Serving up memories, USO-style

Volunteers in Eastern Henrico assist military members today as they did years ago

Imagine being a 16-year-old girl in 1943.

Songs by the Andrew Sisters blared from the radio. The jitterbug was the dance craze. And with the U.S. in World War II, thousands of young men and women were being trained at Richmond Air Base near Sandston.

As USO World marks its 70th anniversary this year, Ada Chinn, 84, and Margie Winter, 83, recall volunteering at Sandston’s USO Club, which was dedicated June 20, 1943.

“All the guys loved ping pong,” said Chinn, who spent hours at the J.B. Finley Road building. “They had Chinese checkers and regular checkers. They had a game room set up and they would need people to play with them.”

Occasionally Chinn and some of the other girls performed skits. Once they donned top hats and tap shoes and performed at the USO Club.

On Saturday nights the jitterbug was the dance of choice.

“I loved to dance. We had a ball,” said Winter as she sat in the renovated building’s main hall last month. “They had a band. It was packed when I came to the dances.”

She recalled that girls also came from Highland Springs and Montrose to the building that now houses the Sandston Recreation Center.

Chinn and Winter said the USO Club was one way Sandston residents helped the war effort. Some families also provided room and board for soldiers. Women did mending for them. Everyone lined Williamsburg Road to wave when military convoys passed through town.

Winter and Chinn had older brothers fighting in the war. Even as teens the girls said they understood their role as USO volunteers.

Many of the men passing through Sandston were almost as young as the girls. They were away from home for the first time and were headed off to fight not knowing if they’d come home.

“After they left here, they went overseas. Your idea was if you could help while they were away from home to have a night of fun [you should],” Winter said.

Almost 70 years later and less than three miles away from the old Sandston USO Club, 200 USO volunteers now help military men and women at the Richmond International Airport.

The USO center opened there last July and is one of 11 in the Hampton Roads Central Virginia area. Since opening, about 2,000 Armed Forces members, their dependents, and military retirees have been served each month at the RIC USO. The center expects to serve as many as 3,000 a month in the year ahead.

There aren’t any Saturday night dances at this USO; however, volunteers there offer what Peggy Reid calls southern hospitality.

The center has rows of large comfortable leather chairs, two big screen televisions, a bank of computers and a kitchenette where volunteers can prepare snacks.

“We’re thrilled to death when they want to eat something because we like to fix them food like mamas would do,” said Reid, who has volunteered at the center since it opened. “We find some of them want to talk. I’ve had them hang on the counter up there and just talk and talk and talk. And we always enjoy that.”

Betty Burgess also has volunteered at the RIC USO center since July. She said the time she’s spent there has helped her discover some good news about the next generation.

“A lot of times you hear, ‘I don’t know what our young people are coming to.’ That is definitely not the case,” Burgess said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience for me to be around these young people. They are polite, well-versed and intelligent.”

Dan Rose, a Vietnam veteran, who has volunteered at the center since September, said he does so for a number of reasons. One is especially close to his heart.

He met his wife, Pam, in 1966 at a USO Club in Trenton, N.J. It was her first day there as a volunteer.

“We met the third of February, 1966, engaged in April and married in June,” Rose said. His wife also volunteers at the RIC USO.

While the faces of the volunteers have changed since the days of the Sandston USO Club, the sentiment of the volunteers hasn’t changed.

“We want to show them a little love before they head off somewhere else and hope they have good memories,” Reid said.

For more information about the Central Virginia USO, visit http://www.usohr.com.

To read more articles by Sundra Hominik, visit http://shominik.wordpress.com.
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