Training on the Big Island. Returned Peace Corps volunteers and staff created a documentary video about the more than 7,000 young Americans who trained for the Peace Corps on the Big Island from 1962 through 1971. Co-produced by Big Island residents Bill Sakovich and Jim Carr, the 57-minute film is a visual montage of more than a thousand photos with music and voice-over narration by RPCVs. It is an evocative account of how Peace Corps trainees prepared to help others and how the experience affected not only their own lives but those of the local communities and individuals who shared that experience. 

In December 1963, Peace Corps trainees and staff in Hilo erected a monument to the memory of John F. Kennedy at the Peace Corps Training Center. In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, the Returned PCVs of Hawaii rededicated the JFK Monument and moved it to its current location on the University of Hawaii Hilo campus--see here, here and here (photos by Nick Cerra, PCV Malaysia IX).