Looking Back

The cover page of the sheet music for the 1941 song “KEEP EM FLYING” composed for the U.S. War Department and dedicated to the U.S. Army Air Corps. The military aircraft type shown is the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, a fighter plane that was widely used by the Air Corps, including at Manchester’s Grenier Field.

DURING WORLD WAR II the USO Club in downtown Manchester was the site for many forms of entertainment that served to lighten the load for the GIs stationed at Grenier Field. Also, these events brought joy and a sense of purpose into the lives of local citizens. One of the volunteers involved with the USO Club’s activities was the late Dorothy Fisher Gilmore of Manchester, who served as a junior hostess beginning at age 17. Like other young ladies at the time, Dorothy provided companionship to the Grenier Field GIs who visited the club.

Dorothy, a versatile signer, had been performing since the age of 10, when she would sing classical music, ballads, and Broadway musical songs on local radio. At the USO Club she often sang in the lounge, accompanied by a friend on the piano. She also sang with the Grenier Field orchestra at the club’s dances. As she recalled in a 2006 interview for the Manchester Historic Association, “I would just buy sheet music ... And I’d just take it in to them, and they’d take a look at it, I’d sing, they’d play, and that would be it. That was never, never rehearsed. They were good enough so that they knew what they were doing.”

The USO Camp Shows program provided live entertainment to military bases and camps, first in the United States, and later abroad. These variety shows were headlined by professional entertainers and sometimes also included local entertainers. Grenier Field was on the camp show circuit, and Dorothy was asked to perform at several of the local shows. When asked what her favorite event was during the war, Dorothy replied: “It was a camp show...a pretty big show ... The director had a girlfriend that was in it, so he thought that he would just have her standing in the center of the stage and have a spot light on her and let her sing that way, so she did, and she didn’t have the gift. And I just got to the mic I sang ‘Embraceable You’ and they whistled and they clapped ...” When asked to sing another song, Dorothy said she didn’t have one, so she just repeated the same number. She said, “And it was great! They were the best dog-gone audience I could have ever imagined, for a young kid, that never was in front of that many people, really, it was terrific.”

One of the most remarkable events that took place at the Manchester USO Club was a fundraiser for the newly founded national Army Emergency Relief Fund that benefited soldiers and their families in need. The spectacular show took place on Feb. 13, 1942, with 2,000 people crowding into the large USO hall. The program featured vaudeville acts, including the legendary tap dancer Pat Rooney, and a group of talented Army enlisted men who played music, sang, and performed “comedy chatter.” A quartet from the Grenier Field orchestra played swing arrangements of current and “old-favorite” numbers.

The theme of the event was “Keep ’em Flying,” the slogan of the U.S. Army Air Corps. The stage was decorated with the blue and gold colors of the Air Corps, and the cast performed against a large red, white, and blue Army Relief banner. On the ceiling above the stage, large blue letters spelling out “Keep ’em Flying” were suspended beneath a V-formation of planes in silhouette shapes.

Local performers included comedian Joe Bernier of Manchester. As The Leader newspaper reported, he “kept the spectators gasping for breath after each of his clever impersonations and side-splitting stories. His takeoff on President Roosevelt and his famed dialect won particularly enthusiastic response.” The emotional highlight of the evening was the appearance of 10-year-old singer Omer Gregoire who was “called back four times to repeat his rendition of Sammy Kaye’s ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’” In the spirit of the occasion, he sang the official War Department Song “Keep ’Em Flying,” dedicated to the Army Air Corps. Its chorus began, “Keep ’Em Flying! Guard your hemisphere: Keep ’Em Flying, Fighting hate and fear. A million willing hands are here!”

The evening ended in a dance that lasted until midnight, with music provided by a local group, ZaZa Ludwig and his Orchestra.

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Next week: The USO Women’s Center in Manchester.

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