On Saturday, the music of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman will fill the auditorium of the Bowling Green Town Hall, as it used to do twice a week during World War II.
Three-quarters of a century ago, the building at 117 Butler St. served as a USO club for service members posted at Fort A.P. Hill.
More than a million soldiers and their sweethearts danced on the hardwood floors of the auditorium during the war years. Those original floors were sanded and refinished this summer to spruce up the building for a USO big band concert and dance, featuring the Fredericksburg Big Band, hosted by the towns of Bowling Green and Port Royal and Caroline County.
The event is part of a series commemorating the 75th anniversary of World War II in the county.
“My grandmother used to tell me stories about the USO dances held at Town Hall when she was a teenager,” said Jo-Elsa Jordan, events coordinator for the town of Bowling Green. “This is a fun way to recreate that experience for those of us that weren’t around then.”
According to information provided by Wayne Brooks, president of the Caroline Historical Society, the building was constructed in 1941 to provide recreational opportunities to soldiers training at A.P. Hill, which had been established the same year.
Before it was built, dances for the troops were held at the old Caroline High School, which now houses Caroline County Public Schools’ Central Office. They were organized by the Community Service Council, a group of Bowling Green women. The women prepared lists of suitable local girls to dance with the troops and drafted acceptable “rules of conduct.”
But the soldiers needed showers, meals and a library in addition to a place to dance. Caroline residents established a reading room for troops in the back of the Safeway store, furnished with donated chairs, games and letter-writing materials, but it was only one room for thousands of men. So community members began a letter-writing campaign to Congress and to the USO asking for assistance in constructing a recreational facility.
The town purchased a lot behind the courthouse from Ruth Powers for $1,000 and deeded the lot to the federal government.
In August of 1941, the town applied to the Federal Works Agency for a grant of $42,000 to build the recreation facility and in September, the grant was approved. Work began on the 7,742 square foot building in November and was completed by the end of the year, for a total cost of $56,940.
The USO assumed custody in February and the building was dedicated on March 7, 1942.
Known as the Courthouse Club, the facility had an office, two libraries, a lounge with a fireplace, a shower area, a canteen that sold drinks and snacks and an auditorium with a stage for the dances.
A USO coordinator lived in Bowling Green to plan activities for the troops and the local Girls Service Organization provided young ladies from Ashland, King George, Hanover, Milford, Woodford, Sparta and Bowling Green to act as—well-chaperoned—”junior hostesses.” They served at the snack bar and partnered with soldiers at the Wednesday and Saturday evening dances.
For the troops, “Attendance at the Saturday dance often brought an invitation to join [a local family] for Sunday dinner, and that was frequently followed by another evening at the USO,” the Caroline Magazine wrote. “Local girls got a lot of attention, and their companionship was appreciated by scores of military men, some of whom wrote letters and kept in touch through their military service.”
Reporting on the USO building prior to its fourth anniversary in February of 1945, the Caroline Progress noted attendance the previous month was 35,000. Eight hundred telephone calls were placed, 15,000 checks were cashed, 250 packages were wrapped, 75 items of clothing were mended, 75,000 writing materials were contributed, and 200 books and 350 magazines were loaned.
The USO facility in Bowling Green was for white service members. Black soldiers had a separate USO club in front of what was then Union High School and is now the Caroline County Community Services Center. Brooks said it was used as a maintenance shop for the school system after the war and was torn down in the late 1970s.
The Bowling Green USO club reverted to the town in 1946 after the war ended and became Town Hall. It was reconfigured into offices for town staff, but the auditorium and stage were maintained. Brooks said that in 1992, when the Caroline Historical Society was setting up the room for the USO club’s 50th anniversary celebration, they discovered boxes of 1940s picture postcards featuring the building.
Brooks said there are a handful of World War II veterans still living in Caroline County and they have been invited to attend the dance this Saturday, along with Audrey Torrence, who volunteered as a hostess at the club. They’ll be seated together at a table and six wooden armchairs that are original to the building will be reserved for them.
“During the Second World War, the American government saw value in offering entertainment and leisure to our military communities and their families through USO dances. It gave the people a sense of pride and offered a glimmer of hope during a tough time,” Jordan said. “Bowling Green isn’t much different today. It’s about camaraderie and community. We’re also very proud of our history here. The fact that the Town Hall is a former USO building is pretty special.”