WWII soldiers roller-skating at Grenier Field

Servicemen enjoy a USO roller-skating party in the Service Club Annex at Grenier Field in Manchester during World War II. This was one of the USO’s most popular programs on the air base.

THE WHITE SOLDIERS stationed at Grenier Field in Manchester during World War II had a wide range of options available to occupy them in their off-duty hours.

They could take advantage of the on-base entertainment and athletic programs provided by the U.S. Army. They could also visit the two big USO clubs in Manchester which provided a variety of morale-boosting programs — the USO Club for Service Men downtown and the USO Women’s Center a few blocks away (where soldiers were also welcomed).

Because the U.S. armed forces were segregated, and because Manchester was a predominantly White community, the Black soldiers at Grenier Field were encouraged to remain on base during their leisure hours. They were allowed to leave the post to shop or otherwise conduct business in Manchester or vicinity, but they knew from their command that they should stay away from the local USO clubs.

In 2006 the Manchester Historic Association interviewed several local women who had served as young USO volunteers during the war. They were each asked about race relations in the city in regard to the USO clubs.

One story, told by the late Faye L’Ecuyer, stood out. She recalled a particular dance in the Old Armory hall at the downtown USO:

“Once, you know, at the USO, it wasn’t a big band night or anything, but they were dancing on the floor, two young, really young Black men. They were soldiers. They had these beautiful women with them. One was a blonde like Marilyn Monroe. One was dark haired…

“They started dancing and there were other people dancing on the floor and, I think there were a lot of Southerners there. One by one, they stopped dancing…That’s a shame, I thought that was terrible. They stopped dancing because they didn’t want to dance with the Black men.”

She explained that she had never seen Black soldiers at the USO until that night, and that their dance partners were white.

She continued, “They just kept right on dancing, and they were all alone on the floor dancing. I wasn’t dancing either because the boy I was dancing with, I think he was from Texas, he just danced me right off the floor … I felt bad for them … They have a right. They’re fighting for our country, they were going to get killed just like our White boys, you know.”

It can be assumed that this was the type of dramatic, tension-filled scene that the base command and the USO staff hoped to avoid by providing the Black troops with their own USO facility at Grenier Field. Other interviewees for the Manchester Historic Association’s oral history project described smaller incidents of racial conflict that they had witnessed in Manchester.

These uncomfortable occurrences were an unfortunate reality.

The USO program at Grenier Field was very much in demand, but it was more limited in scope than what was being offered at the USO clubs in Manchester. The Army provided the USO with two buildings on base — the Hostess House and the Service Club Annex.

The sole USO staffer, a Black woman, had some volunteer help available from the soldiers she served, their families (if they lived locally), and a few Black USO volunteers who came up from Massachusetts. She was not able to tap into Manchester’s vast reserve of women serving as USO hostesses and junior hostesses. However, she received some help from the local USO Women’s Advisory Board, which provided refreshment for a few events.

Many of the programs available to the Black soldiers at Grenier Field were similar to the ones provided by the USO clubs in Manchester. Both the USO on base and the downtown USO put on formal and informal dances with live orchestras and bands. The Grenier Field orchestra, made up of White soldier/musicians, played at both facilities, as did other local groups.

Both facilities also offered roller-skating. Theme parties with colorful decorations were held at the Hostess House and at the USO Women’s Center.

At all three facilities servicemen and their guests could also play cards, listen to records, read or write letters in a quiet spot, or just enjoy some time with a date, their friends, or members of their families.

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Next week: World War II ends, and the USO winds down its operations in Manchester.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester; contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter