UNITED SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS
Kenneth Spencer with other U.S.O.performers before heading out to the Pacific Islands to entertain the troops, 1943
Left: Kenneth Spencer in U.S.O. uniform, New York City, 1943. Right: Kenneth Spencer sings at New Hebrides Army Depot, 1943
During WWII, Kenneth Spencer felt it was not right that African American soldiers on the front or in isolated positions in the South Pacific, had no entertainment from people of color. Spencer went to Washington D.C., and spoke with the War Department about forming an all-African-American U.S.O. Unit. The objection on the part of the authorities was that the U.S. Navy had no way to accommodate African Americans with their men.
The solution was that the entertainers were housed and fed like officers during the weeks of their zigzag route across the Pacific to the Islands of New Guinea, Caledonia, Munda, Rendovam, and Guadacanal. The steady diet of "steak and ice cream every day all the way" began to fill out Kenneth's long thin frame, and started him toward the build with which Europeans would later attribute with his deep voice. Kenneth traveled with this group to the Caribbean Islands as well, and in between trips, made two MGM films in Hollywood, "Bataan" and "Cabin In The Sky."
Kenneth performs for the African American troops stationed in Guadacanal in 1943
Kenneth Spencer wrote in The Spotlight newsletter, Feb. 1944; "Many of the troops said that our renditions of Ol' Man River, the St. Louis Blues, and boogie woogie were like letters from home. These were the songs and numbers they heard in the United States, and these were among the things they associated with home. For many of our soldiers our tour marked the first time they had heard these beloved numbers in the two years they had been stationed here."
At the Guadacanal mess hall after the show, 1943
"We were together with the Negro and white enlisted men and officers...our trip..threw us into close contact with many small-town and Southern boys. For most of them, this was their first real opportunity to see a 'good' show put on by Negroes and enacted by dignified performers.....I am convinced...that our trip, besides contributing to the splendid morale of our fighting men, also served to break down any racial antagonisms that may have existed previously among the soldiers, and helped them in understanding the Negro as a person..... I thought it extremely significant that the most popular song in my entire repertoire among the solders was 'Freedom Road' written by Langston Hughes. I like to think that their response to this number was their way of telling us that this was one of the things they were fighting for."
Kenneth Spencer and other performers with sailors at New Guinea, 1944