Friday, March 27, 2009

History of Special Services, Part II

The Mission

The first two program areas within Special Services were service clubs and library services. Service club facilities traditionally housed new programs (movies, arts, crafts, entertainment, recreation, etc.) which were added to meet the diverse interests of military personnel. By the mid-40's, programs and facilities were available to armed forces throughout the world.

"When troops went into action in Korea, Army Service Clubs staffed by young women were authorized to operate in a combat zone for the first time.

In Vietnam, a full complement of programs staffed by several hundred college graduates (coed) as well as active duty soldiers in Special Services military occupational specialties supported our troops."

In 1966, a Special Services team (Riki Coll, Vera Vincent, Effie Fairchild, Angela Silcox and Ruth Baker) arrived in Saigon to work with two staff members who were already on task: Ruth Rappaport (with the Navy Library Services program) and Gordon Grunke (MACV entertainment and USO programs).

The number of Special Services civilian personnel in Vietnam between 1966 and 1972 is estimated to have been between 300-600. There was never an official count; this estimate may include entertainers, military-liaison personnel and a host of TDY specialists from Europe, Korea, the US and Japan who were temporarily assigned to Vietnam to either train new staff or to maintain programs until new staff arrived....

Each volunteer selected for the Special Services program (referred to as "Army" or "military" civilians) possessed unique skills in organization, management and resourcefulness... a college degree in a related program area was required.... As late (or as early) as the 1960's, selectees was subjected to security clearance and background checks....

Combat zone programs (such as in Vietnam) were established in areas where facilities were immediately available. At the discretion of post commanders, Special Services facilities were either newly-constructed or renovated to accommodate a multitude of activities and conveniences for the troops: swimming pools, indoor and outdoor theaters, libraries, athletic fields, fully-equipped music rooms, writing rooms, game rooms, weight rooms, craft rooms, large kitchens... full bathrooms with private showers (including hot water and flush toilets).....

Two Vietnam "model" clubs were BLACKHORSE (built by Xuan Loc soldiers over a 5-year period, but open only 29 days before the base was closed) and FREE WORLD SERVICE CLUB (rebuilt by US and PHILCAG troops after the original club burned) at Tay Ninh. Near the Tay Ninh club, base commanders built small "stand down" cottages ("HoJo Village"), reserved strictly for returning LRRP and RECON patrols.... several years after the withdrawal of US troops from South Vietnam, the club at Tay Ninh was featured in a commemorative TV program as a "popular resort facility" for Vietnamese dignitaries.

Evidenced by the work of Special Services in Vietnam, rapport and teamwork were notably high among program planners. Activities and schedules were coordinated monthly, weekly and daily. With a plethora of "packaged" themes (decorations, game kits, lists of local and personnel resources, etc.) readily available -- program specialists worked diligently to coordinate activities. Music rooms, libraries, craft rooms, game rooms, weight rooms and smaller "sitting" areas were always open. Evening activities normally featured pre-scheduled programs -- movies, bingo, tournaments, special entertainment (local or touring soldier shows), USO troupes, or theme parties..... canisters of coffee and koolaid were always available. Depending upon military "status" within the region and event popularity, daily participation rates could range in the hundreds to the thousands.....

Program specialists were never confined to club facilities in promoting morale .... WW I veterans recall "hostesses" who visited soldiers near the battlefront, beyond the crowded canteens and "day rooms".... WW II, Korean and Vietnam soldiers -- assigned to small, isolated outposts and firebases -- have shared "special" memories of visits and programs brought to them by entertainment, library, crafts and recreation specialists who traveled by truck, jeep, APC and helicopter.....

"I don't remember if we played any games or what she brought us," recalled a Korean War veteran. "I remember it was cold and when she hopped out of that truck, the whole unit warmed up..... She spent maybe an hour with us, talking
and laughing, drinking coffee and taking pictures, asking us where we were from
and all.... a couple of the guys cried and she cried with them.... It was just
tears of happiness, I think, to see an American woman.... to know she cared....
When she left, we all shook her hand -- it would not have been right to hug her
back then.... A few hundred of us saw Marilyn Monroe once, but I will never
forget that lady who came to see us..." --A Korean vet

Innovation and resourcefulness were often keys to boosting morale ....

When a "Week at the Races" (featuring theme movies, model car crafts, library reading lists and book discussions, athletic competitions, horse and car racing games) did not garner much attention, a hastily organized Roach Race (featuring entries from each unit) drew large crowds. Competition was so intense that several "heats" and challenge races were necessary.... three "winning" units was treated to a cookout (roaches excluded). Additional prizes were awarded for roach painting and roach names.

Next Part III

-- Based on research and interviews for the Reflections in Marble collection, circa 2001.