Earlier this year, voters in a Rand McNally survey ranked Bradenton the third Friendliest Small Town in the United States. The moniker has been the pride of the city for generations. But there's a particular time in our local history that seems to have really demonstrated how deserving our hometown is of this title.
In 1939, a few years before the outbreak of World War II, the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority had begun building the present-day airport. In 1941, the U.S. Army finished building the airport as the Bradenton/Sarasota Army Air Field Base. The area was selected because of its sparsely populated areas and the fact that they could train year-round in Florida's climate.
The first troops were due to arrive at the base in late March 1942. Even before they would arrive, plans were being made to welcome the young men into the community. In February 1942, the Women's Division of the Manatee County Defense Council announced plans to raise funding for a recreational center for enlisted servicemen -- or USO (United Service Organization).
Community fundraisers such as a golf tournament at Bradenton Country Club, white elephant sales, and even a puppet show were held in support of the cause.
On March 27, 1942, more than 1,000 men came as part of the bombardment group.
At the time, a young Jeanne McMullen was watching out the window of the office she worked in, waving to the young soldiers as they arrived by the truckload.
"It was sort of a thrill to see," says Jeanne when recalling that moment. She also recalls how, on Saturdays, 12th Street West would be full of young servicemen in uniform.
When the USO opened, on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street West, it was a place for "the boys" to play games, write letters, have a meal, and socialize. It was originally closed on Sundays, and many local families would invite soldiers -- complete strangers -- into their homes for Sunday dinner.
The USO was staffed by local women who would make home-cooked meals, and by young ladies known as "Military Maids." Maids had to be older than 18, and if still in high school, both parents had to give their consent. They were carefully selected and bound by a strict code of conduct. No more than two dances in succession with the same soldier, no gum chewing, and never leave with a soldier, to name a few.
Maids were obligated to spend at least eight hours a week at the USO. They also adopted military lingo, and were divided into captains and lieutenants. Rank was achieved based upon the number of hours spent at the USO. Most of a Maid's time was spent dancing to songs from the old jukebox, like "Mac the Knife," and talking with servicemen. These young women were so popular, they were invited to other bases in the region to dance. Army trucks were sent to carry them as far away as Fort Myers help make the servicemen feel at home.
The young Jeanne McMullen, who waved at the incoming servicemen through her window, volunteered as a Military Maid, attaining the rank of Captain. She recalls how many young men said that the center was their second home. It was an exciting time for these young women, given the chance to serve their country through such an enjoyable means.
Several romances surely developed, and more than one resulted in marriage. Jeanne met her future husband, Paul Parrish, at the USO, and later became Mrs. Jeanne Parrish. (Yes, the teacher beloved by many past Manatee High School students.) Folks, it doesn't get much friendlier than that.
If you'd like to learn more about Bradenton, the Friendly City, during WWII, we welcome you to visit Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E, and view the new exhibit "Devotion to Duty." The exhibit is designed to honor veterans and their families while celebrating what a nation and its communities did to support those who served. As a proud partner of the Legacy of Valor campaign, admission is free. Contact Manatee Village Historical Park, 941-741-4076 for details.
Phaedra Rehorn, the supervisor of Manatee Village Historical Park, wrote this column. Phaedra's responsibilities include taking care of the artifacts donated to the park. Each one tells a story, and Phaedra enjoys collecting the stories behind the items.