Seattle opens Service Men's Club on May 1, 1941.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph D.
  • Posted 5/11/2010
  • Essay 9406
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On May 1, 1941, Seattle residents and the City of Seattle open a service men's club. The club provides services and recreation for military personnel visiting the city. The Service Men's Club will quickly become a popular place and is followed by a large USO club and other service centers such as the Travelers Aid Service Men's Lounge at Union Station. These centers have regular dances attended by young women from the Seattle area. They furnish writing tables, free stationery, game rooms, dorms, and showers, and provide free or low cost snacks and meals. Seattle will have 14 clubs by 1945. The most popular center, the Service Men's Club, will have served nine million visitors by the time it closes in 1947.

A Club for Men in Uniform

The Service Men’s Club occuped three floors of the DeWolfe Building at 1322 2nd Avenue. Financed by private citizens and the City of Seattle, the club had a check room, women’s waiting room, lounge, billiard room, table tennis, library, canteen, chapel, and a 150-bed dormitory with a one-night charge of 50 cents.

The formal dedication, open to the public, was held on May 8, 1941. Major General Charles F. Thompson (1882-1954), Fort Lewis Third Division commander and Captain Guy E. Davis (1883-1956), chief of staff 13th Naval District, accepted the center for the use of enlisted men. Walter H. Erickson (1893-1980), former Seattle parks recreation instructor, managed the center.

This facility was open 24 hours a day and would become the most popular Seattle servicemen’s club. Every night except Monday was dance night between 8:00 and 11:00 p.m., with young local women volunteering as dance partners. Many had to learn the “jitterbug,” a popular club dance. Seattle bands played at the dances. The club served sandwiches, doughnuts, milk, and coffee. A large cookie jar sat on a table, kept filled by volunteers baking 2,000 to 3,000 dozen cookies each week. Many servicemen went fishing for the first time in a program in which Seattle fishermen invited them along. Local families also invited soldiers and sailors into their homes for meals.

The Service Men’s Club served about 17,000 military personnel a month during normal times, but this rose when large numbers of troops arrived or departed Seattle. In July 1944 169,845 servicemen using the club. By the time the club closed on January 1, 1947, nine million had been served.      

Weddings at the Clubs 

The war had a dramatic impact on the marriage rate as many service personel hurried to marry before going overseas. Often these weddings had to be arranged quickly to fit into a soldier's leave or short stay. The Seattle Quota Club sponsored a wedding chapel with the United Service Organizations (USO) club. They painted the chapel a soft pale green and installed furniture. The USO staff operated the chapel and could have a minister present and ceremony underway within two hours. Following the ceremony, refreshments were served.

Most of the weddings were quiet events that received little attention. One exception was the marriage of Jean Trowbridge (1922-2005) of Seattle. This 1942 marriage received extensive coverage in a May 5, 1942, Life magazine article. On March 25 Jean Trowbridge wed Lieutenant William F. Debelak (1914-2002) at Fort Bliss, Texas. Life documented the second April 5 ceremony in the El Paso USO Club, where seven couples married. The Debelaks are shown cutting the large cake.

Their romance had begun in Seattle in January 1942 when Lieutenant Debelak met Jean, a former University of Washington drama student working in the war industry. They dated and then Debelak received orders to Texas. The relationship continued by mail and Miss Trowbridge traveled to Texas to marry the lieutenant. Following the wedding the couple lived in Texas for two months and realized that the marriage was a mistake. Jean returned to Seattle and in July 1942 a divorce was granted. Mrs. Debelak had her maiden name restored.

Jean Trowbridge resumed a busy wartime life of work and patriotic duties. She met a naval officer, Lieutenant Jerome Burke (1922-1999), of Pekin, North Dakota. They married in March 1946 in the Seattle Naval Hospital chapel (now the site of Fircrest School). After the war Jean sang professionally in the Seattle area and the couple moved to Yakima.  Jerome Burke operated a vending company while Jean volunteered at Yakima Memorial Hospital. They enjoyed a happy life together for more than 50 years.

Union Station Travelers Aid          

Many service personnel arrived, departed, passed through Seattle on trains. The Union Station, at S Jackson Street and 4th Avenue S, was crowded with tired and often stressed servicemen. The Seattle-King County War Chest funded the Travelers Aid Service Men’s Lounge in the station's former Milwaukee Men’s and Women’s Club. The lounge opened on December 13, 1942. About 10,000 service people visited every month.

This retreat offered comfortable chairs, writing tables, information on city sights, free stationery, magazines, coffee, and snacks. Community groups would bring special treats; for example, the Girl Scouts of Troop 138 prepared and distributed popcorn balls. During the holiday seasons the lounge provided entertainment. During the Christmas season, the lounge had refreshments, holiday music, and decorated trees.    

On many occasions the center solved difficult situations. In November 1943, an 82-year-old mother arrived at the station wanting to see her son just one more time. She had come across the country by train. The mother knew her son was in the navy, but not which base he was stationed at. Travelers Aid staff went to work to find him, but unfortunately he had shipped out three hours before his mother’s train pulled in.

This was difficult news and the mother lacked the strength to return to Connecticut. The lounge took care of her for three days, until she was strong enough for the long train ride home.

Although this event represented sadness, many happy occasions happened at the lounge. A number of joyous reunions took place there.     
Black Servicemen Centers

In the segregated society of the 1940s, black service personnel could not use the white clubs. This left blacks without community-provided free recreation. Civic leaders such as Kenneth Colman (1896-1982) recognized the need and made possible a club in the East Madison YMCA, at 23rd and E Olive Street. A Quonset hut was added to the building to provide more space. This club was dedicated on July 10, 1942, and named the Colman Servicemen's Club. 

While the eastside club proved popular, its location away from downtown became a drawback. To provide a downtown club the Orpheum Theatre at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street was renovated into a USO. This center opened in August 1944.  

Clubs for Servicemen and Servicewomen

Every month more than 400,000 military personnel visited Seattle. To meet the heavy demand, a large USO club was opened, replacing two small clubs. The King County War Chest funded the remodeling of the Rialto Building, at 1011 2nd Avenue, formerly the Frederick & Nelson store.  Dedication ceremonies occurred on October 30, 1943. It had a dance hall in the basement, a canteen on the ground floor that served food at cost, and an information desk as one entered the building. One of its most popular activities, a recording room to make “talking letters” to send home, occupied a small room near the ground floor lounge. Visitors could record a message at no cost. Game rooms, a gymnasium, and showers occupied the second floor. A women’s lounge used the mezzanine space.

The provision for a special room for servicewomen dealt with a recreation shortcoming.  Servicewomen had few places to relax while visiting the city.  If they went into the men’s area they were expected to dance and entertain, whereas they may have wanted to just sit and read or talk with other women. Servicemen's wives had activities here as well. The club had unique women’s programs, including bridge parties and picnics.  To better serve women, a separate Service Women’s Club opened at 214 University Street with a lounge and snack bar on the first floor and two floors of guest rooms.  The Seattle Officers Club started a women’s branch on January 14, 1945, in a remodeled house at 704 Ninth Street.   

On October 14, 1943, navy cook Jack Startup (1924-2010) entered the USO intending to get a shower. A reception committee surprised him by announcing he was the one-millionth guest. He received a key to the city, chocolates, a free long-distance call to his home in Los Angeles, and a war bond. The club had a day of activities planned and he was accompanied by junior hostess Ruth Coffey (b.1923). The couple visited Mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982) and enjoyed a free movie at the Fifth Avenue Theater.

The 2nd Avenue USO closed on December 26, 1947, having served five million servicemen and servicewomen. 

Other Seattle Clubs

The Army-Navy YMCA at 320 Marion Street offered service personnel recreation and support activities. During the holidays they held special events. The various clubs had holiday meals and arranged with local families to take in service folks for meals. On Thanksgiving the clubs put on dinners and dances. Other holidays were celebrated as well, with the recreation centers trying hard to overcome the loneliness of men and women unable to get home.

In January 1942, a citizen group investigated a deserted brewery in the Georgetown area, near Boeing Field, for a servicemen’s club. They found it dirty but usable. Volunteers arrived to clean and decorate it and three days later a dance was held here. The soldiers defending the field could attend dances Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon. Young Seattle women office workers served as dance partners or sat and talked with the soldiers. Seattle residents also donated books and magazines for its reading room. In the Riverton neighborhood a former school building became a soldiers' recreation club.  

A Lutheran Service Center at 205 University Street had a coffee bar with snacks, billiards, games, reading and writing room, and a chapel where weddings took place. This center was open to all faiths. Another national organization, the Salvation Army, operated a Red Shield Center at 111 Spring Street. The Red Shield Center became famous for low-cost good food served in a restaurant setting. Each day the center  served 400 meals, with a chicken-pie meal at 45 cents a big seller. Before it closed on February 24, 1946, the Red Shield had provided food and recreation for 750,000 servicemen and servicewomen. 

The war effort included largely unsung service, such as Merchant Marines and seafaring men not in the military. Recreational centers for these individuals opened in June 1943. The United Seaman Service organization leased the Penbrook Hotel at 317 Marion Street for accommodations. They also built a recreation center on the second floor of the Vitucci building, at 1616 4th Avenue.  The recreation center had overstuffed chairs, magazines, a writing room, a music room, and an inexpensive snack bar.

Most of the service centers served enlisted personnel under the assumption that officers did not need low cost recreation. However, many officers and spouses found themselves without comfortable places to relax while in Seattle. An officer canteen was located in the Hoge building basement. A number of churches created service centers. Trinity Church at 8th Avenue and James Street provided a lounge and game room for enlisted personnel and officers. Servicemen's clubs also operated in West Seattle and in Kirkland.

Most of the clubs closed in 1946-1947, but a couple of recreation centers remained open with more limited activities. Postwar needs and the Korean War brought back the USO and Seattle operations. Today the USO operates a lounge at Sea-Tac Airport that provides comfortable chairs, television, and free snacks.   

Sources: James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II, (Seattle: HistoryLink in association with the University of Washington, 2000); “Soldiers’ Wedding: Seven Couples Marry All At Once,” Life, May 5, 1942, pp. 82-85; “Service Men’s Club Will Open,” The Seattle Daily Times, May 4, 1941, p. 7;  “Dedication of New Service Club Tonight,” The Seattle Times, July 10, 1942, p. 3; “Millionth U.S.O. Guest, After A Shower, Has Exciting Day,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 15, 1944, p. 2;  “Lutheran Center Like Home To Service Men and Women,”  November 10, 1943, The Seattle Times, p. 20;  “Popcorn Balls For Service Men,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 23, 1944, p. 3;  “Mother, Seeking Navy Son, Finds His Ship Had Gone,” The Seattle Daily Times, November 1, 1943, p. 2; "Service Club Locations," Seattle Public Library, Seattle Room and History, Travel and Maps Room, March 3, 2009.

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