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All Because of the USO, Part 1

Part one of our three-part series celebrating the USO

By Bryan Mims

Billy Joel and a gritty, down-on-its-luck steel town up North introduced me to the USO. It was just a song, a largely forgotten number seldom heard on the radio anymore. But the lyrics still loop through my head as clearly as they did at the end of 1982 when Allentown, that anthem of blue-collar America, played out on airwaves from sea to shining sea.

“Well our fathers fought the Second World War Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore Met our mothers in the USO Asked them to dance Danced with them slow”

For me, the USO was just a catchy acronym that happened to rhyme with “slow.” I was young, and my appreciation for history was still well in the future. It’s not as though I could have Googled “USO” back then – it was 1982. But over the years I have come to view the black-and-white snapshots of Bob Hope, Judy Garland and Jack Benny standing before great throngs of smiling G.I.’s at a USO Camp Show on some military base in some theater of war.

I wondered how many of those G.I.’s actually met their wives in the USO, came home to work at Bethlehem Steel, and spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore. More than 40 years before Allentown played in my town, the United Service Organizations – the USO – forged the soundtrack of America.

As it happens, the USO did, in fact, beget many marriages that, in turn, begat our nation’s Baby Boom.

THE PIANO GIRL Zula Barton was still but a child herself in the summer of 1943. Or was it the spring of ’43? “I don’t remember,” said the man who would always remember that unique name – Zula. “I was immature, just turned 16,” recalled the girl with the unforgettable name. She was playing the piano that night, whatever night it was, at the old parsonage of Hay Street United Methodist Church. The house had been converted into a hang-out for G.I.’s and came to be called the Soldiers Town Home. Here, G.I.’s could kick back, joke around, eat a sandwich, eat a doughnut, read Life magazine, talk about girls, meet girls, fall in love with girls. In October 1943, the place would become the world’s first USO Club. The USO brought together a variety of organizations such as the Salvation Army, the YMCA and the YWCA – to provide recreation, entertainment and creature comforts for the troops. And if a uniformed chap could find a sweetheart to go happily-ever-aftering with … well then, strike up the band and take a bow.

The 16-year-old piano player – “I had only taken a few lessons,” she said – had her mother as chaperone that night at the Soldiers Town Home. “She took me and two or three of my friends because they didn’t have enough girls,” she said, sitting in her home that is less than three miles from setting for that fateful night. “There were all these older college men coming for a party, and they didn’t have enough girls, so we went to just fill up the crowd.”

The crowd included an ROTC unit from the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, the school now known as Auburn University. A cadet named Reggie Barton, who was about 20 years old, had been called to active duty and ordered to report to Fort Bragg. He joined his classmates at this affair, “and that’s where I met her.”

There she was, at the upright piano, playing with all her beginner might to the sheet music of “Stardust” and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood.” College boy and high school girl were not starry-eyed by each other – at least not at first. There was no you-had-me-from-hello, no walking hand-in-hand in the moonlight after the last dance, no made-for-Hollywood romantic scene. Instead, “they came to my house to have hot dogs,” she said.

And that was that. Zula went on about her life as a teenager in a military town, wedged in an anxious time between World Wars. Reggie went on with his training at Fort Bragg and then was off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for officer candidate school. It had just been a fun, innocent night of “Stardust” and hot dogs in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

WAGING WAR AND WINNING WARRIORS OVER Zula attended other USO Club events, especially the dances. How she loved those Saturday night dances. “And there were lots of cute guys, too, who liked to dance,” she recalled. With all the comings and goings of soldiers marching to battle cries, “I met a lot of very nice people from all over – everywhere – and carried on a long distance relationship with some of them.”

Young people in those days were singing and swinging to a cavalcade of musical luminaries. Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey. Artie Shaw. Benny Goodman. This was, after all, the height of the Big Band era. But the country had just trudged through the depths of the Great Depression, and the winds of war were flapping swastika flags on the other side of the Atlantic. That firebrand tyrant of Germany, Adolf Hitler, was on the warpath, determined to clear everything in his path to crush France and Great Britain, the champions of World War One he so despised.

For now, at least, Hitler’s madness was mostly Europe’s mess. But the specter of another World War gave Americans a real sense of foreboding. Our military had been fast expanding in response to the growing international threat. Bases were bulking up, young men were signing up, and amid all this ramping up for war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the creation of the USO to boost morale among our troops. And Fayetteville embraced the mission. “Everybody was involved in the same effort,” recalled Zula’s 82-year-old brother, Scott McFadyen. He was too young to join the ranks as the world became wrapped in war, but he whiled away many an hour, and turned many a page in Life Magazine, at the USO Club in Fayetteville. His father, James Scott McFadyen, was the city’s mayor; his mother volunteered at the USO as a hostess.

“I got to hang around guys that were just three or four years older,” he said, referring to soldiers from Fort Bragg. “It was just a-happenin’ in this small town. We’d find a GI walking the street and take him home for Sunday dinner.” And there’s one image etched in his mind like a soldier’s name on a dog tag: “It’s of seeing the convoys roll through town, on their way out toward Wilmington, on their way out.” On their way out to the Rhineland, to Normandy, to the Bulge, to the Bataan, to Guadalcanal. “They were waving and hollering to everybody, particularly when they’d see a girl.”

USO clubs sprang up in more than 3,000 communities across the country and on bases around the world, with a charge to become the G.I.’s “Home Away From Home” – its slogan of the day. (“Until Everyone Comes Home” is its modern modification). From 1941 to 1947, the USO presented more than 428,000 performances in its so-called Camp Shows. Bob Hope became legendary – indeed crafted his comic identity – with his stand-up routines for the troops. But across the home front, in store fronts and back buildings, entertainers were often the guy or girl next door. Like a 16-year-old girl taking piano lessons.

AN ENCORE FOR THE PIANO GIRL A year or so after Reggie Barton left Fayetteville, completing officer candidate school and flight training, he got his first assignment: Fort Bragg. He would be putting war-bound soldiers through basic training. Maybe he’d get to see Zula again.

“She was old enough for me to date her then,” he said. Zula not only had a memorable first name, she had a respectable last name – “her daddy was mayor of Fayetteville!” Zula and Reggie began to spend a lot of time together, even courting each other from the very sofa on which I sat for my interview with them. “I dated her right frequently then.” After the war, he left the Army and decided to take the mayor’s daughter as his bride. He proposed back in his home state of Alabama from the back seat of a car (another couple sat in the front). “I asked her if I couldn’t give her a ring for Christmas.” On October 11, 1947, they were married.

Reggie Barton is now 89; Zula is 84. They raised two children together, children to whom boy-meets-girl-at-the-USO is more than a lyric. They have spent nearly 65 years happily-ever-aftering together, a marriage as strong as the steel in Allentown. Billy Joel may have introduced me to the USO. But Reggie and Zula Barton showed me its heart, and left me with a love song.