Dances, Bands, and Pageants: Women and Entertainment at Camp Adair

Students in Dr. Marisa Chappell’s fall 2023 History 363 “Women in U.S. History” class spent the final three weeks of Fall Quarter 2023 in OSU’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center exploring women in Camp Adair’s history.

By Alexandra Collins, Brandon Cunningham, and Maitreya Lake

World War II was a trying time in the United States. Even though the country avoided much of the war’s physical destruction, American military and industrial participation created significant upheaval. Entertainment thus played an important role, offering feelings of comfort and community and lightening the load of challenging times. As we explored the various entertainment options for service members at Camp Adair, we were struck by the prominence of women. Women were essential in organizing events, performing, and participating in social activities. This was not new; women had historically been called upon to serve as morale-boosters for male soldiers, particularly during wartime. This was not different at Camp Adair.

A glamour shot of actress Strelsa Leeds, announcing her appearance at Camp Adair in the play “Junior Miss” in February 1943.

A striking example appeared in the Camp Adair Sentry, the camp’s newspaper, in February 1943. The newspaper announced a visiting performance of a Broadway production called “Junior Miss.” The show’s two headliners, Helen Eastman and Lucille Fetherston, play “two teenage girls who prance through three acts of devastating beauty” in a comedy that provides “hilarious and warm-hearted fun.” The description of the play emphasizes comfort and stability, while the caption beneath a glamorous headshot of actress Ellen Curtis refers to her as a “beauteous blond.”[1] Women often played a key role in performances for soldiers.[2]

Another example, captured a photograph, is the 1943 “Little Colonel” contest (see below).[3] The Oregon State Barometer, which included additional photographs, described a shooting contest among “girls” who were nominated on the basis of “beauty and personality alone.” The top shooters would earn titles using a diminutive form of military ranks, from “Little Colonel” for first place to “Little Second Lieutenant” for fifth, with winners announced at a “‘GI’ Military Ball,” where “Miss ‘Dead-Eye Dick’” would “Rule Over Dance.”[4]

“College women with 1903 Springfield rifles, circa 1943,” Oregon Digital.

A humorous article from the Barometer in October 1942 highlights the emphasis on women’s appearance, even outside of entertainment venues. In “Pigtails Irksome to Men, Says One With Keen Eye,” Normal Sholseth complained about women students’ hairstyles. “What has happened to those super-glamorous sweeping bobs?” he asked. “Okay, so it does take 15 minutes to put up the mop, but after all look in the mirror and see results.” Sholseth suggests that women’s appearance was important to men, the “fellow [who] rolls out of a warm bunk just to report to an 8 o’clock gym class,” the “harassed manhood of Oregon State.”[5] The article shows that ordinary women, not just entertainers, were being held to particular standards of feminine appearance and seen as a visual source of entertainment.

This photograph from the Sentry depicts the staff of one of several USO clubs in communities around Camp Adair. Camp Adair Sentry, October 8, 1943, 8.

Women also played a central role in organizing and participating in social activities for Camp Adair’s servicemen. Many women served as “hostesses” with the United Service Organization (USO), creating and staffing recreational spaces and generally providing female company for servicemen far from home. October 1942, the Barometer informed “co-eds who wish to volunteer” in hospitality programs at Camp Adair to fill out an application in the “dean of women’s office for membership in the Corvallis Victory volunteers,” through which they can “indicate interests in Junior Hostess groups, serve as dancing partners for service men at chaperoned dances” or “indicate preferences to serve as hostesses for handicraft, games or other recreational activities at the USO center.” The article also noted that “some evidence of family sanction should be on file in the dean of women’s office, for those girls who plan to accept invitations to officers’ dances at the camp or to volunteer to go to enlisted men’s dances.”[6] The job of hostess was discussed by Barbara Martin in a book of collected memories of Camp Adair. Martin described her experience living near Camp Adair as a young woman and noted that many local girls saw the influx of servicemen as an opportunity to expand their circle of friendships and romantic opportunities. In fact, Martin would end up marrying a serviceman who was stationed at Camp Adair.[7]

The various examples of women as entertainment at Camp Adair point to the different kinds of roles they played. The historian Meghan Winchell argues that the USO’s senior hostesses served as surrogate mothers to soldiers, providing the physical and emotional comforts of home, while the USO “depended upon junior hostesses to use their beauty and sexual appeal to entice men into USO clubs.”[8] Women entertainers were also sexualized, and there was an emphasis on women appearing feminine and attractive to men, another way that women were used to emphasize the masculinity of male servicemembers.[9]

[1] “‘Junior Miss’ to Be Here Feb. 20,” Camp Adair Sentry, February 11, 1943, 1.

[2] Sherrie Tucker, “‘And, Fellas, They’re American Girls!’: On the Road with the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 16, no. 2/3 (1996): 128-160.

[3] “College women with 1903 Springfield rifles, circa 1943,” Oregon Digital.

[4] “‘Little Colonel’ Candidates Shoot It Out For Honor to Reign Over Military Dance,” Oregon State Barometer, April 30, 1943, 1.

[5] Norman Sholseth, “Pigtails Irksome to Men, Says One With Keen Eye,” Oregon State Barometer, October 24, 1942, 1.

[6] “College Officials Set New Policy For Camp Adair,” Oregon State Barometer, October 23, 1942, 1.

[7] Barbara Martin, “A View of History,” Camp Adair: 50 Years Ago (Dallas, OR: Polk County Museum Association, 1992), 61.

[8] Meghan K. Winchell, “‘To Make the Boys Feel at Home’: USO Senior Hostesses and Gendered Citizenship,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 25, No. 1 (2004), 200.

[9] Marilyn E. Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010).

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