A few months before the United States was drawn into World War II, the U.S. Army created the Morale Branch, which was tasked with creating recreational diversions for soldiers. The branch was renamed Special Services a year later as it grew into a huge organization with branches responsible for athletics, entertainment, music, motion pictures, libraries, handicrafts and administrative functions.
In the 1990s, Roger White wrote a six-part series for the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society’s newsletter, about the Special Services Division and the role played by Fort Meade during World War II. As White put it, Special Services was needed to “fill the idle time of servicemen who were training in U.S. camps, stationed at isolated outposts overseas, or were pulled back from the front lines of battle for rest or reequipment. … Recreational programs were needed to occupy, strengthen, and refresh the fighting man.”
According to author Molly Guptill Manning, in “When Books Went to War,” “Although morale was severely challenged in the island battles, the Pacific theater, especially in the later years of the war, was not devoid of amusements for those out of the line of fire. Few newspapers and magazines gave credit to the important work done by the Special Services Division on behalf of the servicemen deployed in these remote regions.”
It succeeded to an astonishing degree around the world. In one instance, as described by Manning, “To temper the stress of battle and provide an escape from the death that surrounded the men, recreation and rest periods were critical. The Special Services Division worked miracles to try to get morale-boosting equipment onto each island in record time. Within four days of the first American landing on Saipan, the Marines were greeted with a boatload of books. Three days later, a library was established.”
Following the formation of the Morale Branch, the War Department directed regiments and battalions to have a full-time recreation officer. A training school was needed.
Special Services School
Fort George G. Meade was chosen as the site for the school for Special Services in 1942. The book “Maryland in World War II,” published by the Maryland Historical Society, described its purpose:
“Fort Meade’s Special Service Unit Training Center emphasized an entirely different phase of military life. Concerned with the soldier’s morale, the officials of this school turned out trained motion picture electricians and projection machine operators, radio engineers, theatrical, musical and athletic technicians, librarians, information and education officers and post exchange personnel. From the graduates of these courses, the center’s officials formed complete entertainment units and sent them to camps, posts and stations at home and abroad so that GI Joe and GI Jane would not be dull through lack of recreation.”
The initial curriculum for the school was created after analyzing the experiences of current recreation officers in camps and posts across the country. Each group of recreation officers took a month-long course and modifications were made on the fly. By the time the seventh group was seated, the course work had expanded to include theatricals, music, education and – lest anyone forget this was the military – unarmed defense.
The number of officer attendees was always increasing, as were instructors and civilian guest lecturers. The school became so popular that it outgrew Fort Meade’s facilities. It moved to Washington & Lee University in Virginia in December 1942. Many of its functions, and enlisted training for Special Services, however, remained at Fort Meade.
As described by White in his series, Special Services “trained enlisted men at Fort Meade to organize and implement entertainment and athletics activities, including live music, stage shows, songfests, motion picture shows, short-wave radio pickups, and games for and by GIs overseas. Some Special Service men were talented performers who had been professional entertainers in civilian life; others had demonstrated their ability to manage or present various forms of entertainment in civilian life or in the Army.”
Entertainment in a box
One of the more impressive functions of Special Services at Fort Meade was the portable kits assembled and shipped to war zones.
“The kits reflected the need to provide something for every GI in a large, heterogeneous Army,” according to White. They certainly did, and then some.
Athletics kits provided equipment for baseball (including catchers’ gear and bases), football, boxing, horseshoes, softball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, ping-pong and board games. Air pumps, laces and repair kits were included. Special Services soldiers were trained to act as officials in all sports.
Music kits provided everything needed to form a band: harmonicas, ocarinas, guitars, ukuleles, sheet music and a small upright piano custom-built for the military by Steinway & Sons. There were also phonographs, records and a radio.
Theatrical kits were designed for GIs to stage their own shows and included wigs, costumes, stage money, makeup, a public address system, books, microphones and a gas generator.
Library-publication kits contained magazines, newspapers and 2,000 books, along with a mimeograph machine, typewriter, pencils, paper and stencils to allow the soldiers (with help from Special Services) to print their own newsletter.
Post exchange kits were portable stores where soldiers could purchase razors, shoe polish, candy, beer, soft drinks, cigarettes, cigars, toiletries, towels, writing paper and envelopes, postcards, cards, dice, poker chips, wrist watches and dozens of other items. A special inventory for Army nurses was included, such as handkerchiefs, bobby pins, cleansing cream, toiletries and much more.
Movie kits enabled the GIs to watch first run movies – provided by Hollywood studios – close to the front by providing a movie projector and screen, along with the film reels, an amplifier, microphones, turntable, portable generator and spare parts and repair kits.
Special Service technicians trained at Fort Meade accompanied the kits to the war zones and assisted with their set-up and use.
Over the years and around the world (not including Fort Meade), Special Services boasted an impressive roster of celebrities in the military who entertained the troops, including:
Actor Ken Berry (“Mayberry RFD,” “F Troop”) served in Special Services under Sgt. Leonard Nimoy (“Star Trek”). Berry was a song-and-dance man for the troops and was also used for recruiting. Nimoy wrote, produced and starred in plays put on for the soldiers.
Sammy Davis, Jr. entertained troops during WWII, all the while enduring violent and constant racism.
Actor Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on the 1960s “Batman” TV show) served in Special Services for 18 months during the Korean War.
Actor Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink in “Hogan’s Heroes”) toured the Pacific theater with Special Services entertaining troops during WWII.
Burt Lancaster joined the Army in 1942 and toured Europe with Special Services.
Allan Ludden (host of the game show “Password)” commanded the Special Services Branch in Hawaii during WWII.
Singer Roger Miller (“King of the Road”) joined the military during the Korean War to avoid jail time for stealing a guitar. He played in a military music group.
Martin Milner (“Adam-12”) directed training films for Special Services and performed for the troops in the early 1950s.
Actor Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell on “Leave it to Beaver”) was in the Army Reserves during the last few years of the show. He was granted leave from the show’s final year in 1963 so he could make appearances with Special Services.
Carl Reiner was drafted into the Army in 1943. After auditioning for an acting role in an Army-produced play, he was transferred to Special Services.
Mickey Rooney toured the world entertaining troops for Special Services and worked as a radio announcer for the American Forces Network.
Actor Hal Smith (Otis on “The Andy Griffith Show”) served in Special Services during WWII.
Actor and comedian Rip Taylor entertained troops in Asia during the Korean War.
Dick Van Dyke was a radio announcer and entertainer for Special Services during WWII.
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Next week, the second part of this series will discuss the numerous celebrities who spent time in the military posted at Fort Meade, including Special Services personnel, as well as the constant parade of Hollywood personalities who visited.