Recreation: Carefully Managed

USO activities during WWII. Note the young woman’s official USO armband! She was an “approved” junior hostess–approved by the USO, that is!

1943, Miami Beach, Florida
What do I know about these two people who grew up more than a thousand miles apart, who would meet and marry in 1944? What did I know about the social norms of that decade? I do know my mother and father met on Miami Beach when Marie, as a resident of a community inundated with GIs, did her part “to keep morale high” before the men were shipped overseas. My mother, Marie, mentioned in passing having participated in social activities, like dances, to entertain some of the soldiers. She was a “hometown girl” doing her civic duty! Marie never mentioned volunteering as a USO junior hostess, but from my reading this seems most likely.

Paul, my father, was a tall, athletic young man from upstate New York sent to warm, sunny Florida for military training and then an unknown future. He was doing his civic duty to fight the war overseas. The Great Depression was part of the background for all of these recruits and for the local residents of every community swamped with military men. Military installations became a great boost to the local economy. The tidal wave of young men also became a burden to local communities.

The Challenge of a Dramatically Expanded Military
As Time described the situation, “the United States had to meet the challenge of housing a dramatically expanded military that was stationed at home indefinitely. Officials and citizens alike fretted about what would happen as more men volunteered or were drafted. How would towns adjacent to military bases cope? How would the men fare while they waited? What was the best way to rein in the power of the waiting ground force as it prepared for the bloodiest war in history?” 1

On Miami Beach, hotel rooms became barracks, hotel dining rooms became mess halls, a movie theater became a testing center, hotels became administrative offices, hotel pools and the ocean were used to teach life saving techniques, golf courses became parade grounds, and the beach was used for rifle ranges and physical training.2

German submarines, or U-boats, aimed their torpedoes at tankers and freighters along the eastern coast of the United States to disrupt delivery of supplies as well as to lower morale; sinking ships burned within sight of American civilians. The Germans sank 24 ships in Florida waters during the war, eight of them off Palm Beach County between February and May of 1942.” Reports of Germans coming ashore from submarines were also of ongoing concern for all the residents along both coasts of Florida during the war years.

Note the oversize portrait on the far left. FDR overlooks the GIs in the Dayroom of this UFO Hall
as the soldiers enjoy their “Home Away From Home”.

What was the purpose of the USO
USO clubs were intended as a “Home Away from Home” for the military personnel and workers in wartime industry located in more than 3,000 communities in the Western Hemisphere. They provided soldiers a place to eat, write a letter back home, play games, or simply relax. The USO provided all services including meals, snacks, overnight accommodations for free except for a few items like packages of cigarettes. The organizational framework for the USO was highly structured at the national and local levels including a USO Manual for Community Conducted Operations even though it was considered a civilian agency. Only the Director and the Assistant Director were paid. All the female volunteers were very carefully screened and never compensated.3

Basic premise: The newly formed USO would handle “on-leave recreation of the men in the armed forces” and would operate separate from military control.

The USO both reflected the social conventions of the era and reinforced those conventions. Racially integrated USO facilities were the exception. The women who became those “unpaid female volunteers” for the USO took their organizational skills learned in their homes, religions and other community organizations to build those 3,000 or more USO community centers. Class and race distinctions as well as age distinctions dictated who would pass the “screening tests” for a woman to be chosen to serve either as a “senior hostess” or a “junior hostess” at the USO facilities. Religious participation was encouraged by the USO. On weekends, churches were filled with young soldiers who came from bases all around. At times, families invited the soldiers to their homes for Sunday dinner.

Sex discrimination was evident everywhere. Women who participated in the war effort as WACs, WAVES, military nurses, or as pilots ferrying planes were harassed and often labeled “unwomanly”. One historian wrote, “life as a female member of the military carried its own unique set of burdens, discriminations, and humiliations. Many Americans… could not imagine female military personnel serving any purpose other than to grant sexual favors to servicemen.”4

Historic background of the USO
also known as the United Service Organization for National Defense

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the morale of military personnel to remain high and believed that current service organizations would be better suited for the job than the Department of Defense. In contrast, the Department of Defense felt that they should control every aspect of the soldier’s life. However, the leaders of The Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), National Catholic Community Service (NCCS), Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and National Traveler’s Aid Association all believed that their organizations were better suited for the responsibility.

Fortunately, a compromise was reached. The United Service Organizations for National Defense (USO) resulted from a Presidential order February 4, 1941. The USO was incorporated in New York state as a private, nonprofit organization, supported by private citizens and corporations. The six civilian service organizations would be in charge, and the military would provide building supplies, locations, and labor when needed and available. For example, in a town that did not have a suitable building to use as a club, the military would build a structure using supplies and labor from the local military base.5

Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II was an excellent book to answer many of my questions about the USO program and the role of junior hostesses in particular. Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun by Meghan Winchell, writes that “making light conversation was part of the hostess’ overarching role: to provide G-rated entertainment that would keep the men away from alcohol and prostitution.” Winchell used oral histories or questionnaires from seventy women who volunteered in the United Service Organizations (USO) as junior and senior hostesses. Winchell works as an associate professor and the history department chairwoman at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. Her expertise was featured in “USO — For The Troops,” a television documentary that aired on Public Broadcasting System in November, 2016.

Traditional “woman’s work”: supporting men
Winchell believes hostesses don’t receive more recognition regarding their World War II service because what they were doing was considered fun and just traditional “woman’s work”. Additionally Winchell said, “I argue that they were crucial in maintaining morale. “One [hostess] I interviewed said she would go back home and write letter after letter for servicemen, because she wanted to help them.
“Dancing was fun, but they danced their shoes off, often through midnight, never with the same guy … They knew these guys were going to get on big transport ships and go off to war.”6

Young women had to be approved by a local USO committee to be allowed to volunteer. Some USO facilities required fingerprinting as part of the application. All required the junior hostesses to carry official USO identification before being admitted to a USO facility including volunteering at the popular USO canteens. The men were expected to wear their military uniforms to any USO event. The women were instructed to wear civilian clothes. No slacks were permitted.

Interview with Elizabeth Zimmerman, a Brooklyn junior hostess in the 1940’s

Diane Lade, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel interviewed Elizabeth Zimmerman, now over 100. She was 25 when she was interviewed, fingerprinted and approved as a junior hostess for the USO in Brooklyn. Zimmerman said that doing her duty during World War II meant putting on a nice dress and making conversation. She smiled and nodded, knowing the stranger she was listening to could be heading off to battle and this might be his last cup of coffee with a friendly, young woman.

As a USO junior hostess in Brooklyn, she chatted with servicemen every Thursday night. She danced and played ping-pong with them while they talked about home. Zimmerman added, “My job was to cheer the boys up, to make life more pleasant for them. I made it very clear I wasn’t in the military, but I thought it was important to do something.”

Interviewer Diane Lade wrote that Zimmmerman believed “…her job was to remind soldiers and sailors that American life was worth fighting for without breaching 1940s morality standards.” Lade wrote that Zimmerman recalled, “she was not allowed to drink, smoke or wear slacks. She had to dance with any serviceman who asked, as long as he was not rude or inappropriate. She served under the watchful eyes of older, usually married, senior hostesses.”7

Understanding the Context
Being a hostess and boosting morale was considered civic duty. The presence of women in the USO clubs was also thought to encourage men in battle. If they were treated as protectors and even VIPs by women they met—all the more reason to face combat and win the war.

Hostesses who’d spend their nights jitterbugging with troops also mended their uniforms, helped them write letters home and snagged them drinks, donuts and sandwiches. It’s estimated that 1.5 million volunteers participated during the conflict. Junior Hostesses were required to volunteer a minimum of two hours per week and only registered hostesses could attend social activities for service men. A junior Hostess who worked the minimum required hours from 1941-1945 would have earned 490 hours, just shy of a service pin with one star.

Observations from USO online publication, Thursday, Feb 4, 2016

Article:In the USO’s Early Years, Hostesses Provided a Wholesome Morale Boost
“You have to think of it in context,” said Winchell, the associate professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University. “All of the young men who were eligible were in the military. There were very few civilian defense workers. If you were not in [the military] then you were rejected. If you were an 18 to 20-year-old woman, then the USO was the only game in town.”
If games have rules, this one had lots of them, designed mostly to keep the USO in the business of boosting morale among the troops while keeping it out of the dating game.
“No young lady will be permitted to leave the Service Club until the dance is over,” stated Rule No. 7 on a handout of guidelines for junior hostesses. Rule 8 warned, “At the conclusion of the dance, girls will leave only with their chaperones. Those coming in private cars will leave immediately after the dance.”
In “Hail Hostess,” an instructional USO pamphlet from the early 1940s, women were warned away from romance with words like, “The boys have a lot of things on their minds and you are probably not one of them!” They cautioned girls about unmentioned wives and girlfriends back home.

“They wanted middle-class, mostly white women who were considered sexually respectable,” said Winchell. “The USO knew women mattered to morale—the men needed company of women. [But] they didn’t want them having sex.” USO hostesses were prescreened “good girls” who could provide comfort in the way of conversation, dancing and the occasional picnic outing.

While on duty, hostesses were not allowed to smoke on the dance floor, in the canteen or at the front desk, etc., they were not allowed to drink intoxicants, were not allowed to dance with another girl when there were servicemen present, were not allowed to refuse to dance with anyone unless they were being un-gentlemanly, were not to indulge in conspicuous dancing, and were discouraged from chewing gum. They were expected to be a lady at all times. USO also had rules that governed how a Junior Hostess should dress:

Colored socks and high heels too
are very odd looking and just won’t do
so if you’re smart and very wise
Just wear heels and economize.

Don’t wear slacks to the USO
Pants are made for Jack and Joe
Slacks are made for for a time and a place
So don’t wear them here and be a disgrace.

A backless dress will never do
And not too short or loud
The simpler ones are more becoming
And you’ll be stepping along with the crowd.
(USO Junior Hostess Manual – Macon Georgia8

Married women were the senior hostesses, performing “motherly” tasks, while the single women were the hostesses: chaste dates for the servicemen. Hostesses were not supposed to get emotionally or physically invoiced with the servicemen. But while the conduct of hostesses was physically respectable by the USO standards, many found their future husbands at USO dances.

In 1942 the U.S. was recruiting women for war service. Which would you chose? If you even had a choice….

In my fantasy I can see Marie and Paul meeting at the UFO recreation center while playing a competitive game of ping pong. I see them each complimenting the other on a dramatic shot. Then they sat down and drank cokes. Before long they grabbed the paddles and kept playing. Both were accomplished athletes and Marie would have played to win!

Marie and Paul married in June of 1944. Six months later, with his basic training complete, Paul was shipped overseas. At the war’s end, Paul returned from the Philippines in early January, 1946. Two surprises greeted him. He first met his new daughter under a Christmas tree! Since his original release was scheduled to be before Christmas 1945, Mother had decorated and discarded two fir trees. Marie wanted to celebrate that holiday with her new husband and their six month old daughter, Paula. Now she could!

Neither of my parents were interested in talking about their early years or childhoods. Sometimes we would get snippets of information, but that was rare. As children we didn’t know to ask the right questions! We never really questioned them about how they met or about those early years together. I do have some scraps of information from other relatives and from photographs and a memory book mother kept.

These details about the material reality and the social conventions that dominated my parents early years define and describe my own upbringing as a girl. Their experiences during those war years shaped them and certainly influenced me and my upbringing. I was taught to “be a lady”. This was a strong message I received throughout my girlhood.

By 1952 we were a lively family of six involved in school activities, scouting, sports and our family camping trips. Talk about their early years did not often come up. My father worked as a land surveyor. Mother was a homemaker with a full-time job raising four kids while Dad worked long hours outside the home. We knew that mother was an only child and the dad was one of five children raised by his mother after his father divorced his mother. That was about it. Only later did we learn more details and the secrets both kept.


“The troops that passed through Miami Beach claimed that they had been sent to ‘the most beautiful boot camp in America.’ Many of these young servicemen and women “got sand in their shoes” and vowed to return if they survived the war.”88 And return they did, packing up their families and heading South to take advantage of the GI benefits and buying the houses that were popping up all over the area. Others returned year after year for vacations. Others returned when they retired. Just as Miami Beach had made an indelible impact on the young GI’s, the returning veterans had a major impact on the economic future of South Florida.”9

1 “The Surprising Fear That Created the USO”, Erin Blakemore February 5, 2016
4 “Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961”, by Samantha Vandermeade
6 “Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II, Meghan Winchell, 2008

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