The Army Made an Actor Out of Me

When I first started learning about “For Men Only” and its members, kept hearing its alternate (and more boring) name, Special Service Show Unit #5.  So that got me thinking: what in the heck is Special Services?

An initial Google search for Army Special Service yields a lot of information about Special Forces, aka the Green Berets.  And I was pretty sure that a group of men doing a show were not under the same umbrella of men who could probably kill me with their pinky.

So I set out to learn more.  Luckily for me, I had a great resource only 45 minutes away in the George Mason University Library.  The John C. Becher Soldier Show Collection contains countless pamphlets and pieces of information about Army soldier shows during World War II and the people behind them, including Special Service.

For Men Only performing in Rome. Photo courtesy of Tom Junod.

It turns out that, in 1941, the War Department got to thinking that it ought to give its soldiers something to do when not fighting.  So it started the Morale Branch, and said that there should be a full-time recreation officer in every battalion.  Throughout World War II, the Morale Branch, later renamed the Special Services Branch (aha), provided soldiers with mobile libraries, sports equipment, musical instruments, movie projectors, radios, and games.   But that wasn’t enough.  The Branch decided to start a School for Special Service, in order to help soldiers put on their own theatrical shows.  Originally located at Fort Meade, Maryland, the school trained officers using some of the people they had culled or who had enlisted from the world of entertainment.

The School emphasized that students should try the ideas they came up with.  One story involves Glenn Miller, who you met before and attended the School along with Maurice Evans, a famous Shakespearean actor of the time.  Evans recalled the experience:

One uninspired experiment was an `impromptu concert’ to take place in a wooded grove somewhere in Maryland. It was an odd assortment of actors, musicians, stagehands, and so forth, who got into file for that cross-country hike. At the alfresco gathering it was very funny to see Glenn Miller struggling to produce from an Army-issue trombone the seductive tones for which he was so famous, and, for that matter, to listen to me spouting `Once more unto the breach’ to an audience of GIs and Baltimore Orioles – - the birds that is.

Later, the school moved to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  There, students wrote skits, jokes, and plays for GI to perform in the field.  They figured out how to created elaborate costumes out of the items a soldier might have overseas.  They explained to soldiers how to build a stage or create lighting.  Some of their ideas are so interesting and funny. Many of these are in the Becher Soldier Show collection.

The efforts of the Special Services Branch certainly paid off.  War inevitably changes people, and some people can never come back from what happened there without suffering from its damage for the rest of their lives.  But I think Special Services did its part to make sure as many boys returned home as whole as possible.

After all, Joe E. Brown points out that:

Our kids were living under constant tension, day after day, night after night. It was a grilling and galling combination: extreme danger and extreme monotony… Humor to Americans is daily bread. They’ve got to have it if they’re going to stay normal. If they haven’t got it, they make it up – - not very good humor always, but the best they can do.

I think they muddled through all right.

Six Jerks in a Jeep

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