Entertainment for troops at home also provided sources for a social life to the civilians and gave the war drive efforts an available stage. The USO is usually the organization that comes to mind for most of us. They had 59 companies going abroad to entertain, but they also provided amusement for those in the U.S. Just about every city had a USO center for dancing, conversation, food and getting the opportunity to see celebrities. The Red Cross would usually set themselves up in these centers and supply baskets of goodies free of charge to the troops. They strove to become a home away from home for the men. Today, in the Midwest, a group of volunteers re-enact the USO and WW2 era in parades, ceremonies and living history displays.
Washington D.C., San Francisco and NYC had a Pepsi Cola Canteen where anyone in uniform ate for free. They had a game room and showers. A service center in
Georgetown catered to many of the wounded men coming out of Walter Reed and Bethesda Hospitals. The civilians in the area became very close to the veterans and many kept up their contact years after the war ended.
Being in the National Defense Strategic Railway Route, the Pennsylvania RR depot at Dennison, Ohio doubled as a canteen. During WWII, over 3,980 volunteers served the troops while the trains were being filled with water. The Dennison Canteen from 9 March 1942 to 8 April 1946 never closed its doors, ran out of money or food – quite an accomplishment in itself. The building that distributed meals, treats, magazines and Christmas packages is now a National Historic Landmark.
Outside of the USO centers, I believe the most famous was the Stage Door Canteen. This was started by the American Theatre Wing in 1942 and ended in 1946. Situated in
the basement of the 44th Street Theater in New York City, caterers and local merchants provided food and drinks while big name performers and service staff took charge of keeping the Canteen in operation, even during black-outs and curfews, for the numerous servicemen that passed through the city.
But, it wasn’t always the women entertaining the men – here in the photo; a sailor is seen enjoying giving Conga lessons at a dance held at the Hamilton Community House in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The National Park Ranger Station held dances
on the second floor of their building in Boston, Mass. And the Everett Covered Bridge Dance was held each July. Many a blossoming romance evolved from the dance halls and this was not just true in the U.S. In Australia they opened the Trocadero, which was a popular dance venue where the American soldiers introduced the locals to the Jitterbug and Jive. Judy informed me that her father wrote in a letter dated, 23 March 1943: “Last Saturday, the three of us – Vic, Art and Al – went to L.A. to see “The
Rookie.” It is a ‘scream,’ and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. It is put on by the boys from Fort MacArthur, just south of L.A. proper and they seem to enjoy doing it as well as the audience enjoys seeing it. It has been running since the latter part of 1942 and the house is still crowded at each performance. It really is good.” The Greatest Generation had imagination; “if you can’t entertain us – we’ll entertain ourselves,” seemed to be their motto.
Not everyone wanted to dance or attend church functions. Neighbors, with their men overseas, created groups to play cards, swap recipes and tell stories. One such group called themselves the ‘Dumbos,’ in Yankton, South Dakota. As each man came home, he was required to take the whole group out to dinner. Thankfully, all their men came home. They then continued to meet monthly, a tradition that would last for over 35 years.
Special dispensation was given to the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus to ride the rails during the war. The government felt their travels to numerous cities helped to keep up the civilian morale. The Thomas Carnival started in Lennox, South Dakota, to provide clean and safe entertainment for the people of that state and ended up providing midway fairs for 15 other states. The rides, games and food concessions gave home front diversions from their 10-16 hour work days.
In Stanford, Texas they remember when the high school band played at the rodeo because the “Cowboy Band” members were mostly in the service. Some of the women from here sang with Gene Autry when in 1941, NYC’s Madison Square Garden hosted Everett Colburn’s World Series Rodeo. Soon afterward, Autry not only took over the NYC Garden, but the Boston Garden as well and continued the tradition for decades.
The war had put a damper on traveling, but the era was not all hardship. Individual parties and family events went on, often as though there was no war at all. Some were based on the war and would have a military theme whereby bringing a piece of scrap metal was the entry fee to a dance or a war bond was given as a holiday gift. They did not have televisions, video games or cell phones. People played games together, played instruments and visited friends and relatives. They rolled bandages and wrote to their loved ones overseas. There was always a movie theater in town to watch the newsreels and latest movies.
Children did real homework out of books and on paper. Kids were seen everywhere playing hopscotch, Red Rover, Statues, RedLight-GreenLight, jacks, jump rope, dolls or they would read or just plain make up their own games. I’m certain I’ve forgotten a number of the activities that went on – what do you remember? I realize most of the states were not mentioned and I had very little data for countries outside the U.S., so let’s hear from all of you! Allow Judy and me to learn your stories and that of your town, state or country.
Last, but definitely not least – the radio. Big stars like Abbott and Costello continued touring the U.S., making movies and performing their skits for the wireless.
Resources: Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”; USO.org; Westtexastribune.com; Thomas Carnival.com; “Let the Good Times Roll” by Paul D. Casolorph; “Americans Remember the Home Front” by Roy Hoopes; Wikianswers.com; neohiocontradance.org; StLaw.edu; digicoll.library.wisc.edu; npr.org
If you enjoyed these Guest Posts by GPCox, you might also enjoy http://pacificparatrooper.wordpress.com , the story of the 11th Airborne written by gpcox. Be sure to check it out. Tomorrow I’ll begin posting letters written in 1942. Lad and Dan are both in Uncle Sam’s service, Ced is in Alaska, Dick and Dave are still in school in Trumbull.