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Trying Times

The local USO struggled alongside the city during the Vietnam War years

Part Two of our Three Part Series highlighting the history of the USO in Fayetteville By Bryan Mims

I am reluctant to even write the word.

As a community we want to excommunicate the word, to cleanse our collective psyche of it, to accentuate the here and now and the what is to come in our city of History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling.

But here goes — Fayettenam.

The word might as well be a glaring typo overlooked by an editor. It’s a smudge, an inkblot, a messy stain on a glossy page. Some of you cringe just to see it there in stark black and white — let alone hear it. But I write the word because it spells out in shorthand a defining period in our city’s past.

We are a different (and far better) city now, of course. Gone from downtown are the strip clubs and the seedy beer joints. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, more than 200,000 soldiers passed through Fort Bragg on their way to Vietnam. Fayetteville’s link and proximity to the Army post often sparked anti-war protests on the streets of our town, even luring the most notorious protester of the time, Jane Fonda, on at least three occasions. The churn of drafted G.I.’s fresh out of high school, combined with demonstrations and various outbreaks of misbehavior, earned Fayetteville that unmentionable moniker we’re still trying to live down more than four decades later. “There were pool halls, hotels, bar fights and we weren’t well accepted in this town in those days, as I recall,” veteran Tom Dohnke told me during the Heroes Homecoming parade through downtown Fayetteville in November, a city-wide event to give Vietnam veterans the proper welcome home they never received back then. Dohnke first came through town in 1967, just before he was shipped off to Vietnam. “I was walking with this group (in the parade) and I thought, ‘My gosh, if they knew the real truth.’”

The truth wasn’t pretty. Soldiers weren’t celebrated in this community as they are today; they weren’t celebrated much anywhere in the country.

“When I landed in California, I was spit on,” Harvey Stewart of Fayetteville told me during that same, long-overdue homecoming event.

USO on the frontlines again

Back in those days, if you turned out of the hurly-burly of Hay Street onto Ray Avenue, past what is now Festival Park, you would have seen a big, two-story brick building with a towering chimney at the corner of Ray Avenue and Rowan Street. That was the Joe Barr USO Club, named for a prominent businessman who became known for his efforts to promote a strong relationship between Fayetteville’s business and military communities. “We were very proud of it,” recalled former mayor Bill Hurley of the old club site. “It was a fine establishment, but as times changed, soldiers were using it less and less.” The United Services Organizations — the USO — was founded on the eve of the Second World War to boost morale among American troops, with its first center in the world opening in Fayetteville. Clubs formed across the country and around the world, giving service members a place to hang out, play pool, watch a show or movie, meet girls (many of whom would become their wives) and just take a break from their regimented, war-fraught lives. But after the war, in 1947, the USO disbanded. With our boys home from the front lines, the thinking was, they no longer needed these services to make them feel at home.

That thinking soon broke down with the start of the Korean War in 1950, and the USO was again pressed into duty. So was Bob Hope, the iconic, comedic figure of USO Camp Shows from World War II. There he was again, quipping in his deadpan diction to the troops in another exotic locale where bullets were flying. A decade later, in the build-up to the Vietnam War, Bob Hope and the USO again proved an indispensible weapon in the battle against the enemies within: homesickness, sadness, fear.

Charles Curtis, a former Special Forces soldier from Clinton, attended a Bob Hope Christmas Show while serving in Vietnam in the late sixties. Being in such an alien place with no winter, mortar blasts in the distance, he said that USO show made the anxiety melt away, if only for a night. “There is no one like him,” he told me. “There will never be another like him. Bob Hope can make you laugh, Bob Hope can make you cry, and make you forget all your troubles.”

I found Doug Ayers, a retired Marine, on a contemplative stroll by himself through the North Carolina Veterans Park in Fayetteville one warm afternoon. Ayers, who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., was searching for a comrade’s hand cast in bronze, a friend who also served in Vietnam. He attended several USO shows during his 13 months in country. “You couldn’t pass up the USO, that was the best thing in the world,” he told me. “When you were in Vietnam, if you didn’t get R-and-R out of the country, the USO was all you got as far as entertainment goes.”

Unlike these days, troops didn’t have cell phones or email or Skype, and they rarely even had access to pay phones. But the USO shows kept Ayers in tune with American pop culture, even if the entertainers belting out those American ditties often came from the Philippines and Australia. “You could go up to this Filipino who could not speak a word of English, and he would sing a song absolutely correct. You would have no idea he was Filipino.”

On a night like that, in a jungle humid with tension and foreboding, the troops could feel like they were back at home in their Chevelles and Chargers with the radio cranked up. “It would hype your day up after all the crap you had to deal with,” Ayers told me. “But you had to do your job.” And a USO show made that job a bit more bearable.

The USO opened its first center in Saigon in September 1963. By the beginning of the U.S. drawdown in 1972, the USO had 18 centers in Vietnam and seven in Thailand. Along with that old standby Bob Hope, the USO summoned a virtuoso roll call of entertainers to Vietnam: Sammy Davis, Jr., John Wayne, Wayne Newton, Charlton Heston and Nancy “These Boots Are Made For Walking” Sinatra. From 1965 through 1972, famous figures performed more than 5,600 USO shows in Vietnam, including eight Bob Hope Christmas Shows. The lack of support for the Vietnam War on the home front made USO centers and shows all the more treasured among the troops.

Local USO falls out of use

But back in Fayetteville, where so many of those troops began their march to war, the USO Club existed mostly in name only. Don Talbot, who did three tours in Vietnam and has since become a well-known veterans advocate in Fayetteville, said it wasn’t a shining beacon of diversion for draftees during the Vietnam era. “It just lost its touch.” He said the military culture — indeed, the experience of serving — had changed since World War II, when troops left for war and stayed for the duration. With Vietnam, “we went in and went out, and then there was the whole anti-war effort. You didn’t have (the USO Club) on your mind.”

The first USO Club opened during World War II a block away inside the old parsonage of the Hay Street United Methodist Church. At the time, people knew it as the Soldiers Town Hall, and it was a happening place. Throughout the wartime period, the local USO hosted dances and parties for soldiers there and on Fort Bragg.

“I don’t know if it was ever in a heyday after World War II,” Hurley, the former mayor, said. “I think its heyday was World War II and a few years after. After that it sort of lost its influence, its purpose. Also, the downtown did not have a great image at that time.” It’s an image Hurley worked as mayor to shatter in the early eighties. He ran for mayor on the platform of razing all those tawdry night spots. “We went after the 500 block of Hay Street,” he said. “We knocked down the buildings and bars and strip joints. And we have rebounded steadily ever since.”

Although the popularity of the USO Club might have fizzled among the local military community during Vietnam era and after, the big brick building with the hardwood floors and bandstand was far from abandoned.

Fayetteville used the building for special events such as banquets and dances and even a skating rink. “During my time as mayor, I don’t remember the military using it,” said Hurley, who was mayor from 1981 to 1987. “The seventies I think was the greatest decline in its relevance.”

“That was at one time a beautiful building, then it went down, down, down,” Talbot said. Parking for the building was a problem. The pipes leaked. It had water damage. Finally, in May 2002, a fire broke out and destroyed the structure. The grand building that lorded over Ray Avenue and Rowan Street is now a patch of grass on the edge of Festival Park. The USO Club has since opened a chapter on Fort Bragg and, most recently, one at the Fayetteville Regional Airport.

USO marches into modern era

Perhaps it was inevitable: Just as what happened after World War II, talk emerged again after Vietnam about the relevance of the USO. Websites for the organization tell of the Department of Defense commissioning a Blue Ribbon Study Committee to see whether the USO had become obsolete; after all, the draft had ended and the armed forces were now “all volunteer.” But the committee reached this conclusion: “Isolation of the military from civilian forces is not, we believe, in the greatest interest of this nation.” In short, it averred, the USO was not only relevant but necessary.

The organization found its second wind with programs aimed to serve the changing face of the military, whose ranks now included married people with kids. It also offered job assistance programs for those leaving the uniform.

The USO has evolved, right along with the city where it found its first home. It didn’t much feel at home here through the raucous days of Vietnam. Fayetteville seemed like nobody’s hometown — just a portal to a polarizing war for soldiers from Anywhere, U.S.A., drafted into a thankless job. In November, our city gave them a hearty, if overdue, thank you. We are a city with History, Heroes and a Hometown Feeling, so the slogan goes.

If anything has reached the end of its usefulness, it’s the word I wincingly wrote at this story’s beginning: Fayettenam. May it rest in peace.