Looking Back

An early photograph of the New Hampshire State Armory Building on Pleasant Street in Manchester (known as the Old Armory), now an events hall for the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.

The United Service Organizations (USO) was incorporated in New York on Feb. 4, 1941. It was founded by six national social service and religious organizations for the purpose of supporting the men and women serving in the United States military, and also those working in the defense industries. The USO was funded by donations, and largely operated by civilian volunteers. Although it was a private institution, it operated under the direction of the U.S. Army and Navy.

The USO quickly became a vital force for good in the United States during this time of anxiety and stress as the War Department mobilized a rapid build-up of military resources in anticipation of war. By September 1941 there were 89 USO clubs up and running in towns and cities across the country. Within the next 12 months, 878 additional clubs would be established. At its height in 1944, the number of USO clubs would grow to 3,055. By the end of World War II in 1945, over $200 million had been spent on USO programs, and over 1.5 million civilians had served as volunteers. The majority of these were women.

Through the efforts of dedicated local citizens and organizations, Manchester had an outstanding USO operation in place from late 1941 into 1946. With the establishment of a new U.S. Army air base (later named Grenier Field) in the city in 1941, Manchester found itself dealing with a substantial military population made up of more than 2,000 men and women stationed at the facility. The USO effort in Manchester would prove to be enormously important to the air base and to the local citizenry alike. Not only would it serve the military personnel stationed at the base and their families, but it would also support local soldiers, sailors, and Marines who were home on leave, and local women who worked in the city’s war industries.

Hundreds of people of all ages and from all walks of life volunteered their free time to help the Manchester USO, and donated money to support the organization. The local USO was multi-faceted, with many programs and activities. It depended on the creativity and collaboration of several institutions, including the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), the National Catholic Community Service, the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board and the Jewish Community Center.

A key factor in the success of the Manchester USO was the enthusiastic support of the commanding officer of the air base, Lt. Col. John I. Moore. His main interest was for Manchester to have a vibrant USO Club that would serve as the center for off-duty recreation for the soldiers stationed at his base.

The first order of business in creating the club was to find a suitable building. Lt. Col. Moore; Willard Hall, YMCA Secretary for New Hampshire; and city leaders located the ideal site — the Old Armory Building at 60 Pleasant St. in downtown Manchester. The 40,000-square-foot brick building had been built in 1904. It had served as the home of the New Hampshire National Guard until January 1940 when the modern New Hampshire State Armory building was completed on Canal Street. The Old Armory, now vacant, was owned by a local development corporation, Amoskeag Industries.

In November 1941, once an agreement to rent the building was finalized, it was handed over to the YMCA. A board of managers was organized to oversee the USO project. Attorney Robert Booth, a former President of the Manchester YMCA board, was chosen as president. Among the USO’s Board members were Lt. Col. Moore; Chief of Police James F. O’Neil, a leader for many years in the development of aviation in Manchester and in the state; Municipal Court Judge Alfred Chretien; Louis Miller, president of the Manchester YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association); civic activist Ruth Higgins; and Edwin Hall, president of the Manchester Gas Company and of the Manchester Rotary Club.

Within a few short weeks the Old Armory was completely renovated, with Amoskeag Industries contributing the first year’s rent of $3,600 to help pay for repairs. Most of the interior work, including sanding and painting, was carried out by servicemen assigned from the air base.

.

Next: The Manchester USO Club becomes one of the largest and best-equipped USOs in New England.

.

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