Postwar Clubs, Integration, and Entertainment at Fort Lewis

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D., and Dale Sadler
  • Posted 4/01/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10693

Beginning in the early 1920s, Fort Lewis, located in Pierce County south of Tacoma, provided separate clubs where officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted personnel could enjoy meals and attend events. In 1946, with the U.S. Army reshaping itself to meet peacetime needs, including providing soldiers and their families with affordable recreation, the base reinvented its club system. The clubs went beyond serving inexpensive meals and drinks to providing good entertainment at a low cost, with local bands and occasionally national acts performing. However, the army was still segregated, and the large number of African American soldiers at Fort Lewis had few recreational opportunities on the base or in the community. In response to protests, a club for black non-commissioned officers opened in 1946. Two years later, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) ordered the military to integrate, but club facilities at Fort Lewis remained segregated until 1950, when the army fully integrated during the Korean War. Even before that, some Fort Lewis soldiers quietly found ways to integrate. The Fort Lewis clubs flourished through the 1950s and 1960s, with local bands playing regularly and many shows by national acts, but despite the opening of new club buildings in the 1970s, changes in the army and in society as a whole led to a gradual decline in the clubs, with the last Fort Lewis club closing in 2011.

Washington Avenue Black Non-Commissioned Officers Club

In 1946, even with Fort Lewis revamping its club system to provide regular, reasonably priced shows and other entertainment, black soldiers at the base had few recreational options. Not only the clubs, but also theaters, recreation halls, chapels, and beaches on the base and in the surrounding communities were segregated. Tacoma civil rights activists such as Dr. Nettie Asberry (1865-1968), one of the founders of the Tacoma branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she spoke out against discrimination and the poor recreational facilities available for African American soldiers and their families.

That year a World War II temporary mess hall on Washington Avenue was converted into a black Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) Club. Army Chief of Staff Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), who had been stationed at Fort Lewis just before World War II, was aware of the postwar local protests over inadequate entertainment for black soldiers. When he visited the post on August 15, 1947, he recommended expanding the black NCO club. A second building was added to the club. With this addition, it had a ballroom, dining room, and bar. Sergeant Meltarrus "Mel" Washington (1919-2007), a talented musician, organized a black jazz band to play there. Sergeant Washington had come to Fort Lewis in 1944 and was the drum major for the 21st Army Band. He was accomplished with all reed instruments but favored the saxophone.

In 1948 President Truman issued an Executive Order integrating the military, but change was slow, and the Washington Avenue club remained the only one open to black Fort Lewis personnel. Dr. Asberry and others protested the army's delay in implementing President Truman's order at Fort Lewis. Sergeant Washington did integrate his jazz band in 1948, adding white trumpet player Neil Friel (b. 1930). Friel, a graduate of Tacoma's Bellarmine High School, was a jazz musician who would go on to record with Woody Herman (1913-1987) and other bandleaders, and a good friend of Quincy Jones (b. 1933) -- Jones was then one of many African American musicians from Seattle who were part of the 41st Infantry Division Band at the Washington National Guard's Camp Murray near Fort Lewis. Mel Washington's integrated band played the black Washington Avenue club. Around 1949 Washington joined the previously all-white 2nd Infantry Division jazz band that played the white clubs, making it also an integrated band.

Finally, in 1950 integration became a reality. The clubs opened to all service members. Mel Washington's combo started playing the various Fort Lewis clubs. The combo, and later a trio, would play Fort Lewis clubs on a regular basis for the next thirty years. Sergeant Washington retired to Tacoma in January 1962 and continued to perform with his trio in addition to teaching music in the Tacoma schools.

The Fort Lewis clubs played a critical role in the effective integration of the army post. Once the clubs opened to all, they became forerunners of general societal integration. In 1959 the group that became the Checkmates, LTD, got its start in the Fort Lewis clubs; in the mid- and late 1960s it went on to be one of the first interracial groups to perform in Las Vegas and on the West Coast, and to appear on national television. The five members of the group, three black and two white, were from Fort Wayne, Indiana. They joined the army together under the "buddy program" that allowed them to serve together. Enlisting in 1959, they were assigned to Fort Lewis. They made it to the finals of an all-army entertainment contest. In their off-hours, they performed in the Fort Lewis clubs. Following their 1962 discharge, they played in Tacoma and Seattle as well as the fort clubs. Due to a name conflict with another group, they became the Checkmates, LTD. During 1962 and 1963 they performed throughout the west. In November 1964 they became one of the first interracial groups to play regularly in Las Vegas. While performing in a lounge there, they were discovered, and the group appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show, Mike Douglas Show, and others in 1968 and 1969. In 1969, they recorded their first hit, "Black Pearl," an ode to black women.

Officers Club

The Fort Lewis Officers Open Mess (FLOOM) club dated back to 1921 when it took over the former Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) hostess house. The hostess house was an impressive Craftsman-style building constructed and operated by the YWCA during World War I. The organization donated it to the army. As a club, the building became central in Fort Lewis officers' leisure time. Its Terrace dining hall served excellent food and hosted many events. When then-Colonel Eisenhower was stationed at Fort Lewis in 1940 and 1941, he and his wife were involved with the club, where they often dined. Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979) served on the club's remodeling committee and she so loved the club china, with its decoration showing the Liberty Gate (the stone and timber entrance to Fort Lewis) that she ordered a set from the manufacturer. Today, that china is on display at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

Regular entertainment began in the Officers Club when Fort Lewis remade the club system after World War II. On weekends, bands played in the ballroom. Local bands with extensive repertoires were hired. Tacoma's Stan Miskoski (1913-1987) and his band performed there frequently for many years.

Over the years a number of nationally known performers played at the FLOOM club. Lou Rawls (1933-2006), who had served in the 82nd Airborne Division, felt a strong attachment to the military and appeared at Fort Lewis three times. The soul/rhythm and blues (R&B) artist released more than 60 albums, with hits that included "You Will Never Find Another Love like Mine," which reached number one on the R&B chart. In addition to guest appearances, regular dances, and shows, the club had other events, such as bingo nights, holiday parties, fashion shows, talent shows, and retirement and welcome parties.

In June 1972 a new officers club opened. The old club was demolished, with its site becoming a park. To create a dramatic new club building, the Tacoma architectural firm of Charles Lea Jr. (1903-1990), Charles T. Pearson (1905-1994), and John G. Richards (1908-1985) designed a modern brick structure compatible with the adjacent historic district. The 30,000-square-foot club had formal and informal areas. The informal area included a dining room and lounge, game room, and barbershop. The formal main ballroom accommodated 600 patrons. While the architects had hoped to focus the club around Mount Rainier, the location prevented mountain views. Their maximum use of windows to open up the building did create an airy dining experience. This was especially welcome during Sunday brunches.

Both the officers and non-commissioned officers clubs had branches at Madigan Army Hospital. The same performers played at these branches as at the main clubs.

With changes in the military and the deglamorizing of alcohol in the mid-1980s, the clubs saw declines. Bonnie McGowan of Eatonville, the system manager in the 1980s, put a greater emphasis on food and video games, keeping the clubs alive. However, by the early 2000s, with more married service members and many living off-post, club attendance declined even more. The Fort Lewis clubs closed. The former officers club building became the Cascade Community Center, with a restaurant open to all at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Non-Commissioned Officers Clubs

In 1920 the Non-Commissioned Officers Club began in the former World War I Knights of Columbus recreation building, which the organization donated to the army after the war. It was an impressive California Mission Style building that Seattle architects the Beezer Brothers -- Louis Beezer (1869-1929) and Michael J. Beezer (1869-1933) -- had designed. Prominent Seattle civic leader Frank McDermott (1869-1944) had been a major contributor to its funding. Located near the Liberty Gate entrance to Camp Lewis, it opened on October 20, 1918. The building had a 40-by-60-foot lounge with stone fireplace, a reading room, and other recreation rooms. After its donation to the army, it served as the main non-commissioned officers club for fifty years.

In 1945 the 1635th Engineer Construction Battalion designed and built a branch Non-Commissioned Officers Club at North Fort Lewis (later North Lewis). It opened on September 29, 1945, and became the Top Four Club, serving the four highest ranks in the non-commissioned officers corps. Later it became the Top Five Club and provided the same activities and services as the main club. The building had a Pacific Northwest design with stone decorations and large windows. It was demolished in 1994.

The clubs were an opportunity for bands to hone their skills, measure audience reaction, and gain exposure to a military audience. The club system gave musically inclined soldiers the chance to perform. Andy Gilbert (1924-1988), a career sergeant and multi-talented performer, arrived at Fort Lewis in 1951. Taking a stage name, he organized a band, composed of soldiers, that he called Gil Ray and the Royalaires, which performed at Fort Lewis clubs from 1951 to 1962. Gil Ray put on a variety show in addition to playing dance music. He retired in 1962 to Tacoma and with a new band continued to play locally and often at the Fort Lewis clubs. In 1988, while setting up his drum set in the Non-Commissioned Officers Club, he suffered a heart attack and died.

Most importantly, the clubs offered at very low cost good local performers on a regular basis and nationally known acts on occasion. Over the years, top stars performed at the clubs, as Duke Ellington (1899-1974) did on November 28, 1962. Ernest Tubb (1914-1984), the country music star, performed on March 8, 1965. He spent a considerable time after his show signing autographs and talking with his fans. That same year he had been voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

A new Non-Commissioned Officers Club was erected on American Lake in 1971 and the old Knights of Columbus building was demolished. The new club opened on April 2, 1971, with a main ballroom that could hold 700. A senior non-commissioned officers lounge had a capacity of 175. At the grand opening, the 21st Army Band played. Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours played there April 4th. Frank Sinatra Jr. (b. 1944) was the headliner on May 20, 1971. On May 31 the Shirelles appeared. Formed in 1957, the group had helped develop the so-called "girl group" sound. Their hits included "Soldier Boy," a song telling women to be true to their men overseas. They were especially well-liked at Fort Lewis as they spent time while not performing talking with members of the audience. The Shirelles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The Non-Commissioned Officers Club closed in the early 2000s and became a community center. In September 2013 the building became a conference center.

Enlisted Club

Enlisted troops had a club at North Fort Lewis located in a World War II building originally built as an officers club. Later it served as an enlisted club, called the 1-2-3 Club, open to the lowest three ranks. It shared performers with the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. The bands and shows would rotate between the various clubs.

Bands and entertainers performing at the enlisted and other clubs received less than union rates but found entertaining at the clubs worth the reduced income. Vocalist Shirley Lorene (b. 1949) recalled in a 2013 interview that performing at the clubs was very interactive with the audiences. There was a freedom and freewheeling attitude. Lorene performed at the Fort Lewis clubs in 1969. Around that time she released an Elvis-styled single, "One Night with You," on the local Jerden label. Lorene remained in the entertainment profession, writing songs and releasing albums.

The military clubs were excellent training grounds for young performers. They drew an audience from all sections of the nation and varying ages. A success with this crowd could indicate the potential for a wide audience. Probably the most famous Washington musician to get a start in the enlisted clubs was Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). He played guitar in the Thomas and the Tomcats band that in early 1960 performed at Northwest military enlisted clubs, including Fort Lewis and McChord Field.

Although not a performer, a well-known fixture in the clubs was the "Picture Man," Thomas J. Davis (b. 1927), who sold Polaroid instant photos to patrons. In 1963 Sergeant Davis came to Fort Lewis and purchased a home in nearby Steilacoom. While in the army, he learned photography and began taking Polaroids of patrons and performers that he offered for sale. The New York City native capitalized on his youth growing up behind the Apollo Theater. He had seen entertainers there and could comfortably relate to them later when they came to Fort Lewis. Following his 1966 service in Vietnam and retirement from the army, he continued his club photography. He shot thousands of photographs of soldiers in the clubs. Many veterans have in their personal collections Davis's photographs of pleasant times in Fort Lewis clubs.

In its later years the enlisted club was renamed Club North. It operated as the last club at Joint Base Lewis-McChord until closing in 2011. A modern recreational facility, the Warrior Zone, replaced it. The new facility offers game equipment, a theater, and wide-screen television sports viewing.

American Lake Beach Clubs

The Fort Lewis club system acquired three existing log cabins on American Lake for club operations. The cabin on the east shore became the non-commissioned officers beach club. With the 1971 construction of the main non-commissioned officers club this cabin was razed. A cabin on the northernmost beach became the officers beach club. This club building was demolished in 1996. A new club and recreation area replaced it and was named Russell Landing in honor of Admiral James Russell (1903-1996), a distinguished naval officer who grew up on American Lake. The enlisted club was at Shoreline Park. Declared unsafe in 1991, it was removed.

Fort Lewis youth had a Teen Club where many of the Pacific Northwest bands that achieved fame played. The bands included The Ventures, The Wailers, and The Sonics.


Sources: L. E. Bragg, Remarkable Washington Women (Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2011); Peter Blecha, Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock from "Louie Louie" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Backbeat Books, 2009); Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993), 106, 125-27; "North Fort's Non-Com Club Offers Relaxation," The Flame, February 13, 1947, p. 5; "Negro NCO Club Being Enlarged," Ibid., September 19, 1947, p. 1; "Time for Fun, Dance at Your NCO Club," The Ranger, January 4, 1951, p. 2; "For Your Weekend Frolicking, Stan Miskoski and His Orchestra," Ibid., July 20, 1951, p. 2; "Ft. Lewis Club NCO: It's Open," Ibid., April 8, 1971, p. 6; "New Officer's Club opens June 21," Ibid., June 15, 1972, p. 5; "McGowan Given Commander's Award," The Eatonville Dispatch, July 10, 1985, p. 10; Duane Colt Denfeld and Dale Sadler interview with  Thomas J. Davis, August 6, 2013, Steilacoom, Washington; Duane Colt Denfeld and Dale Sadler telephone interview with Shirley Lorene, March 18, 2013; "Meltarrus Washington, Jazz Man of Tacoma," The Tacoma News Tribune, June 24, 2007, p. B-4.

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