WWII 'Canteen Girl' Kept Troops Company From Afar For 15 minutes each week, Phyllis Jeanne Creore spoke and sang to the servicemen and their loved ones in her NBC radio broadcast. Now 96 years old, the beloved "Canteen Girl" shares her memories — and some personal wartime letters, too.
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WWII 'Canteen Girl' Kept Troops Company From Afar

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WWII 'Canteen Girl' Kept Troops Company From Afar

WWII 'Canteen Girl' Kept Troops Company From Afar

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American service men and women have often spent holidays far from home in dangerous places, where conflict can erupt around any corner. These days, home is a Skype call away, or at least a glimpse of home. But during Second World War, packages, letters, and radio programs bridged the lonely gaps.

In New York, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met a woman behind some of the broadcasts from those wartime days.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: For 15 minutes every week on NBC Radio, Phyllis Jeanne Creore spoke and sang to the troops and their loved ones.


STAMBERG: Her Christmas shows were morale boosters.


STAMBERG: Remembering those seasonal shows now, in her apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue, 96-year-old Phyllis Jeanne Creore Westerman still has traces of that perfect 1940s radio diction.

: And also, it was just more poignant because the boys didn't want to go away on Christmas.

STAMBERG: Phyllis Jeanne did what she could to lift her listeners' spirits. She'd been a volunteer at the New York City Stage Door Canteen. Founded by the American Theatre Wing, it was the precursor of today's USO. Stage Door Canteens sprouted up across the country in World War II, places where troops in New York - sometimes 2,000 a night, in shifts - could drop in for a few hours.

: They had a place for young men - it was mostly men there - have entertainment and food and comfort. And before some of them were 17 years old, got on a ship that they couldn't mention when the ship left or what the name of it was. And they were all homesick.


STAMBERG: Famous film and theater actors showed up to help. The 1943 film "Stage Door Canteen" featured some of them: Katharine Hepburn, Helen Hayes...


STAMBERG: At the real New York Stage Door Canteen, young wannabe stars, like Phyllis Jeanne Creore, were regulars. As volunteers, they came to dance and chat.

: But it was the stars who did the hard work. They were cooking the hamburgers and the hot dogs, served it at the tables, washed all the dishes. They had big bands that volunteered for us to dance to. We weren't supposed to make dates with them but I don't think everybody complied.

STAMBERG: Did you?

: Pretty much.


STAMBERG: She'd come to the big city in the 1930s from Rochester, New York, hoping, like so many young and talented people, to find work as an entertainer. Phyllis Jeanne headed for The Rehearsal Club, a boarding house founded a hundred years ago. It had affordable rooms for young, single women with big dreams.

: And that's where I lived. Forty-odd young ladies from all over the country who wanted to be an actress or singer. A lot of Rockettes.

STAMBERG: Blond, blue-eyed, with carefully polished nails, pretty Phyllis Jeanne settled right in.

: And I lived there when the war started. I heard in my little room...

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: A date which will live in infamy.

: Roosevelt come on the radio and say war was declared.

ROOSEVELT: I ask that the Congress declare...

STAMBERG: In wartime New York, Phyllis Jeanne handed her food ration books over to the Rehearsal Club cook, so there'd be enough sugar and butter for all the girls. She did a bit of radio work, found singing jobs with various bands at hotels like the Biltmore, and volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen. That's where she got the idea for a regular radio show to reach more troops across the U.S. and in Europe by shortwave.

: I took the idea to NBC and they OK'd it. And I got a pianist and eventually they gave me a writer.


STAMBERG: She took requests and dedicated the lilting, lovely songs of the day to soldiers.


STAMBERG: Mail poured in to "Canteen Girl" from all over the country. She keeps some letters in a big leather scrapbook in her apartment.

: (Reading) Dear Miss Phyllis Jeanne, you mentioned in your letter that it gives you a particular joy to learn who your listeners are. Well...

STAMBERG: They were corporals in Missouri, a sailor in New York, so many thanking her for cheering them up. The treasured handwritten wartime letters are fraying around the edges, but Phyllis Jeanne's memories are keen, especially of the words and music she wrote which became her radio theme song.

: (Singing) I wish you luck in everything you and all your cares will disappear from you. And hopes of happiness will all come true. This is my wish...


STAMBERG: At age 96 no eyeglasses, no hearing aids, she's gotten rediscovered. A short film about her is part of the New York Historical Society's current exhibition, on the city during World War II. NPR came calling, and a few weeks ago at her apartment's holiday party, as the building's oldest resident, Phyllis Jeanne Creore Westerman was offered a throne on which to sit, in honor of her newfound celebrity from the old radio days.


STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


GREENE: And you can read some of the letters sent to the "Canteen Girl" at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is back in the studio with me tomorrow. I'm David Greene.


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