The American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s Club on the third floor of the magnificent old marble opera house in Bari, Italy, was the place to be.
American GIs in dress uniforms crowded the dance floor. Their partners were a bevy of smiling young Italian beauties from the nearby university, whose stern-faced mothers scrutinized the couples. The 15-piece Army Air Corps orchestra’s big band sound rose above the din of several hundred lighthearted voices. A contagious energy filled the room. Although World War II in Europe was not yet over early in 1945, a rising tide of optimism suggested that it soon would end.
Attired in a military-style tailored gray American Red Cross uniform and impeccably groomed, Norma Webb watched the pleasurable afternoon unfold yet again for her guests at this temporary haven on the Adriatic Sea. Her mission was to organize and oversee all manner of enjoyable activities intended to improve the morale of homesick young Allied servicemen before they returned to face unknown wartime futures.
“You still could see the fear in the eyes of some of the GIs who had been in the war zone. They were boys, really, younger than I was. I was glad we could do something to cheer them up for a little while. When their leave ended, they were going back to the war,” she says.
However, for Norma, the dance that afternoon was just part of another day in paradise.
Lady Luck’s Smile
“I loved every minute of it,” says the La Grange resident. “When I was a child, I dreamed of seeing the world, so that job was heaven. I started out as assistant program director and then was promoted to program director. I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Born in Houston during the 1920s, Norma was the only child of a broken home. She grew up poor during the Great Depression under the watchful eye of a maiden aunt, a no-nonsense school teacher. Of German heritage, Emma Webb instructed Norma in what she considered right and wrong, with no room for discussion. Some of Norma’s classmates at San Jacinto High School dressed like princesses, while Norma and a few others had holes in their shoes.
Norma’s dream of a far different future began to unfold because she was a skilled swimmer. Even though jobs for adults or teenagers were scarce, after she qualified as a lifeguard, Norma taught swimming and worked as a lifeguard, in addition to whatever other part-time jobs she could find. She attended both the University of Houston and the University of Texas, but dropped out because she ran out of money.
The supervisor of the American Red Cross water safety instructors must have liked what she saw in the attractive, petite dynamo and recognized untapped potential. She approached Norma with a proposition. Would Norma consider setting aside her college aspirations to interview for an overseas war-related assignment unrelated to nursing or actual military service? The American Red Cross was seeking hardworking, ambitious young women of good character for special wartime work.
Intrigued, Norma readily agreed to an interview in Austin. She was pleased that it went so well that she was sent to Washington, D.C., for a follow-up session at the American Red Cross headquarters.
“When I got there, I was informed that I was shipping out to Italy immediately,” she recalls.
To say her aunt was horrified was an understatement, but Norma was of age and ready to embark on her quest to see the world and meet its people.
“My aunt went to a spiritualist who told her she would never see me again,” Norma recalls. “The spiritualist was wrong, although it was two years before I returned.”
Norma dutifully boarded a crowded troop ship that was part of a convoy headed for Naples, Italy, although her accommodations were separate and far superior to those of the ordinary GIs on board. Norma thought she had seen poverty in Houston, but when she went for a walk in Naples the throng of dirty, little barefoot kids that surrounded her tore at her heart. Even after handing out every last Hershey candy bar she had purchased at the PX on the ship, waves of children kept coming at her.
“They looked like skin thrown over bones,” she recalls. That was her heartbreaking introduction to conditions for many civilians in war-torn Europe.
Welcome to Bari
As shocked as Norma was by the poverty that had confronted her in Naples, nothing could have prepared her for the luxurious American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s Club in Bari. On the ground floor of the elegant, ornate marble building that had been partially requisitioned for wartime service was an opera house.
“That’s where I learned to love opera. The music seemed to bounce off the stone walls, filling the entire building. It was wonderful,” Norma recalls. “Of course, I’d never heard anything like opera before in my life.”
The American Red Cross Enlisted Men’s Club operated under the auspices of General Nathan Farragut Twining, Commander of the 15th Air Force in Italy and Allied Strategic Air Forces in the Mediterranean, who had assumed that command in November 1943. (In August 1945, General Twining was appointed commander of the 20th Air Force in the Pacific that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.)
General Twining’s staff made sure that Norma had all the supplies she needed to run the club’s activities.
The club offered a variety of diversions from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week including bridge, bridge lessons, poker, tournaments, Italian classes, expert speakers, dancing lessons and, of course, the immensely popular dances. On Sundays, three ecumenical church services were held. The club also welcomed celebrities and special guests whose performances were on a par with the USO shows that visited the troops in the field. For example, the great songwriter Irving Berlin dropped by one day.
“He was a very nice little Jewish man who wore horn-rimmed glasses,” Norma says.
Norma would post the daily activities on a big mirror outside the club each morning. Two Italian boys of about 15 or 16 years of age were employed as interpreters to assist her with the arrangements. Although there was a steady stream of different servicemen in and out of the facility, Norma recalls very, very few security issues. Almost every serviceman was on his best behavior because visiting the club was a great privilege.
“At the hint of trouble, the band would be tipped off and start playing the national anthem. Naturally, the servicemen would have to salute, so that was that,” Norma says.
No liquor was allowed on the premises, but the refreshments were abundant and delicious. The American Red Cross ran a bakery across the street solely to keep the club stocked with pastries, cookies and bread, lots of bread.
“We didn’t suffer any shortages like the average European, or American, for that matter,” she recalls.
“Word came down that the young women were to receive cash in exchange for coming to our dances. They could no longer get paid with bread. They were so upset with us. They didn’t want the money. They wanted the bread.
“In fact, it was not uncommon for the mothers of those girls to walk by the well-stocked refreshment tables and put loaves of bread in their big handbags when they thought no one was looking. You have to understand the Italian civilians were suffering. Germany had severely raided Bari in 1943, so there was a tremendous amount of damage. Those people were hungry,” Norma explains.
Along with several other young women with whom she worked, Norma had a private room with a balcony on the fifth floor of an elegant apartment building with marble floors requisitioned by the Allies. Two young Italian girls did the cleaning and washing. The young women employed by the American Red Cross were not allowed to wear trousers. Although they lived only five blocks from the center, it was strictly against the rules for Norma and her coworkers to walk to or from work.
“Every morning a few minutes before nine, a U.S. weapons carrier truck with a canvas cover over an open bed would be waiting for us downstairs. It would be waiting outside the club building again in the evening at 9 p.m. when we closed up. We rode in the back of the truck, except one time. The driver had picked up a wounded man who was bleeding and put him in the back. I rode up front that morning,” she says. “We always felt protected, so it was not an imposition or hardship to be assigned to a city like Bari.”
Because all their wants were taken care of, Norma and her coworkers had little use for even spending money, so their pay was deposited back home in the States.
“I sometimes felt embarrassed. I had an entire uniform in good condition without any holes and good shoes. The Italian girls who came to our dances wore patched clothing and sometimes had holes in their shoes. It was the best of what they had,” Norma recalls.
When VE-Day in Europe finally arrived on May 8, 1945, GIs hammered on the apartment door bearing the good news. Across Bari, bells clanged and horns honked. The city’s residents sang jubilantly in the streets. For Norma, the big day meant that her return to the States was in the foreseeable future. It was a bittersweet thought.
Wish Upon a Star
At the time, Norma didn’t know that a fascinating half-century career as a flight attendant was in her future, but there was something of which she was sure.
“If you wish for something long enough, your dream may come true. Mine did!”
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