Serving the Home Front
In 1940, Alexandria was by all accounts a sleepy southern town with a population of 33,000. But when war broke out, the city's close proximity to Washington, the Pentagon and Fort Belvoir triggered a massive infusion of soldiers, sailors and government workers.
In 1942 alone, housing starts rose 57 percent from the year before, according to local historians. By 1944, the city's population had more than doubled, to 67,000.
The growing military presence made Alexandria a natural hub for the new USO. The first USO club occupied a building on South Royal Street, and work began on a new USO building on Cameron Street in December 1941, according to a 1993 article in the Fireside Sentinel, a journal of local history published by the Alexandria Library.
Opened on May 30, 1942, the one-story brick building "offered wholesome recreation to members of the armed forces,'' the article said. It included a spacious lounge with a log-burning fireplace, a cafeteria, a soda fountain, a library and a gymnasium capable of holding 500 dance couples.
The new building hosted dances, receptions, parties and plays, along with other USO facilities that later opened on North Washington and King streets.
Reflecting the segregated tenor of the times, African American soldiers were allowed to attend only a separate USO facility on Pendleton Street.
"The USO certainly helped maintain and boost morale locally,'' said T. Michael Miller, a research historian for the city's Office of Historic Alexandria and the author of the Fireside Sentinel article. "It served as a place for soldiers and military people to mix and try to do away with that feeling of loneliness.''
To young girls such as Ellie Randell, who worked for the Navy Department in Washington and lived in Alexandria, the USO galas were a godsend.
"Alexandria was pretty dead at that time for a young person,'' said Randell, 84, who now lives in Englewood, Fla. "There was no place to dance. We were very sheltered back then.''
A male relative would chaperone as Randell and up to eight girlfriends would show up on Cameron Street in long, full skirts and makeup. The room would be decorated with American flags. Everyone would dance to mostly swing music, along with the jitterbug and slow waltzes. Sometimes, soldiers would even grab a microphone and sing, which Randell likened to the karaoke bars of today.
"It was the worst of times and the best of times,'' she recalled. "We had friends, very close friends, who didn't come back from the war, and we all worried. But when we would go to these dances, we could enjoy ourselves.''
Randell said the soldiers always appreciated the effort to distract them from their deadly duties. That sentiment was echoed by Ellis Lucas, who performed at hundreds of USO shows during World War II as part of a popular husband-and-wife singing duo called Doraine and Ellis.
"You couldn't believe what wonderful audiences they were,'' said Lucas, 89, who said he was recommended for the USO gigs by Bob Hope; he and his wife, Doraine, knew him from their days performing at clubs around the United States.
"They needed to be entertained to relieve the pressures they were under on the battlefield," said Lucas, who lives in Charlotte. "They were just so enthusiastic."
William G. McNamara, an Alexandria resident who landed with the troops at Omaha Beach on D-Day while working for the military publication Stars and Stripes, met his wife at a USO dance in Richmond in 1942. He later attended USO shows given by Bob Hope and the Glenn Miller Band in Europe.
"They were a big morale boost, a tie to back home,'' he said.
McNamara said he was surprised but pleased to hear that this weekend's events in Alexandria will focus on the USO.
"Most of the emphasis since the middle of last month has been on World War II, the veterans and the memorial dedication,'' he said. "Nothing has been done until now on the civilian activities. A lot of people donated valuable time and money to entertain the troops, and I'm glad they're getting some recognition.''
© 2004 The Washington Post Company