Matron, Mother, Hostess: Senior USO Hostesses and the Care of American Soldiers in World War II
American involvement in World War II marked a shift in American lives as the country prepared to enter the fight. The United States government had mobilized its male fighting force, shifting familial dynamics and creating issues of morale and home front employment. This extensive mobilization included women, as popular images of Rosie the Riveter or the Women’s Auxiliary Corps recruitment posters created the illusion that every able-bodied woman entered into the workforce. In reality, Rosie workers only embodied a small percentage of women who joined the workforce. Meanwhile the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps gave women the opportunity to travel abroad and serve their country like the boys, but its creation was met with heavy opposition over fears of “masculinizing” American women through the traditionally masculine roles they took.
A large percentage of women did not feel comfortable being either a Rosie or a WAC. Balancing the work of the housewife with a factory work day could be incredibly difficult, in addition to challenging traditional gender roles. For those women who wanted to combine war work with traditional ideas of femininity, the United Service Organizations (USO) was an excellent choice. There, they could exercise their feminine influence as hostesses– women who hosted servicemen at USO events and service clubs– in ways they felt would still contribute to the war effort. It was their own form of patriotic duty. Created out of the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services (NCCS), National Travelers Aid Association, and the National Jewish Welfare Board, the USO sought to lift troop morale and grow support for the war on the home front.
Historians have often ignored the contributions of USO hostesses, focusing on the debate between whether the war did or did not lead to gains in women’s economic and social independence. One need only to search for women’s work during World War II to see a plethora of articles about women in the military or war work, but hardly any results for USO hostesses or their contributions to the war effort.
Historian Meghan Winchell describes these women as a stabilizing force for established gender roles– proverbial “good girls”– at a time when war work and military groups such as the WACs challenged those roles. Junior hostesses took on the role of single, sexually respectable women while senior hostesses became the mothers of the USO. Both types of women acted as ties to the home front. By bringing comfort to servicemen, the USO worked toward creating an environment reminiscent of home, the war a long way off. Of interest in this paper, however, are the senior hostesses as it applies to the letter collection used.
The life and influence of one such senior hostess brings the experience of the USO hostess to life. Examining letters sent to her, a clearer picture of hostesses, as viewed by soldiers, begins to emerge. Lola Cannon Pefley was thirty years old at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. She would later go on to volunteer for the USO and act as a senior hostess for the war’s duration, working at a USO club in Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas. Little else can be found about her; but the letters she received from soldiers around the world illuminate her life just enough to get a glimpse of who she was and her role as a hostess. In this examination, letters express implicit feelings, rather than solely explicit facts or details about combat. Historian Paul Fussell argues that letters are unreliable as they are prone to self-censorship, censorship by the government, and are often too formulaic to be of any real value. Soldiers often could not and did not reveal much about the combat experience in their correspondence. The letters from the soldiers in the Pefley collection, however, do reveal their perceptions of Lola and their relationships with her. In this way, they are useful by suggesting men’s broader views on gender in regard to USO hostesses and how their work boosted morale among soldiers. USO hostesses could be both women and Americans in their roles, despite the occasionally strict gender stereotypes they embraced.
Women’s roles are often painted with a broad brush, reduced to stereotypes, people hardly worth exploring in the larger narrative of World War II. Fussell sums it up best: women were “the female, consisting of a mother, grandmother, and sister, on the one hand, and, on the other, agents of sexual solace.” Yet, Lola’s letters from soldiers suggest a need to reconsider Fussell’s type-casts. Women, hostesses specifically, occupied, a central place in the soldier’s narrative. But what was their role? On a broader scale, how did they feature in the narrative the government tried to create surrounding USO women, junior and senior hostesses alike? And, finally, were these type-casts responsible for the way in which hostesses’ contributions were remembered?
Between the years 1942 and 1945, Lola Canon Pefley received over eighty letters from soldiers previously stationed at Camp Bowie in Texas. All had come to meet her through her USO service club located at the camp or through their letters to her. Many discussed homesickness and their desire for a girlfriend when they returned home, but one consistent theme throughout was Lola herself. Her companionship, her letters, and gifts; the soldiers never failed to mention how grateful they were for her. She was a presence even though no letters she sent were part of the collection. Though that would have been ideal, there is enough in the soldiers’ letters to piece together how she came to take such a large role in the lives of these men.
Often, soldiers “missed the support and attention of [their] wife, mother, or girlfriend” according to Kindsvatter, so the USO provided with pseudo-wives, mothers, and girlfriends. USO hostesses were the better and wholesome alternative to other forms of entertainment, such as brothels. In this respect, junior hostesses were the most important. These young women, usually in their 20s, were expected to be “good, clean girls” who kept the soldiers away from women who could give them venereal diseases. They danced with men at USO dance halls and provided companionship, a reminder of their sweethearts waiting back home. While Lola was most likely a senior hostess, it is important to understand how senior hostesses became the equally feminized foil of junior hostesses.
Most senior hostesses were married women, usually thirty-five years or older. Ultimately, these women served the matronly role, performing such services such as baking cookies for the soldiers, sewing patches onto their uniforms, and lending an ear to the soldiers’ anxieties. Senior USO hostesses were also expected to provide their boys with young female pen pals and dates. Heterosexual relationships were seen as important to keep up morale. The senior hostesses served as advisors for– or more likely, against– relationships as servicemen went abroad. One paratrooper in Australia, Edward “Black Eddie” Rivas and hereafter referred to as Rivas, wrote to Lola about the Australian girls and how they reminded him of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls from Texas. If he survived the war, he said, he’d “bring one of them back so [Lola could] meet her.” There is no letter attesting to what Lola advised, but based on the responses of other USO hostesses of the time, she most likely discouraged such a relationship. Hostesses were supposed to encourage servicemen to seek the American girls. There was worry within American society that their sons would become corrupted by foreign women, especially those who could transmit venereal diseases. As a result, soldiers were discouraged from relations with foreign women. Senior hostesses acted as the mothers to call their soldiers back from those places and keep them safe.
From other soldiers who wrote to her, there was often talk about relationships and arranging dates for when these soldiers returned home from the war. Morasco asked Lola about an unnamed girl she had told him about, writing, “Tell me more about her and when you see her, tell her what a heel I am and see if she would care to correspond with me.” At the time of this letter, he had already returned to the United States and was on furlough in an unnamed military camp. Earlier, in March, he wrote, “Here I thought I could depend on you and what do you do? I’m asking you. You let me down.” This was in response to Lola’s promise to set him up with a girlfriend when he returned to Texas. Another example of this matchmaking phenomenon comes from a letter Alfalfa sent to Lola. He bluntly says, “Have me a girlfriend too,” after telling Lola of his return to Brownwood, Texas on his furlough. These are just a few of the letters in which soldiers asked about such possibilities, emphasizing the soldier’s need for female companionship.
Senior hostesses were also expected to provide emotional services. Most often, this included listening to any anxieties the soldier might have. These could range from the war and the loss of friends to worries about their families and girlfriends back home. In Lola’s case, the soldiers often talked about illnesses and especially the death of their friend, paratrooper Rivas, who died in September of 1943. Before Rivas’ death, the men mentioned little in the way of their feelings other than homesickness or the occasional sad spell. Charles E. Harlan, known as “The Squirt,” wrote much about how there is little to do, stationed in the South Pacific on an unknown island, even going so far as to say, “Would almost relish [some war action]– just to break the monotony.” Boredom was a major issue for soldiers, but it could also be used to disguise unease in combat. Harlan discussed little about his job overseas, as did many other soldiers, yet there were occasional letters, such as that from Bill Owings, which read, “I’m definitely lonesome acutely so for both of you,” referring to Lola and a man by the name of Beebe. Only one line in a letter, it speaks volumes about how the men trusted Lola to be their emotional support. Similarly, Kent Thorton wrote, “I’m in the hospital, battered up a little– be up and around in a few days tho’. Mental depression was pretty bad. It seemed like a nightmare now.” At a time when mental health was rarely discussed, a soldier admitting his depression is highly unusual and a sign of trust. In USO clubs, younger junior hostesses often referred men who appeared to be in low spirits to the senior hostesses. The purported “natural,” nurturing qualities of more mature women were supposed to help provide counseling services to these men. Intriguingly, publications at the time emphasized that women would not be able to understand the masculine culture of soldiers. The job of the hostess was to provide counsel, but her ability was only good enough to ease anxieties, not understand them. A double standard emerged, where the government encouraged USO hostesses to provide a listening ear to these men yet said they could not possibly understand.
Yet, Rivas’ death created a shared sense of loss between Lola and the men. “I couldn’t keep from crying (down deep) that this has happened,” wrote Harlan in December of 1943. “I know that he loved you as we do… that you were a bright and happy spot in his brief life– as in ours.” He expresses and shares his grief with Lola, who presumably wrote about her own grief regarding Rivas’ death. In this same sentence, however, Harlan also explicitly states the effect hostesses could have on the men through their care packages and camaraderie. Given that was the mission of the hostesses, it shows Lola fulfilling her duties while also expressing the importance of having someone like her to act as an emotional caretaker. The death of a fellow friend and soldier affected everyone greatly in the group, however, not just Harlan. “It hurt a little to unwrap [the package] and see Black Eddie’s address on it and also on the enclosed Christmas card. I feel very sorry every time I think about him. We had so many things planned for the future,” said Captain Charles E. Stewart, known as “Lil’ Eddie” and hereafter referred to as Stewart, in a letter several months after Rivas’ death. While this event prompted them to talk more openly, it is telling that these soldiers were able to talk about it at all. In the masculine culture of the soldier, emotion wasn’t something expressed often in letters, especially when talking about the death of a friend. Even with censors, who could have cut out these parts about the front, these men found solace in telling Lola about their heartache. Lola was their motherly figure. The men talk about how she comforts them by sending packages and praying for them as the war enters another year. “I wish you could realize how much we Eddie’s do love and appreciate, to the fullest, your devotion and wonderful friendship,” wrote Harlan in the same letter where he discussed the profound grief he felt over Rivas’s death. Lola was “a swell gal” and a good friend to them, and Rivas’s death highlights the strongest sentiment the men have toward her during the war.
Rivas’s death and the continuation of the war brought out even more appreciation from the men. In each letter to Lola, Harlan makes sure to tell Lola how much he appreciates her letters and how he is fondly reminded of how much he means back home. “Thanksgiving day I thought of the lovely dinner I had with you last year, brought back memories,” he wrote just after Thanksgiving, 1943. She had cooked for everyone at the service club, providing them a holiday dinner far from home. Her motherly demeanor led her to be popular among the men. It even got her an article in the Camp Bowie newspaper, a piece focused on her contributions to the war effort. Historian Paul Kindsvatter wrote soldiers wanted mothers most when they were sick or wounded. It can be argued that this statement can be extended to encompass emotional wounds as well. The war took a toll on many soldiers psychologically, and they reached out to Lola voluntarily.
Another aspect of the senior hostess relationship with servicemen involved mail. Senior hostesses often helped soldiers with their gift wrapping and package mailing when it came to the holidays. Lola was one of those hostesses who wrote and sent packages to men she had met in her service club in Camp Bowie. Many letters to Lola mention how happy they are to have received a letter, especially when they have not received any other form of mail. In January of 1943, Morasco wrote, “Since I got your package, my hopes of getting the rest of my packages has gone up a lot.” Similarly, Stewart wrote one holiday season that, “it is swell of you to remember me every year like this,” and how much he appreciates Lola’s thoughtfulness in sending a Christmas card. Even far away, Lola and senior hostesses like her could extend their hospitality and emotional services to the servicemen they volunteered to help.
Additionally, letters could be used to share information about friends and family while the men were away. Lola’s job allowed her to tell the men where she thought their friends had been sent. “Have you heard if Alfalfa and the gang have left the states yet?” is a question exemplary of the similar questions Lola received in many of her letters. Men were provided relief when they knew where their friends were. Again, this became another extension of the emotional support women could offer as hostesses. The group was important to soldiers, often focusing on those that were in his platoon or company. In the case of Lola’s soldiers, they considered those of the 36th division, later divided into different components, part of their larger family. Her job was to make sure everyone kept in contact with each other, while also keeping in contact with them. Nowhere was that a part of the USO guidelines, but it provided a form of emotional work in which Lola provided security of mind. The “maintenance of morale,” explained one USO bulletin was largely “a housekeeping job,” or rather, a job left to the homemakers found in the USO hostesses. Letters to Lola served this purpose, providing both an escape from their circumstances and a means of staying involved in the lives of those they’d left behind.
Women who worked in the USO bridged the masculine world of war and the feminine world of the home. They supported men like their sons or husbands, sending just as many packages and letters as anyone else. Senior hostesses, especially, were welcomed as mother figures to these young men being sent off to war. As one of these hostesses, Lola provided comfort and a tie to home, making sure her soldiers felt loved and remembered in a time of chaos as so many other senior hostesses did during World War II. The letters she received exemplify the importance of her role for the soldiers whom she met at her service club, regardless of whether she served in the role of emotional confidant or doting mother figure. While some historians might argue that their restrictive role granted them little autonomy, the opposite is true. Within these roles, women did their best to exercise what rights they had to better aid those serving. These senior hostesses, Lola included, used their skills in homemaking as tools with which to support the war effort. Perhaps if these women had received an award for their hard work, they would have been talked about more, by historians and laypeople alike. Their work, like that of other women during World War II, has proven to be just as important to the war effort.
 Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: sex roles, family relations, and the status of women during World War II (Contributions in women’s studies, vol. 20. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982), 23.
 Meghan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 1.
 Anderson, Wartime Women, 10.
 Leisa D. Meyer, “Creating G.I. Jane: The regulation of sexuality and sexual behavior in the women’s army corps,” (Feminist Studies 18, no. 3, Autumn 1992), 581.
 Anderson, Wartime Women, 11.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 5.
 “About Us,” USO website, USO Inc., accessed November 4, 2017, https://www.uso.org/about.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 11.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 13.
 Terese Schlacter, “In the USO’s Early Years, Hostesses Provided a Wholesome Morale Boost,” USO (blog), USO Inc., February 4, 2016, https://www.uso.org/stories/149-in-the-uso-s-early-years-hostesses-provided-a-wholesome-morale-boost.
 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 181.
 Fussell, Wartime, 116.
 Peter S. Kindsvatter, American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 96.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 7.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 12.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 3.
 Goodman, “Patriotic Femininity”, 287.
 Edward “Black Eddie” Rivas to Lola Pefley, 28 April 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Yellin, Our Mothers’ War, 25
 Winchell, Good Girls, 114. However, the government often tacitly allowed foreign sexual relations with certain races of women– chiefly, white women. For more information, see Beth Bailey and David Farber’s The First Strange Place.
 Ben Morasco to Lola Pefley, 31 July 1945, Pefley Correspondence.
 Ben Morasco to Lola Pefley, 19 March 1945, Pefley Correspondence.
 Lynn “Alfalfa” Wells to Lola Pefley, 13 January 1946, Pefley Correspondence.
 Charles E. Harlan to Lola Pefley, 1 September 1943, Harlan (Charles E.) Second World War Correspondence (2017.013.w.r), Center for American War Letters, Chapman University, CA.
 Yellin, Our Mothers’ War, 25. (hereafter Harlan Correspondence).
 Bill Owings to Pefley, 25 October 1942, Pefley Correspondence.
 Yellin, Our Mothers’ War, 25.
 Kent Thorton to Lola Pefley, 8 September 1942, Pefley Correspondence.
 Yellin, Our Mothers’ War, 25.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 12.
 Hartmann, “Prescriptions for Penelope,” 230.
 Charles E. Harlan to Lola Pefley, 3 December 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Edward C. Stewart to Lola Pefley, 29 May 1944, Pefley Correspondence.
 Kindsvatter, American Soldiers, 125.
 Charles E. Harlan to Lola Pefley, 3 December 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Charles E. Harlan to Lola Pefley, 29 November 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Lynn Wells to Lola Pefley, 1 December 1942, Pefley Correspondence.
 Kindsvatter, American Soldiers, 96.
 Winchell, Good Girls, 39.
 Ben Morasco to Lola Pefley, 26 January 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Edward C. Stewart to Lola Pefley, 26 December 1944, Pefley Correspondence.
 Ben Morasco to Lola Pefley, 29 January 1943, Pefley Correspondence.
 Kindsvatter, American Soldiers, 100.
 The USO Bulletin as quoted in Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun (Meghan K. Winchell).
Sasha Conaway received her BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Her work has been published in the Spring 2017 and 2018 editions of Calliope Literary & Art Magazine. Currently, she is pursuing an MA in War and Society and researching for her thesis, which examines the roles and memory of women in the Easter Rising of 1916. The research in this article emerged from a graduate course and was presented at the Society of Military History conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
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