Looking Back

Victory Book Campaign poster — 1942-1943. The USO Women’s Center in Manchester participated in this national program to provide books to service men throughout the country.

In September 1941 the large Victorian mansion at 235 Myrtle St. in Manchester became the home of the USO Women’s Center. This operation was organized and operated under the auspices of the National Catholic Community Service, one of the six components of the United Service Organizations (USO). The club offered a wide variety of social and educational activities that were focused on building morale in the community and supporting national defense efforts. Participation in the center’s activities was not restricted by religious affiliation. The club’s existence became hugely important to the city of Manchester and to the local Army air base, Grenier Field, after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941.

By the summer of 1942 the club was firmly established. It announced that it was open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Admission was free to “all girls and women in the community, especially to newcomers to Manchester and to wives, families, and friends of service men. Service men are also most welcome at all times. The club is equipped with comfortable lounges, table games of all sorts, writing facilities, magazines and books, radio and phonograph, pianos, a juke box for informal dancing, dark room for photography, and an information service.”

The club became directly engaged in local defense-related activities. Its members assisted in war bond campaigns, marched in patriotic parades, and helped to distribute sugar rationing cards. In 1942 and 1943 the club took part in the Victory Book Campaign, collecting books donated by the public. This national effort was organized by the American Library Association, the American Red Cross, and the USO. In January 1942 the Manchester Leader newspaper reported on the club’s efforts, “The old adage, ‘Many hands make light work’ was exemplified at the club this week-end, as the girls, with assistance of several of the soldiers from the Air Base, wielded paint brushes, vigorously transforming empty cardboard cartons into attractive red, white, and blue receptacles for books for the Victory Book Campaign. The campaign … will provide books for the service men throughout the country and contributions of books or worthwhile magazines will be gratefully received.” This program ended when the War and Navy departments began their own book purchasing and distribution program in early 1944.

In addition, the USO Women’s Center helped to register Manchester men and women who were willing to contribute to national defense efforts as civilian volunteers. There was a particular need for first aid and nursing instructors, and for office help, including stenographers. Different groups within the USO Women’s Center regularly participated in hands-on projects to produce items needed by the military. These included sewing small cloth drawstring bags for carrying odds and ends (known as “ditty bags”) for sailors, and similar bags for GI recruits from Manchester headed to training camps. For soldiers, volunteers assembled canvas field kits that included small tools and other essentials; and knitted wool trigger mitts and sweaters.

As the USO Women’s Center took shape in its early months, two key groups of volunteers emerged as being vital to its operations — the Service Men’s Mothers Club and the Victory Belles. The first group included women whose sons were away at war. It was similar to the senior hostesses’ organization that provided chaperones at the USO Club in downtown Manchester (known as the Men’s Center).

The mothers served as chaperones for club dances and socials, some of which they sponsored. The women also welcomed young soldiers from Grenier Field into their homes on a regular basis. In June 1942 the Manchester Leader reported, “The Service Men’s Mothers continue their program of home hospitality, and Grenier Field men, hailing from Texas, Wisconsin, California and elsewhere have had, literally, a taste of typical New England hospitality. The mothers and their friends take turns at entertaining two or more service men guests at Sunday dinner and many plan an afternoon’s pleasure as well.” The women also hosted army nurses who staffed the Grenier Field hospital.

In a small but meaningful gesture, the Service Men’s Mothers Club made sure there was a jar filled with cookies at the USO Women’s Center, ready for any GI who would drop by.

Next Week: The first USO Victory Belles in the nation.

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

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