10. Competitive sports entertained troops around the globe
In April 1941, Commander James Tunney, United States Naval Reserve, accepted an active duty assignment as the US Navy’s Director of the Physical Fitness Program. A former US Marine, Tunney achieved worldwide fame in 1926, when he defeated the legendary Jack Dempsey to win the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Between the wars, organized boxing competitions in both the Army and Navy were common. Boxing events known as smokers, for the haze of tobacco smoke which hung over the audiences, were popular events. They became less common during the Second World War. Other common organized sporting events were baseball, football, and basketball games, swimming and track meet, shooting competitions, and many others. Trophies were awarded winners, with brisk competitions for them among and between the services.
During the war, such competitions faded, though Special Services ensured an ample supply of athletic equipment to allow less formal competitions. One reason for the decline was that sporting events encouraged gambling. Another was the nature of the war, with competitors often pulled from the areas in which contests were held before their final resolution. Athletics remained a major factor in the entertainment of troops in all areas, and participation was encouraged, though a greater focus on individual fitness through exercise replaced team competitions during the war. Still, at bases around the world throughout the war, baseball and softball games, football, and other forms of team sports continued as a means of combatting boredom and enjoying competition throughout the course of the war.
11. Providing beer for the troops became a priority during World War II
During World War I, on the eve of Prohibition, the US military and government condemned all things, German. In Cincinnati, Ohio’s, German-based communities the names of streets in German were changed to those reflecting American values. In Iowa, use of the German language in conversation was banned by gubernatorial edict. Liberty cabbage replaced sauerkraut as the name for pickled cabbage, much as freedom fries was substituted for French fries in the early 21st century. During World War II, the frenzied attack on all things German abated somewhat. Early in the war, the US government decided beer presented a major contribution to the morale of the troops overseas. The US government ordered America’s breweries to set aside 15% of their production for the use of the military for the duration of the war. Brewing was declared an essential wartime industry.
Production of beer continued, though in deference to the large temperance presence in the United States (and concerned mothers) alcohol by volume (ABV) was limited to 3.2%. American brewers began shipping their beer in twelve-ounce cans, rather than the larger bottles intended to be used to pour beer into a glass for consumption. Cans had first appeared in 1935 and proved perfectly suited to shipping beer overseas. A shortage of drinking glasses on all fronts encouraged the Americans to consume their beer directly from the can, a habit which returned with them to America and remains to this day. For the next 50 years, lighter, lower alcohol content, less flavorful beer became the standard in America, until the craft brewing frenzy emerged in the late 20th century. Beer rations and sales at post exchanges continued in all theaters during World War II, and America’s allies joined in with rations for their troops as well.
12. Tobacco was equally important to beer during World War II
As difficult as it is to believe today, the US government considered the loss of tobacco to its troops during World War II would be catastrophic for morale. Cigarettes were included in field rations. Untaxed cigarettes were sold in exchanges and in the Navy’s ship’s stores. Tobacco processors were told that 30% of all cigarettes were to be set aside for the military, as part of the price for continued production. Welcoming a new and promising to grow market group for its products, tobacco companies willingly complied. Lucky Strike, a widely popular brand of the day, changed its packaging, removing the green background which had long surrounded its logo. They claimed the change was due to Lucky Strike going to war, the green ink for the background dropped so it could be used for uniform dyes. In truth, the change was a marketing ploy rather than a patriotic gesture.
Smoking was encouraged in most military units. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” became military parlance for taking a break. Cigarettes were consumed in the foul air of submerged submarines, aboard transport aircraft, on ship’s bridges, and virtually everywhere troops gathered. Clubs were filled with a smoky haze, though in fairness so were their civilian counterparts. FDR smoked cigarettes in long holders; it’s being cocked from his mouth in a jaunty angle became one of his trademarks. Eisenhower smoked upwards of six-packs per day, sometimes more. Among the military, pipes and cigars had their proponents as well. MacArthur’s corncob pipe became part of his image, along with his aviator sunglasses. The stub of the cigar in one’s mouth, well chewed, became synonymous with being a tough officer for some, especially in films. Tobacco proved essential to keeping morale high and the troops happy during the Second World War.
13. The development of the USO Camp Shows began early in the war
Following the success of the first USO Camp Show, which visited American Caribbean bases in 1941, formal plans for touring shows developed. Four distinct touring programs were prepared by their parent organization, the USO, as individual USO Camp Shows. The touring programs, otherwise known as circuits, were the Victory Circuit, the Blue Circuit, the Hospital Circuit, and the Fox Hole Circuit. All were tasked with providing live entertainment for the military. Providing stateside entertainment fell to the Victory and Blue circuits. Foxhole circuit entertainers were assigned the task of traveling to the overseas bases and fronts to entertain the troops, while the Hospital Circuit troupes visited the wounded and offered what solace they could. As more and more American service personnel deployed overseas, more and more entertainers joined all four of the circuits.
Some American troops in Italy were being entertained by actress Marlene Dietrich when she learned of the Allied landings at Normandy. She announced the landings to her audience, to wild applause. Within days she was in France, entertaining the troops who had landed at Normandy. Despite her German background, she was one of the most tireless and popular of the USO entertainers throughout the war. Another was Bob Hope, whose dedication to the USO and the troops became a legend during his lifetime. He continued to support American troops during overseas deployments until the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, more than 50 years of dedication to the American military. During World War II, singer Dinah Shore was another popular entertainer who gave selflessly of her time and money, and the troops flocked to hear her wherever she appeared.
14. USO entertainers suffered casualties during their efforts to support the troops
During the war in Europe, USO entertainers stayed as close to the front as military authorities dared allow. In return, they often lived in the same conditions as their audience. When not actually performing they wore uniforms. They often ate the same food, and slept in the same conditions, as the troops they had come to entertain. In 1944 a husband and wife comedy team, Jane and Joe McKenna fell prisoner to the German Army. They were held for over a week before American troops liberated them, with the Germans threatening to execute them as spies. Had the Germans captured Marlene Dietrich she likely would have been executed. Dietrich had been born in Germany and during the war, she did serve as a spy for the America Office of Strategic Services. At least 37 USO entertainers died during the war, from accidents, enemy action, or causes yet unknown. Perhaps the most famous was bandleader Glenn Miller.
For four consecutive years (1939-42), Miller sold more records than any other recording artist. During those four years, he had more top ten records, and more number one hits than either of the artists who came later, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. In 1942 Miller set his career aside to join the US Army, hoping to entertain the troops. He did so across Great Britain and in the training camps in the United States. In December 1944, as he prepared to entertain troops in France over the Christmas holidays, the airplane in which he traveled vanished without a trace. The Army announced his disappearance on Christmas Eve, 1944. Despite scores of theories, including the inevitable conspiracy and cover-up stories, his disappearance has never been explained, and no trace of him or his aircraft was ever found.
15. Allied prisoners of war received entertainment packages too
Those with the misfortune of being captured by the enemy, especially in the European theater of operations, were considered when entertaining the troops was undertaken. They were denied the use of radios by their captors (though many had them surreptitiously) and the Germans balked at allowing their films. But several Western organizations attempted to ease their boredom by providing books and magazines, board games, athletic equipment, educational materials, playing cards, scripts from which they could produce plays, and other items. The Germans inspected them for contraband, and though the inspections were thorough, much contraband got through. Though not in materials provided by the International Red Cross. Based in Geneva, the Red Cross refused to compromise their position by allowing what they sent to prisoners to be compromised by the Allies. The Red Cross packages were crucial for nutrition as the war went on.
Britain’s SAS and the American OSS set up sham relief agencies and routed packages through them to the prisoners. Inside there were board games with escape maps cleverly hidden, record discs which contained the tools for escape, including maps and currency, and coded addresses for safe houses run by the underground. Along with providing the means of escaping the boredom of the camps, they provided aids to escaping the camps themselves. In many of the larger POW camps, the Germans allowed the prisoners to build theaters and provide musical instruments. Prisoners presented programs which ranged from ribald parodies of prison life to full productions of the plays of William Shakespeare. They also entertained each other by learning to speak German, French, Italian, or other languages which could aid them in escaping the Third Reich and returning to their units.
16. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel became a haven for submarine sailors
When it opened in 1927, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, established the standard for luxury in the Territory of Hawaii. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford stayed there. So did President Roosevelt, in 1934. It offered hundreds of rooms, ballrooms, lounges and dining rooms, bars (one of which claimed credit for the invention of the Mai Tai) and it’s own beachfront, with separate lounges and umbrellas for every room. In addition to the beach, there were swimming pools, where lunch could be served to those who wished it. But, in 1942, the US Navy requisitioned the hotel. The staff remained in place, for the most part. Beginning in 1943 the Royal Hawaiian began its war service as the site for rest and recreation for the crews of the US Navy submarines operating out of Pearl Harbor. A crew returning to Pearl had the Royal Hawaiian at their disposal.
A relief crew manned the submarine while those fresh off patrol stayed at the Royal Hawaiian. The beachfront featured barbed wire, to keep trespassers from interfering with the relaxation of the submarine sailors. They ate in the ball room, converted to a mess hall for the enlisted, foods prepared by the Royal Hawaiian staff. Officers had a wardroom in one of the former dining rooms, and bars were converted as enlisted and officer’s clubs. They were assessed a nominal charge as a laundry and linens fee. Those submarines that returned from patrol to dock at Midway Island (many did when Pearl’s docks were crowded) missed out, and return to Pearl became the goal of Pacific submarine crews. For two weeks they enjoyed the amenities none could afford in peacetime, after which they returned to the extremely hazardous duties aboard the submarines.
17. Bob Hope started a second career entertaining the troops in all theaters
On September 1, 1939, RMS Queen Mary departed Southampton for New York, part of the ship’s regularly scheduled Atlantic crossings. That same day, German forces invaded Poland. Before Queen Mary reached New York war had been declared between the British Empire and Nazi Germany. The huge luxury liner was not in any immediate danger, its speed could easily allow it to outrun any U-boats which it may encounter on the high seas. German surface raiders posed a more dangerous threat, but the Queen could outrun them as well. Still, passengers and crew became uneasy, and questions regarding the fate of the ship, such as its future during a time of war, haunted the passengers. Aboard the vessel was British-born American entertainer Bob Hope. Hope presented himself to the captain and offered to perform an impromptu show, to help quell the unease.
The captain accepted with alacrity, and Hope performed the first show in what would become a career entertaining those caught in the war which lasted over five decades. When the USO was formed in the United States in 1941 Hope became an early and dedicated supporter, both with his money and with his time. Author John Steinbeck served as a war correspondent during World War II, and wrote of Hope, “It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people”. Both Hope and his longtime friend Bing Crosby were offered commissions as officers in the United States Navy (which wanted them for themselves), but FDR intervened, desirous that the pair continued to entertain troops of all the American services.
18. The Germans recognized the value of the American USO shows
The entertainment shows which crisscrossed France and Italy after portions of those countries fell under Allied control were hugely successful in boosting morale of the troops. The fact was not lost on the Germans. Using agents and spies, the Germans made several attempts to attack the traveling troops, believing the effect on morale would be hugely detrimental. Another war correspondent, Quentin Reynolds, wrote in Billboard, “…One of the generals said Hope was a first-rate military target since he was worth a division, that’s about 15,000 men”. On one tour in France, the Germans targeted Hope and his troupe at least three times, missing him in each attack. Years later, the Viet Cong did the same during one of Hope’s Christmas Shows during the Vietnam War. Hope’s support of the military remained tireless, despite the changes in public support for war in the 1960s.
When combat operations ended in Europe and the United States initiated Operation Magic Carpet, the massive sealift which brought American troops home, the USO announced the need to continue USO shows in Europe. The landscape of Western Europe was shattered, the atmosphere depressing, and occupation troops were still needed. Even though the war in Europe was ended, Hope offered his services to continue providing entertainment, as well as recruiting other stars to join in the effort. Hope never made a dime for his services to the USO, and instead spent freely of his own money to entertain the troops during the war, and through the remainder of the 20th century. He also made several films during the war years, and nearly uncountable radio appearances, indicating the man really was tireless. Eventually, he hosted 57 touring USO Camp Shows over 50 years.
19. The military helped entertain potential recruits before they entered the service
During the Second World War a series of Hollywood films, featuring major stars of the day, were created to entice potential recruits into select branches of the service. One example is 1943’s Crash Dive, starring Tyrone Power in his last film before entering military training himself. In the film, Power plays an officer assigned to PT Boats who reluctantly enters submarine training. Eventually, he comes to enjoy the submarine service, while acknowledging all the various branches of the Navy had important contributions to make in the war effort (in real life Power served as a Marine cargo pilot, often ferrying wounded Marines off of islands where combat still raged). The same year saw the release of Bombardier, a film which followed the training of six friends in bombardier school. The film included an introduction by Brigadier General Eugene Eubank, which stressed the critical need for trained bombardiers.
Other films used direct appeals from established stars, rather than fictionalized stories. James Stewart, who served with distinction in the USAAF, narrated a recruiting film for the Army Air Forces. Stewart appears as a pilot, addressing an audience through the fourth wall, and allowing them to experience the recruiting and training process. The recruits come from positions on the social and educational ladder, though none are Black, as the US Army remained segregated at the time of the film’s release in May 1942. The film was so successful as a recruiting tool that the USAAF attributed 150,000 enlistments from its audience, which viewed the film as a short accompanied by whatever feature they went to the theater to see. By then, James Stewart was flying combat missions over France and later Germany as part of the 8th Air Force.
20. Entertainment provided valuable training for recruits and veterans
All branches of the military used films as a means of providing training to their members, some serious in nature, other comedic. Some used live actors in various scenes and vignettes, others relied on animation. A series of Army short films starring Private Snafu addressed subjects such as avoiding scams, sexually transmitted diseases, enemy agents and spies, and other potential pitfalls of military life. The Snafu shorts were written by Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and voiced by Mel Blanc (Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, and many, many more). A Navy version, featuring Seaman Tarfu, was also created, but for the most part, Navy recruits watched the Snafu shorts. They can be watched on Youtube and other sites, and they are solid evidence that political correctness in the 1940s was considerably different than in the 21st century.
Bolstering morale by entertaining the troops was a massive undertaking during the Second World War, yet even with all that was accomplished by volunteers and the military, boredom remained a dominant factor of military life. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines all sought other means to alleviate it, with varying degrees of success. The USO formed at the request of President Roosevelt has remained in operation ever since. So has Armed Forces Radio. So have efforts to provide the military with first-run films and other forms of entertainment. Since World War II, in peace and in times of conflict, providing quality entertainment to troops overseas as well as at home has been a major endeavor by the Armed Forces of the United States. Today’s USO and military use state-of-the-art technology to address the issues of keeping the troops entertained and informed.
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