Two USO clubs open in Tacoma on February 9, 1942.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/12/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9110

On February 9, 1942, two USO clubs open in Tacoma. They are located downtown at 13th and Fawcett, and in south Tacoma at at 4851 S Tacoma Way. They open to provide recreation and general assistance to  soldiers flooding into Fort Lewis to serve in World War II. A third USO club will open on September 4, 1942, to serve black soldiers. By 1943 Tacoma will have five USOs including a Troops in Transit lounge at the Union Station, a rest stop for military travelers. A USO-Travelers Aid  representative in the balcony lounge aided service personnel and their families while troops could relax in comfortable chairs, and enjoy refreshments.

The USO 

The United Service Organizations (USO), a national organization, was incorporated on February 4, 1941. It was made up of six agencies: YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Bureau, National Catholic Community Services, and Travelers Aid. Early in the war, the agencies had joined together under the name, United Welfare Committee for Defense. The committee sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) a telegram requesting a meeting with government officials to present its views. In December the committee met with Paul V. McNutt (1891-1955), head of the Federal Security Agency, whose responsibilities included recreation. Roosevelt in turn directed the Federal Security Agency to work with the welfare committee to come up with an effective program.

President Roosevelt, recognizing the interest of citizen-soldiers in seeking civilian recreation, believed that community-based programs could best satisfy this reality. Additionally, providing community recreation centers would reduce the perceived threat of large number of military personnel hanging out with nothing to do. Another advantage would be to enlist local civilian populations, especially women, in the war effort, giving them meaningful functions. The USO was in the position to hire professional staff, and this gave it a tremendous advantage in providing an effective recreational and morale-building organization for service men and women far from home during wartime.

Tacoma: A Busy Liberty Town

The 1940-1941 build up at Fort Lewis near Tacoma led to a new and expanded Army-Navy Club at 8th and A Street. In one year, 1941-1942, this center served 790,000 guests. Servicemen could also use the YMCA. However, the demand exceeded the recreation capacity.

A USO Council was established and sought federal aid. Two federal buildings, at a total cost of $139,855 were built in 50 days with a December 23, 1941, completion date. One was located at 13th and Fawcett and the second in South Tacoma at 4851 S Tacoma Way. Delays in receiving furniture and equipment held back their use to February 9, 1942.

A second downtown USO opened on September 4, 1942, for black soldiers, in a commercial building at 713 Commerce Street. Heavy use led to an expansion to the adjacent building in the summer of 1944. The new addition, 715 Commerce, was dedicated on July 23, 1944. Renovations to both created an attractive facility that included a game room, music room, hobby center, library, snack bar, dark room, showers, and dormitory.

Ray C. Vaughan, director of this club, a former Colgate University athlete and New York City teacher became very popular. He often visited the black troops at Fort Lewis and while there played tennis on their court. The Commerce Street club had a number of hostesses who served its entire time, from September 4, 1942, to March 30, 1947. One of the senior hostesses, Maude Leonard, received a 5,000-hour service pin.

In 1943 Tacoma had five USOs, including a Troops in Transit lounge at the Union Station, a rest stop for military travelers. A USO- Travelers Aid (USO-TA) representative in the balcony lounge aided service personnel and their families while troops could relax in comfortable chairs, and enjoy refreshments. Two large murals decorated the lounge; one of Paul Bunyan and the second Babe the blue ox, both painted by well known Tacoma artist Peggy Strong (1912-1956). They hung here from April 9, 1944 to 1959 and today are on display at the University of Puget Sound Student Union. The USO-TA also had information/ assistance desks at Tacoma bus stations and other railroad stations.

Civilians Serving Soldiers

Other organizations added to the soldier services. The Lutheran Service Center and United Seaman's Club welcomed off-duty troops. Six Tacoma churches helped by creating dorms. For example the United Churches at 9th and Pacific Avenue offered 300 beds. The Rotary Club converted the former Public Market on Market Street into a 400-bed stay-over facility. Also, dances, parties, and special service events took place at the Tacoma National Guard armory.

Tacoma achieved a first when a mobile canteen went into operation on April 8, 1942. This truck, one of 10 in the nation donated by Henry Ford, went to remote locations. There volunteers served hot coffee, doughnuts, provided writing materials, books, and could show movies.

Dancing, Sewing, Coffee Hours, Quiz Nights, Games

Tacoma USO club activities included dances, square dancing, dance lessons, free movies, games, Sunday morning coffee hours, camera clubs, talent nights, variety shows, living (oral) letters, archery, Mount Rainier trips, hayrides, sewing services, a wives' club, quiz nights, and special events.

Soldiers especially appreciated the sewing services and Christmas gift wrapping. During the 1944 holiday season the clubs wrapped 20,693 gifts and helped with mailing. A large number of servicemen made use of the clubs: In 1944 the Commerce Street club received 286,196 visitors; the most utilized USO at 13th and Pacific welcomed 845,697 soldiers and sailors; and the USO club at 13th and Fawcett greeted 257,305.

Tacoma Takes Care

Tacomans demonstrated their appreciation of the servicemen in many ways. On a regular basis families invited Fort Lewis soldiers and McChord Field airmen into their homes for meals, taking them sightseeing, and giving them a place to stay. James (1885-1976) and Zelma Garvin (1888-1969) and many other families opened their home on weekends. The Garvins installed a temporary dormitory in their recreation room for Saturday night stays. On Sunday mornings the guests had a home-cooked breakfast at the dining table.

Prominent Tacoma women filled senior hostess and USO committee positions.  Elizabeth Titcomb (1886-1975) headed a number of programs including the Christmas gift wrapping. She came to the USO with considerable civic experience, having been Junior League president in 1929-1930 and involved in other community activities. After the war she became a key supporter of the Tacoma Art Museum.

The Tacoma Garden Club contributed by landscaping the clubs and decorating the centers with flowers and displays. There could be no landscaping at the Union Station Troops in Transit lounge, so the Garden Club brought in house plants to make it more homey and comfortable.

After the War

In 1946-1947 the USOs closed except the 13th and Fawcett club, located in a federal recreation building. This center would entertain service people until 1971 when the need had diminished.

Today this former federal building is a senior center. The S  Tacoma Way USO was sold to the city and is now part of South Tacoma Park. The Commerce Street club survives in commercial use.


Sources: Brian Gerard Casserly, "Securing the Sound: The Evolution of Civilian-Military Relations in the Puget Sound Area, 1891-1984" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 2007); James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: History Ink/HistoryLink, 2000); Richard C. Lancaster, Serving The U.S. Armed Forces 1861-1986 (Schaumburg, Illinois: Armed Services YMCA, 1987).

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