Manchester’s municipal airport was well on its way to becoming an important civil aviation hub in 1940 when it was chosen to be transformed into a military air base. The airport had recently been expanded and modernized, so it had good basic aviation infrastructure already in place. Plus, a railroad line ran through the property, and hundreds of acres of land along the airport perimeter could be acquired for further expansion. These were deciding factors in bringing the U.S. Army to the city in a big way.
Operations at the new air base began in the spring of 1941. During World War II the base would serve as an essential stopover, repair, and maintenance facility for military aircraft, particular heavy bombers being flown to Europe. It would become a busy recruitment center for the U.S. Army Air Forces, and would provide training for pilots and crews. The 45th Bombardment Group would be stationed there, until being transferred to Dover, Del., in May 1942. This unit still exists as the 45th Operations Group of the U.S. Space Force at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
A few army officers began working in Manchester in March 1941, and on April 1, base commander Lt. Col. John L. Moore arrived on site. On May 20, 1941 the first of several waves of troops arrived. The first group included more than 100 officers and men of the 242nd Company, Quartermaster Corps, transferred from Mitchel Field on Long Island, N.Y., who came in a convoy of more than 50 motor vehicles. On the same day 65 members of the Medical Corps also arrived, including doctors and nurses who would staff the base hospital. More troops arrived in the following weeks, and that summer more than 2,000 military personnel were being quartered in the new wooden buildings on the base.
In 1942 the air base was named Grenier Field in honor of local hero Lt. Jean Grenier, a pilot who had died in a tragic plane crash in 1934. This Manchester connection underscored the fact that the bustling military facility was now an integral component in the life of the city. Local residents were proud of Grenier Field, and happy about its positive economic effects. However, there were concerns about the social impact the base may have on this medium-sized city, which had 77,000 residents in 1940. As young male soldiers made up most of the base personnel, there were both morale and morality issues to consider.
With the expansion of the military that began in 1939, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, championed the idea that civilian institutions could be organized to support the nation’s defense efforts. In 1940 the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association, and the National Jewish Welfare Board combined forces to create the United Service Organizations.
The USO was incorporated in New York on Feb. 4, 1941 with the stated purpose of aiding “in the defense programs of the United States by serving the religious, spiritual, welfare and educational needs of the men and women in the armed forces and defense industries ... and in general to contribute to the maintenance of morale in American communities ...”
The organization’s leadership further stated that the USO’s goal was “to make sure our soldiers, sailors, and other young people who are drawn away from their homes by military service and defense work are provided with wholesome recreational activities and an opportunity to maintain their ties with civil religious life. ... On the military reservations, the federal government has undertaken prime responsibility for meeting religious and recreational needs. This, however, does not apply to the nearby communities where the men spend much of their free time.”
Manchester was a natural fit for the USO, as it had a substantial military base within its borders, and several of Manchester’s manufacturing firms were poised to support the defense industry. Local civic leaders and ordinary citizens wholeheartedly embraced the mission of the United Service Organizations, but it would take a few months to get the operation up and running. First, a suitable building needed to be found.