Second World War: Air Base and USO Brought Excitement to Small Missouri Town

Good jobs were scarce, but an air base and USO center brought prosperity to a small Missouri town.

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Before and during most of the war years I attended high school in a small Missouri town. This was mostly farm country with very little industry. I did not think my hometown was very exciting, and there certainly were very few chances for good employment. 

I was the youngest of six girls, and while I was still in high school, one by one my sisters started looking for jobs. One worked in a 10-cent store, one in the office of a poultry-packing plant and one in the law office. The others married and moved away. Most of the jobs then only paid $5 a week, which wasn't much even back then. I remember baby-sitting for 10 cents an hour, and one summer I took care of a neighbor's three children, cleaned their house and cooked supper - all for the princely sum of $1.40 a week. With this money, my mother purchased material to make my school clothes.

Into this quiet little town the second World War suddenly exploded. A military air base was built in the country near our town. Now there were jobs to be had, and all of my sisters went to work for the base. A USO center opened in our town, which became filled with servicemen on weekends. It was heavenly to this teenage girl! All these handsome, lonesome boys flirted with us, whistled at us, dated, fell in love and even married many of the local girls. Some dance halls sprang up. At last there was a place to go and a lot of partners to dance with. This did not sit too well with our elders, but we young-uns loved it.

Upon graduation I was lucky enough to secure a job on the air base, too. My whole family moved out to live on the air base. All of us were now working for the government. The rent on the housing units was low; groceries could be purchased cheaply in the commissary. There was even a theater on the base, as well as weekly dances at the NCO or officer's clubs. The base was like a small town in itself. My salary was an unbelievable $25 a week. I was rich! All my oId schoolmates thought I was the luckiest girl in the world.

All the men in our family had been called into service, and my poor mother would pace the floor night and day as each one was sent overseas. I can well remember the day FDR came on the radio announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor - a day that would go down in infamy. Here we were: simple people, church-going people, learning first-hand about air raids, blackouts and the pain of separation from our loved ones. Other countries had always seemed far away from us, and now we were writing to and getting letters from all over the world as our servicemen were shipped out.

I must admit, being as young as I was I found it all terribly exciting. I thoroughly enjoyed all the activities on the base and being driven to and from work in a jeep by some of the servicemen I worked with.

There I was, a small town girl, meeting people from all over the United States, hearing exotic, foreign sounding names and all kinds of accents so different from our slow, Southern drawl. Why, we even had German prisoners of war at this camp. They worked on rubbish pick-up detail, and they would look through the trash and excitedly talk among themselves. One of the drivers who could speak German told me they could not believe the good things Americans threw away, things that would have been much valued in their country.

Strangely, we were never afraid of these prisoners, and all of them seemed like nice boys. They never treated us as if we were their enemies either. We were all just people.

Like most young people, I avoided the news on the radio, not wanting to hear or think about all the battles going on in Europe and the South Pacific. My brother was on one of the islands and sent me a silk-embroidered handkerchief from there, which I still have carefully stored away. There was the pinch of rationing for shoes, meat and gasoline. I still have a couple of ration stamps that I found in an old wallet belonging to my mother. As for shoes, we never had more than two pairs at one time, even when the War wasn't on. We didn't have a car, so gas rationing was no problem. Since we had always lived sparingly, rationing did not bother us as much as it did a lot of other people.

Had I been aware that the boy I was to marry years later was involved in all the military landings, shipwrecked at sea and experiencing untold hardships that would affect his health the rest of his life, I could not have been as carefree as I was. Yes, those were happy years for many of us. Talking to people in later years I found that those years had made such an impression - be it happy or sad - that their lives forevermore seemed to revolve around that time and their experiences.

I do hope there will never again be such a war. However, I must acknowledge the fact that the War did bring people closer together; it allowed people from many places to know one another. Many people were relocated far from their families, and they never came back to their hometowns to settle down. For the first time, people seemed to realize that there actually was a big world out there; many of the returning servicemen decided to look further than their home towns for a place to work and live. Young brides, who met their husbands on military bases far from home, chose to return to their husbands' home states after the War. They had learned to be independent and survive on their own; they no longer felt the need to stay close to family and familiar places.

Looking back, I suppose you could say that for some of us it was the best of times. For others it was the worst of times, but it was a time in this country that will never be forgotten by all of us.

We all had to grow up and live with the aftermath of the War. Many men, such as my husband, were robbed of their youth, their health broken. All of this took a great toll, but I never heard any of them regret what they did for their country. They all retained full patriotism and love for this great country of ours, and would have done battle again if called upon.

My good husband died much too young from complications of his war years, so it is very difficult for me to watch pictures about the War or read stories of war experiences without being terribly saddened. Sad for that girl who was so full of life and fun during those years, sad for my friends who did not return home, sad for the men whose lives were shortened by the effects of the War.

It was indeed the best and the worst of times. 

Helen Ward O'Key
Litchfield, Connecticut

 Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.