By Joe Pickett
Former Base Librarian
Editor's note: The following article was first published in the Oct. 19, 1990 edition of The Mirror. It is part of a series of articles being republished in honor of the 75th anniversary of Naval Station Mayport, which was commissioned on Dec. 7, 1942.
It was an eventful day for Jackonville Beach when, on Feb. 14, 1942, a brand new building was dedicated as a "home away from home" for the servicemen stationed at installations in the area.
People from surrounding communities attended the "grand opening and dedication" ceremonies of the new Salvation Army-sponsored United Services Organization (USO) Center. The military was well represented by naval personnel from the Frontier Section Base at Mayport and Army officers and enlisted personnel from units of the 53rd Coast Artillery and 26th Infantry Division (Yankee Division). The Army units were bivouacked in Atlantic Beach, south of Hanna Park.
Constructed on land dnated by the community, the new center was a high one-story structure containing an auditorium, game room, library, snack bar and a small office. The facility was on the corner of Mundy Drive (now Beach Boulevard) and North Second Street.
The new building was not the first USO Center in Jacksonville Beach. Originally the center was on the second floor of the building on the corner of First Avenue North and Second Street North. Because of the increasing number of servicemen patronizing the old facility, a new center had to be located or a new one constructed.
Jack Jones, a community leader and head of the local civil defense unit, persuaded the city to donate land for a new center. Jones then contacted his friend, Sherwood Gates, a local man working in Washington, D.C., and convinced him to approve the site and arrange for federal funding with which to build the new facility.
The new center was well staffed with two senior hostesses, 40 junior hostesses, and several civilian volunteers from the community. According to two former junior hostesses, Jane Craig and Toni Hutchinson, nine out of 10 hostesses met their future husbands at the center. Both women joined the USO as hostesses in 1942.
Toni Hutchinson was at the center several times a week and always on Friday nights when the dances were opened with a "grand march." With few exceptions, the music was provided by Mayport's popular Frontier Section Base orchestra, the Commanders.
Jane Craig recalled that hostesses' duties included playing cards with the servicemen, working the snack bar and listening to the men talk about their hometowns. On Saturday nights, hostesses and volunteers "helped set up 100 or so cots in the auditorium, game room and library for servicemen who wanted to spend the night at the center."
Sheets and blankets were distributed to each man who then paid a small fee (25 cents) to cover laundering costs.
USO camp shows were always popular with the troops, and they were a big thing at the Mayport Section Base, always attended by capacity audiences in the recreation building theater. Two of the most popular shows were "Smooth Sailing" and "Camel Caravan," especially the latter, since one of the acts was a three-girl dance routine called "The Three Debs." It was a class act from the hit New York Broadway show "Helz-a-Poppin."
According to the Mayport Dispatch for July 25, 1942, the USO Center at Jacksonville Beach met all expectations and passed with flying colors. The staff did everything possible to "maintain a state of high morale in the serviceman." A familiar sight at the Section Base and nearby Army camps at Atlantic Beach was the USO mobile unit personnel passing out coffee and donuts. The cooks and bakers at Mayport got their chance to show the Navy's appreciation.
Every month one big birthday party was held at the USO Center for all of the servicemen whose birthday came within that month. Evidently, November 1942 was a big one for birthdays. Since the center staff always provided the birthday cake, the large number of men with birthdays in November created a dilemma for the staff; they couldn't find a cake big enough for the party. The Navy came to the rescue.
Word of the center's birthday cake problem reached the ears of the commanding officer, Cmdr. Maynard R. Sanders, at the Section Base. Consequently, a huge Navy cake was whipped up and delivered to the USO Center. Catherine Starrs, a regular contributor to the USO column in the Mayport Dispatch, gave this description of the cake: "Through the kindness of the Mayport Section Base, we had the loveliest, tastiest, most colossal cake we ever had." Rumor has it that the base logo was part of the decoration on the cake.
Since those long ago days of World War II, the USO Center at Jacksonville Beach continued to provide a haven for Naval Station Mayport sailors. In turn, the Sailors contributed time, talent and funding to keep the center functioning.
Today, there is another new facility close to the Naval Station. Both the Sailors and the USO have an excellent track record in this area. The next article will cover the trainng of the Navy recruits, ROTC/USNR students from Georgia Tech and Duke University and, surprise, Russian officers and enlisted men.
USO: A Home Away From Home
By Joe Pickett