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HISTORY OF THE SOLDIERS’, SAILORS’, MARINES’ AND AIRMEN’S CLUB

(Written by the Founder and First President of the Club, Mrs. Cornelia Barnes Rogers, 1953)Dancing the evening away - circa 1940

During World War One there were many organizations in New York City which were conducted for the welfare and happiness of the enlisted men of the Army and Navy; for the soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guards and aviators of the time, were as popular and as much in mind and heart of the public as they are in this present war. As usual, the YMCA was very active, and in addition to their regular buildings, the “Y” erected two large “Huts”, one “The Eagle Hut” in Bryant Park, at 42nd Street, and the other “The Victory Hut” in Battery Park. The National Navy Club had a large clubhouse on East 40th Street, which was later moved to 95 Park Avenue, and the New York Community Service was responsible for two or three large hotels during the active period of the war. These were, as I remember, the outstanding organizations for servicemen in New York.

At the close of the actual war period, the New York Community Service gave up its hotels and organized a small Service Men’s Club on West 45th Street, and it was on this Committee that Miss Martha White and her sister, Miss Elizabeth White, and I served on our return from service in France in the latter part of 1918. In this inadequate and small building where the work was carried on over a restaurant, not connected with the Club, and from which fumes of fried food arose through every crack, not only was there a clubroom, but also through the interest of the “Lest We Forget Committee”, of which we also were members, donated civilian clothes were distributed to returned discharged men.

The two Miss Whites and I did not like this clubhouse. We wanted to have something that was better and more attractive, which would be a real center where we could have not only recreation rooms but our own canteen and sleeping quarters and dormitories for the men. We went out on a publicity and financial campaign, and found that many sympathetic and patriotic citizens felt just as we did about it, so that soon we had money enough to rent a large old private house, 271 Madison Avenue, on the corner of 39th Street, -now torn down with the adjoining house and the space used for a parking lot for automobiles. We organized our own Committee, and Board of Directors, but the Club was still under the New York Community Service. None of us liked this connection, for we felt that we should have the power of making our own decisions and running our own club as we liked. Several of us on the Committee had served with the AEF in France and felt that we knew what the men wanted, and that we could run such a club better than anyone else.

It was at this time, as the Club needed a Director and a Hostess, that we were very fortunate in securing the services of Mr. Nicolai and Miss Norton, who had both been serving in these capacities in the Victory Hut, and who are still with us after these many years. They have proved by their wisdom and loyalty and friendliness how extremely fortunate the Club was in our selection. In 1921 we broke away entirely from the New York Community Service, much against their wishes, changed the name of the Club to The Soldiers and Sailors Club of New York, Inc., reinforced our Board of Directors with the notable additions of William M. Chadbourne, who became, by my wish, President of the Club, and Mrs. Charles D. Dickey, still a member of our Board of Directors, and with the full approval of General Robert Lee Bullard, then in command of this Second Corps Area, who had but lately returned from his distinguished command of the Second Army in France, where, as everyone knows, he had made a notable and splendid record.

The Club went through many vicissitudes. To arrange an adequate canteen restaurant in the basement of an old New York house was no easy matter. The first floor was converted into a reception office and recreation room, where we held many dances and other parties. The three top floors were turned into dormitories, and to a large extent the working staff was largely volunteer.

The men during the years of 1919 to ’22 were returning in great numbers from combat duty and from the Army of Occupation in Germany, and came to us by the many hundreds for recreation, rehabilitation and advice, and from the hospitals, both for our entertainment and for help in re-adjustment to civil life; and numbers of sick or wounded in regard to their compensations. The “Lest We Forget Committee” continued to work with the Club, especially to clarify many of the mistakes made by the Veterans Bureau which was only at that time becoming organized. It astonishes me, as I look back upon this period to think of the many files our Committees helped reopen, which had previously been put away and marked ‘finished’. Our members accompanied the men in their long hours of waiting from one section of this bureau to another. Many now adjustments were made when mistakes were discovered, and it is a pleasure to recall the gratitude of so many of these men whom we were able to help in this way.

For instance: I personally remember, as a typical case, one particular soldier among the many men whom I accompanied. He had been notified that his compensation, hospitalization and transportation to his home had been refused by the Veterans Bureau because his disability could not be found ‘related to service’. He and I went from one department to another of the Veterans Bureau, then on West 34th Street, carrying with us his file which had been previously shelved, and which, with my insistence and authority as a member of our Committee, had been unwillingly taken off the shelf. the poor lad was exhausted with fatigue and, although he was an American, he was unable to talk English very well. His trouble, he assured me, was “chronicle bronchial” trouble – after an hour or so I found myself repeating this as I approached one officer after another. After about three hours we finally reached the lead doctor’s room who kindly and sympathetically reopened the file. After a few minutes’ search through a thick wall of papers he came upon a clerk’s error on one of the sheets of the questionnaire. After a few questions, this error was corrected, a notation written by the doctor, which the almost fainting soldier and I presented at the Compensation Desk. It had been proved that he was entitled to over a thousand dollars past compensation, hospitalization in U.S. Government hospitals for the rest of his life if he so desired it, and transportation to his home in the far West. The boy was practically in tears by this time and my own eyes were filled with tears too. I shall never forget his expression of gratitude as we shook hands at the end of this long morning. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

This is a long digression but it shows one of the branches of our work and is typical of that done by many of our Lest We Forget Committee through the Soldiers and Sailors Club.

Our dream was to own our own clubhouse, to have it big enough to accommodate a great many more men than the rented house could do, and to alter it so that it would be attractive and homelike, and a permanent club in the City of New York.

Several of us were so filled with this dream that we felt it was too good not to be true. If you believe in something strongly enough and know it is sound and good, you can convince other people and make them enthusiastic also. So, some of us went out, with this belief in our hearts, and raised some S200,000 a fairly short time, for the purchase of the two houses – 281 and 283 Lexington Avenue and their reconstruction. We took out quite a large mortgage which, as the money came in, we amortized as we could. the houses were altered, and in 1927 the new well planned and attractive Clubhouse was opened. Alas, a part of the original mortgage still exists for several more years.

Several of us were so filled with this dream that we felt it was too good not to be true. If you believe in something strongly enough and know it is sound and good, you can convince other people and make them enthusiastic also. So, some of us went out, with this belief in our hearts, and raised some S200,000 a fairly short time, for the purchase of the two houses – 281 and 283 Lexington Avenue and their reconstruction. We took out quite a large mortgage which, as the money came in, we amortized as we could. the houses were altered, and in 1927 the new well planned and attractive Clubhouse was opened. Alas, a part of the original mortgage still exists for several more years.

I shall never forget the afternoon service at the Church of the Incarnation on 36th Street and Madison Avenue when, with a procession of soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators of our own United States Services and some of our Allies, we marched from our own Clubhouse to the church, following our American flags and our own Club flags to have them blessed, so that they might figure with these blessings on the opening day.

Since that time – and from the time of the opening of the old Clubhouse on 39th Street in 1920 – the Soldiers and Sailors Club doors have been open day and night to all men of our own forces and of those of our Allies, and we dedicated ourselves with deep sincerity to the purpose that the Club shall continue permanently as a center for these men.

Within a couple of years after the Armistice of November 11th, 1918 was signed, the YMCA huts were closed and the buildings in Bryant and Battery Parks town down. Other Service Men’s Centers had been closed down as being no longer necessary. The National Navy Club, which was exclusively for the sailors and marines, and allowed no soldiers within its doors, continued a few years longer, and then closed also for lack of funds. Their Committee had often urged us during these years to give up our hospitality to our Navy boys, but of course we did not intend to do so. We liked men of all the services and our Club was organized for every enlisted man. I can remember making rather an important answer to the request of the Board of the Navy Club that we should only run our Club for soldiers. I told him that if they wanted more sailors and marines to go to them they had only to make their Club more attractive than the Soldiers and Sailors Club, and that, in that case, the Navy boys would go to their club and not to ours. But, the Navy continued to patronize us to a very large extent. The Navy Club closed in 1937 and for those many years in between and up to the time of Pearl Harbor, when public interest was again aroused in the enlisted men of our Army and Navy and of our Allies, the Soldiers and Sailors Club was the only organization in New York which was exclusively run for the enlisted men’s welfare to give them a feeling of hospitality and home in this great city, which is one of the loneliest cities in the world for strangers, especially during that period, for men in uniform.

During those years between the Armistice and the present war the attendance at the Club was approximately 75,000 a year. The men of the regular Army were being transferred through New York from one Army Post to another. Men came to the Club from the Forts around New York, many of the Navy ships put in at the U.S. Navy Yard in Brooklyn, and also touched at our Harbor on their way from one far flung port to another. During this period also the Fleet twice visited New York, which meant that hundreds of sailors had to be entertained. There were many visits from ships of the British and French Navy.

These were lean years in our finances: our bills accumulated and our amount in the Treasury dwindled. Two or three times faint-hearted members of the Board urged closing up altogether, and resigned when the stout-hearted would not agree to do so. But, through generous gifts of those who really cared about our Boys, we struggled along on the proverbial ‘shoe string’.

Mr. Nicolai and Miss Norton insisted on cutting their own salaries to almost nothing, in fact, once or twice to nothing at all – and our creditors were patient with us. At all events the Club survived the depression, and the amazing lack of public interest in the pitifully reduced Peacetime Army and Navy, and when the crisis of the second tragic war broke upon the world, the Club was there with its hospitality and open door, its technique of operation – and ready for the emergency. For this we, and the men of the Army and Navy were truly thankful!

During 1939-1940, the years of the World’s Fair, our Soldiers and Sailors Club was asked by the Navy to be the center of hospitality for the visiting sailors of the ships which brought over the High Commissioners from the different participating countries. What a beautiful place the Fair was! All of us who had the pleasure of visiting it may look back to it as a last demonstration of apparent complete unity of the Nations of the World! And here I should not say ‘nations of the world’ for even at that time Germany was conspicuous by her absence.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, General Drum and General Phillipson and Admiral Woodward, who had been closely in touch with all the work of the Club, and who, like the other commanding officers of this Area, had shown their interest in many ways, told us that we should enlarge our work. We at once told them we would do so, and organized a financial committee to raise money for the purpose of buying and remodeling the adjoining house, No. 285 Lexington Avenue. This was in 1940.

At that time the Committee of United Service Organizations was just making plans for the first campaign of the USO. Many of those on this Committee were much in sympathy with the Soldiers and Sailors Club, which stood for the type of work that they were planning to do in connection with recreation facilities at the various forts and camps and naval centers of the United States. When this Committee heard that Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich and Mrs. William Blackwell and others working with them to raise the necessary money, they came to our Officers and Board of Directors with the request that we should give up our separate campaign with the promise that if we would work with them for the larger National USO interest, they would give us money for the purchase and equipment of this new house and a certain amount a year towards its maintenance.

We are devoted friends of the servicemen wherever they are, so we agreed to do all in our power to help the USO and accepted their offer. The new building, and the alterations making a unit of the three buildings, were completed in June of 1942. With this addition the number of beds has been increased from seventy-one to one hundred and eight; the Canteen is twice its original size and the principal recreation room has been enlarged so that the dancing floor is now large enough to accommodate some two to three hundred couples.

I have often felt throughout the years since I started to work with the Club in 1919 the truth of the quotation which is something that has inspired me in the beloved task I have been privileged to do in cooperation with the many men and women with whom it has been, and is, my pleasure to work during the past twenty-five years, and to whom the success of our center for enlisted men is due; “Make no little plans, they have no power to stir men’s blood. but make your plans. based upon a wise and solid foundation, so large that they many inspire others to will share in the dream and help to make it become a reality.”

I feel sure that anyone of the men and women who have participated in the work of making this dream come true from its small beginnings to its present status as a permanent lasting center for the enlisted men of our Army and Navy now and for future years, will agree with me that our efforts have been more than repaid by the appreciation of the men themselves.

The Club is a small contribution to the courage of our men, to their unswerving loyalty to the service of our own Country, and also to the other Countries whose services they may represent.

In addition to the younger men of this present war in Korea, many soldiers and sailors and marines of the Old War stop in at the Club to say ‘Hello’ and to keep up their friendship with us. Many of these men have re-enlisted to fight for their Country again, and use the Club once more as their New York Center; letters come in to us from all over the Globe in this Global War, some to say ‘thank you’, some to ask us for our prayers; and some alas, bringing news of men whom we shall not have the joy of welcoming back.

The hearts of these young men are stalwart, they do not complain that on their young shoulders has fallen the burden and weight of the world. I have been with them pretty constantly throughout these many years, and can truthfully say I have never heard a murmur or complaint about their service, or their possible sacrifice.

They go out from the Club on their mysterious ways with a smile, and an ‘I’ll be seeing you’! and we say. “Be sure to come back to us!” – and how truly we hope that they may….

This Club is only a small part of the tribute that we, whom they protect, can offer them, but we gladly offer it with all our hearts.

The prayer that is constantly in my mind is:
“May God make us worthy of our young men!”

ADDITIONAL – January 1999

Since Mrs. Rogers wrote the above, the Club has continued to provide a “Home Away From Home” for all United States Armed Forces servicemen and servicewomen of all ranks and their families; Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard, Military Retirees and Honorably Discharged Veterans, as well as equivalent members of the Armed Forces of our Allies. Since our founding in February 1919 (we are celebrating our 80th Anniversary this year) we have accommodated over 2,000,000 military affiliated individuals and their families. In 1998 – 12,367 military affiliated Guests were accommodated. In 1996 the USO of Metropolitan New York asked if we could accommodate them at the Club, which we did. Since August 1996 the USO has been a tenant of the Club.

In 1996, the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, through the efforts of Julia Irene Kauffman, Chairman/CEO, made a contribution of S 50,000.00 in memory of her mother, Muriel McBrien Kauffman, who had been a supporter of the Club. This generous contribution provided the resources to initiate a major fund raising event, the Military Ball which continues to raise fund for the Club.

The Board of Trustees of the Club and their supporting members are dedicated to raising tax-deductible donations in the amount of S 250,000.00 to meet the annual deficit we incur in providing the services to military affiliated guests. We will continue to provide a “Home Away From Home” as long as there are patriotic citizens who support Mrs. Rogers philosophy and the motto of the Club: “Service To Those Who Have Served Our Country”.