Friday, March 27, 2009

A History of Special Services, Part I

The Role

"When I think about the purpose of our program, I am reminded how far back theroots of morale, welfare and recreation go. I think about those cold, hungry,
ragged soldiers at Valley Forge and what “morale” must have meant to them. There
were no fitness centers or theme restaurants. There weren’t even enough boots or
blankets. Most of them hadn’t eaten a good meal or drunk a tankard of ale in
weeks. But there was the fife and drum corps for morale.

And elsewhere behind the lines, history tells us Revolutionary War soldiers
found the energy to sing, gamble, stage skits, and play practical jokes.
Anything to get their minds off the horrors of battle and the boredom of

Then I think about the blue and gray soldiers in the Civil War. There was a
lot of suffering and death, but there were also a few more distractions to
sustain morale: minstrel shows, chess, woodcarving, foot and horse races, dice,
poetry, books and newspapers, cards, sports, the Sutler’s store, and even teas
and balls hosted by local citizens...."

A preliminary inquiry into the history of Special Services must acknowledge the roles and contributions of The Salvation Army and the YMCA during World War I. Composed of volunteers who placed themselves in harm's way to tend to the morale and well-being of military personnel, each organization was the prototype of the morale, welfare, educational and recreation programs that exist today.

Special Services programs are believed to have been "born" (circa 1917-18) when morale-support agencies (such as the YMCA, Red Cross and Salvation Army) were pulled out of most WWI European combat zones. Although sports and athletic programs were always available to military personnel -- field commanders wanted more.

"In the 20th century, when it came time to train thousands and thousands of young men for service in World War I, Dr. Raymond Fosdick, Commissioner of Training Camp Activities for Secretary of War Newton Baker under President
Woodrow Wilson, wrote 'Morale is as important as ammunition and is just as
legitimate a charge against the public treasury.'That was 1919.

Then I think about the doughboys across the pond on the front lines in France,
where Salvation Army sisters responded to a homesick, wet, cold Arkansas
soldier’s wish for a fresh donut to go with his hot coffee. Yes, those Salvation
Army sisters who fried fresh donuts using scrounged ingredients and a
jerry-rigged stove, were the original 'Donut Dollies.' ” (See photo above.)

To maintain the morale and leisure welfare of WW I troops, the US Army established a "special services" program to coordinate "day room" activities with an existing library program staffed by American Library Association volunteers. It is believed that the Army entertainment section , featuring "entertainment for the soldier by the soldier," evolved concurrently with the expansion of "day room" activities.

Congress subsequently mandated the establishment of the US Army Special Services program. With this mandate, staff titles were changed from "hostesses" to "specialists".... A history of the arts and crafts division indicates that this program area was developed in the early 1940's.

"This caring for and responding to the morale needs of soldiers was formally institutionalized in 1940, and in 1941, President Roosevelt instructed the War Department to employ 100 Army hostesses to staff allied leave centers in the Caribbean and Europe."

During WWII, most programs were staffed by the Women's Army Corps and civilian volunteers. With the establishment of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department in 1942, a civilian staff (under the auspices of the military) became responsible for administering programs. The first Special Services staff director was Pat Abernathy (circa 1944). She was followed by a succession of women who were leaders in their respective areas of programming: Ester Walsh, Marilyn White, Elizabeth Scarborough and D. J. Schmidt.

next: Part II

Source: Research and interviews for the Reflections in Marble collection, circa 2001.