Robert Jefferson was going through folders in the National Archives, researching the U.S. Army’s all-black 93rd Infantry Division in World War II, when he saw the picture: an African-American GI, dressed as Uncle Sam, parading across a stage.
“I thought, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’ ” says Jefferson, an associate professor of history. “And then I started going through the documents, and they talked about these camp shows that World War II American soldiers held as a way of alleviating the boredom of serving on these little islands in the Pacific. The USO was very slow to get out there initially, so they had to find ways to amuse themselves. And they came up with these shows. I was fascinated. I wanted to explore this more.”
The more he looked into it, the more Jefferson realized he had stumbled onto an area that hadn’t been studied. His initial work resulted in “Race to Laughter: African-American Soldier Entertainers and the USO Camp Shows During World War II,” a paper he presented during the the summer of 2006 at the Australian, New Zealand, American Studies Association conference in Lauceston, Tasmania. “As I went into it, I found these types of shows were quite prominent in the Pacific at the time,” Jefferson says. “Most of the time, when you think about World War II and the USO, what comes to mind are individuals like Bob Hope and other Hollywood figures. But what happens if they can’t get there? If you think about the way the war was fought, there was a lot of island hopping, and in many cases units occupied these islands. They didn’t have places where they could go for shore leave and so forth. These were really desolate places. The shows helped them to get over the monotony of garrison life and also helped them deal with being away from loved ones for an extended period of time. It gave them some semblance of home.”
It helped that, at least in the 93rd, many of the GIs involved were entertainers before entering the military. The shows they staged were full productions—at least as much as their situation allowed—often with large bands providing musical accompaniment.
Along with themed productions like Hop, Skip and Jump, the entertainers also staged more elaborate efforts, such as a version of Porgy and Bess. Some of the shows also included hints of how the servicemen were dealing with fighting in a segregated army.
“They’d put their own twist on it,” Jefferson says. “For example, with Porgy and Bess, the soldiers recognized that this was one of the Broadway shows, but they realized that the soldiers were injecting their own idea as to what this all means. They were actually finding ways to express themselves and talk about what the war is all about, which helped them in the end.”
One interesting aspect of these shows was that, since there were few, if any, military women in these garrisons, men played all the roles—male and female.
The USO provided kits that included costumes and makeup, and the entertainers provided a different show or different version of a show at each island they occupied. The shows became so popular they often were presented several times a week.
As he dug deeper, Jefferson discovered that white troops were doing the same type of shows as well, and that American GIs staged similar shows in Europe, although the details remain murky at this point in the research. And, Jefferson says, it also appears that many of the GI entertainers incorporated elements of the shows in their acts following the war. In any case, they had no doubt about the shows’ value.
“When I interviewed individuals who were a part of this, they were very enthusiastic about talking about their experiences,” Jefferson says. “They said, ‘We thought we were performing a vital service for our fellow GIs.’
“I walked away from this thinking, ‘Man, if somebody could just tell this story. This is one project that begs for somebody to try to sort it all out and give it to the public.’ So that’s where I am right now.”