Pasco USO club for area soldiers, to become a rare racially integrated club, forms in July 1942.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 7/31/2009
  • Essay 9099

In July 1942, the United Service Organizations (USO) forms in Pasco to serve soldiers stationed nearby. The club provides a snack bar, dancing, letter writing accouterments, bingo night, evenings of singing, and other recreation and social contact for these strangers to the town. During these World War II years, troops are in the area providing air defense for the nearby Hanford Project or otherwise working on that project, or they are stationed at the Naval Air Station (opens July 1942) located two miles outside of town. In 1944 the Pasco USO will become unusual in that the town will begin to successfully operate a racially integrated USO Club, one of the very few effectively integrated clubs in the nation.

Civilians and Soldiers During Wartime

The United Service Organizations (USO), a national organization, was incorporated on February 4, 1941. It was made up of six agencies: YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Bureau, National Catholic Community Services, and Travelers Aid. Early in the war, the agencies had joined together under the name, United Welfare Committee for Defense. The committee sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) a telegram requesting a meeting with government officials to present its views. In December the committee met with Paul V. McNutt (1891-1955), head of the Federal Security Agency, whose responsibilities included recreation. Roosevelt in turn directed the Federal Security Agency to work with the welfare committee to come up with an effective program.

President Roosevelt, recognizing the interest of citizen-soldiers in seeking civilian recreation, believed that community-based programs could best satisfy this reality. Additionally, providing community recreation centers would reduce the perceived threat of large number of military personnel hanging out with nothing to do. Another advantage would be to enlist local civilian populations, especially women, in the war effort, giving them meaningful functions. The USO was in the position to hire professional staff, and this gave it a tremendous advantage in providing an effective recreational and morale-building organization for service men and women far from home during wartime.

The Cookie-Jar Brigade

During the fall of 1941 troops could be seen in the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, Richland). Pasco, with a population of 3,800, went into action to entertain these strangers. They included soldiers providing air defense for the Hanford Project, and the workers from that secret project. The soldiers encamped right in the middle of Pasco, in tents on the high-school football field. In July 1942, a Naval Air Station opened two miles outside town.

Pasco, like many other communities, had no experience in organizing morale and welfare programs for such a large number of newcomers. Bertha Roff (1890-1985), chair of the Pasco Civil Defense Committee, and others stepped forward to assist military families to find housing and receive community support. Audrey Lee took on the recreation effort and together they received town support that included renting two buildings on lower Lewis Street for service recreation centers.

One center served white and the other black servicemen. Josephine Glenn jumped in to form the "Cookie Jar Brigade," calling upon various women's groups to supply cookies for both clubs and keep the two large cookie jars full. They recognized the importance of food in troop morale, recalling the comfort of home-baked cookies. With sugar rationing coming up, a regular supply became a real challenge that the brigade met.

Quickly, the entertainment task grew and the recently formed recreation committee recognized it would need outside assistance. They explored national funding and obtaining professional staff. The situation changed somewhat in late 1941 when the black troops rotated out, so their recreation center ceased operations. The surviving recreation center moved to a larger old bank building at 3rd Avenue and Lewis Street.

The Pasco USO Committee

A few months later, in July 1942, the Pasco Naval Air Station (NAS) was commissioned, and with an Army Reconsignment Depot brought more troops to the area. A local USO committee formed to expand operations and services. A USO director arrived that month to operate the popular club and by the end of the next month the Girl Services Organization (GSO) had trained 60 young women as junior hostesses. The junior hostesses adhered to strict rules, such as no smoking in the club, being friendly to everyone, not making dates, and not leaving the center with a soldier. In addition to club activities the USO sponsored dances at local halls and on the Naval Air Station.

In March 1943 sale of the old bank building forced the club to move to a temporary operation in the Fourth Street Congregational Church basement. The USO Committee in February 1943 requested a government recreation building. Pasco would provide free land at the north end of Volunteer Park, and federal funds would build it. In March 1943, R. S. "Rollie" Brown (1906-1994), formerly Idaho's State Board of Education and Recreation superintendent, took over as USO club director. Brown attended the June 1943 groundbreaking at the Volunteer Park clubhouse site.

Movies, Books, Bingo, Letter-Writing, Dancing

The new club opened in November 1943, and followed the federal standard design. Guests would find a lounge with fireplace, library, snack bar, full kitchen, auditorium with stage, and ladies powder room. The GSO trained more young women and instructed them on how to remain cheery even when soldiers and sailors complained about the area. Sunday night suppers and group singing made that a well-attended evening. Monday nights had bingo with snack food and free long-distance telephone calls as prizes. Dancing lessons took place on Tuesday nights. Wednesday evening servicemen could play games and dance to records -- "Juke Box Jump."

Thursday night the NAS Jive Bombers, an African American band, played at the dance. A free movie highlighted Friday night, followed by informal dancing. Saturday night featured the "Night Club Dance," with decorated tables with the lights turned low. During the day, when the USO had few visitors, local groups could have meetings and other events there.

Black Soldiers in White Pasco

At the beginning of the war Pasco had only four black families. With the war and influx of people of color, the town worried about racial interaction. More black troops arrived in 1944 so the Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey of local business and found that they would refuse to serve blacks. This created a serious issue concerning what black soldiers could do on liberty in town.

Discussions between the USO staff and town leaders came up with three courses of action. Option one was to open a black USO; this was rejected as no space existed. A second choice was to set aside certain evenings for blacks at the USO Club and this seemed unworkable since the whites would then be barred those evenings. Finally, the third proposal included hiring a black staff person to help run a racially integrated USO. The USO and town leaders agreed with this concept. Thus Pasco became one of only three integrated clubs in the nation.

Pasco: A Great Liberty Town

Joe S. Smith Jr., the black staff member, reported to work in July 1944. He recommended that the club not allow interracial dancing. However, this left the problem of finding black dance partners. Army Women's Auxiliary Corps (WAC) and black women workers from Hanford resolved this problem. The NAS made a strong commitment by providing transportation for WAC dance partners from the Walla Walla Army Airfield (WWAAF) to Pasco USO events. Also the popular black NAS band, the Jive Bombers, performed at Walla Walla dances.

In late 1944, black soldiers hesitated to come to the USO. Joe S. Smith made regular visits to the bases and talked up the club. In early 1945 attendance increased and there developed considerable pride in it not being a "Jim Crow" place. Black attendance increased in 1945 as the year went on until the base populations reduced that summer.

No major problems were experienced; the races shared the snack bar, movies, and other events. The USO snack bar workers, local volunteers, played a critical role in the overall success, with friendly service for everyone. Servicemen responded favorably and Pasco became known as a great liberty town. The integration effort was deemed a great success, beyond its founder's fondest dreams.

After the War

In late 1945 the Tri-Cities military presence started a decline so the community made greater use of the Volunteer Park USO as a youth recreation center. Plans for postwar use of the building were formulated and in April 1946, negotiations began for the town purchase of the surplus building. The USO closed in May 1946 and youth activities took over while the city reached a sales agreement.

In February 1947 the Pasco Recreation Department moved into the city-owned building. The building survived until 2000 when it was demolished. Not only did the building survive for many years, but R. S. "Rollie" Brown, the successful USO director, stayed on, becoming the Pasco Housing Authority director and on the Park and Recreation Board, and honored by the City on March 14, 1977, for years of outstanding service.

Sources: R. S. Brown and USO Staff, "Historical Record of Pasco United Service Organizations Club, Pasco WA," The Franklin Flyer, March 1992, pp. 3-6 and June 1992, pp. 5-7; Brian Gerard Casserly, "Securing the Sound: The Evolution of Civilian-Military Relations in the Puget Sound Area, 1891-1984" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 2007); James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II (Seattle: History Ink,, 2000).

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