Beyond the Fight: The World War II Letters of Coleman Kent
By Dyllan N. Cecil, Public History Center Fellow, Class of 2017
Editor: Dr. Sheri M. Shuck Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University
As expressed through various outlets — movies, books, and family stories — World War II continues to captivate Americans nearly as much as it did 70 years ago. The war overturned every facet of society, granting new opportunities to some while limiting or ending the lives of others. Of course, the war required greater participation in the armed forces. When young men joined the military, they faced placement at bases across the globe, forcing them to adjust to both military life and to the culture of a new area.
At age 22, Coleman Kent enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He joined at a dramatic time: November 1942. Starting on November 8, U.S. and British forces invaded French North Africa, triggering Germany to extend its occupation from Northern France to the entire country. About a week later, the Soviet Union initiated the first of a series of counter-offensives against German forces at Stalingrad. Thus 1942, particularly the latter half, was a major year of the war, marking the official beginning of U.S. involvement. It was unsurprising that young Coleman Kent would enlist during this eventful period.
Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Kent spent his career before the Navy as a clerk. But his life drastically changed with Naval Service, especially in 1944 when he was stationed in Oahu, Hawaii. Kent was transported halfway across the world, requiring him to adjust to a new environment, to new people, to a new culture. Meeting celebrities and local Hawaiians, attending USO events, and participating in the exciting life in Oahu, Kent’s letters from his time in Hawaii demonstrated that military men had much more to experience than the trials of battle.
The U.S. Navy and World War II
Following the difficulties faced during the First World War, the American Navy endeavored improve its fleet. From 1933 to 1944, some of the new developments included destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, anti-aircraft guns, and minesweepers. Strategy also became a major facet of naval operations, as it was included in officer training at the Naval War College. Finally, mobility was a necessity, allowing the U.S. fleet to surprise and outmaneuver other naval forces.
In addition to training and technology, the U.S. Navy saw major personnel changes during this time. In 1940, the U.S. implemented the first peacetime draft in American history, although this continued through WWII with extended draft terms. Because of the draft, directed at 21 to 45 year old men, recruitment strategies were not the same as they were before the draft or as they are now. But at the time they appealed to more people, as African-Americans saw greater military opportunity. While they had been prohibited from enlistment from 1919 to 1932, black men were able to serve as messmen or stewards during the war. In 1945, they could serve on noncombat ships, with a 10 percent cap on black personnel per vessel. This was limited, but it encouraged the movement away from segregation and ability for more opportunity for African-Americans. Overall, nearly 30 percent, or 3.4 million, of American military personnel served in the Navy, with 902,000 of those being African-American. When dealing with recruitment, the Navy tended to focus on travel and seeing exotic places of the world. This proved true for Coleman Kent, coming from tobacco-dominated, industrialized Richmond, a day trip away from the mountains or the beach, and Oahu, the volcanic, tropical island with a heavy navy presence.
A Long Way from Home: Richmond vs. Oahu
Virginia’s place in history was secured in the 17th and 18th centuries. Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown receive thousands of visitors each year because of the countless events that occurred in these cities before and during the Revolutionary War. Richmond, farther inland, grew out of these cities, becoming the state capital in the late 18th century. The entire state, Richmond included, became dominated by the tobacco industry because of the crop’s popularity. Tobacco demand remained high until the 20th century. The industry connected with another piece of Richmond history: the city’s role as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Being an agricultural state, slavery was very important. Richmond’s role in the Civil War is constantly in the minds of Virginians, even to this day. One can scarcely drive through the city without seeing a historical marker, an advertisement for the Civil War trail, or a monument to a general or soldier who participated. The issues of slavery and African-American rights go hand-in-hand with Civil War and Southern agriculture, making it unsurprising that Virginia has struggled with race relations since the 1860s. Many white Virginians readily accepted segregation in the early 20th century while maintaining devotion to the fallen Confederacy. All of this is important because this is what Coleman Kent faced while growing up in Richmond. Kent, in a 1944 letter, described his difficulty with the population of Hawaii, as most of the girls he had to interact with were of Japanese, Chinese, or Hawaiian descent — not white. Meanwhile, the Great Depression and a series of droughts put Virginia industry in a precarious position. But the efforts required for World War II allowed the state to grow stronger. Thus, the Navy granted Kent a career outside the struggling Virginia industries, and allowed him to move to a state drastically different from his own.
Oahu differs immensely, but the first obvious difference is geography. Oahu is just one of the tropical Hawaiian Islands out in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in much isolation until English ships stumbled upon the area in the late 18th century. Because of its location, Hawaii emerged as a major port of call for sailors, while its indigenous population took on the arrival of Christian missionaries. Unlike Virginia, Hawaii played little, if any role in creation and development of the United States of America. For the U.S. had gained independence, established its government, and began carving its role in world well before interacting with Hawaii. It was not until the mid-1800s that the sugar industry developed on the islands, becoming so profitable that it was a major component of the long annexation process. But Hawaii did not become the United States’ 50th state until 1959. Hawaii’s location even allowed the area to have a different experience than Virginia during World War II. Ingrained in American memory, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on the southern end of Oahu, brought the U.S. into the war. Furthermore, Hawaii was one of the closest American-controlled territories to Japan, granting the islands an important role in the war. Approximately a million people involved in the war effort visited Hawaii. When compared to Virginia, Coleman Kent must have viewed Oahu as exotic and exciting.
Encountering Famous Faces
While working part-time at a USO lunch counter, Coleman Kent met actor Cesar Romero and received his autograph. Kent related in his 1944 letter that Romero was a Seaman First Class in the U.S. Coast Guard.
For those who do not recall, Cesar Romero was a well-known actor, spending much of his early career playing the role of a “Latin lover” in movies. But Romero is most remembered for his role as the Joker in the Batman TV series of the late 1960s. Romero was just one of the famous individuals who put their lives on the line during World War II. While he did not serve in the Navy, many did. Let’s look at a few of the celebrity naval veterans from the Second World War.
America’s 35th President accomplished much in his short life, including a brief stint in the military. Inspired by his older brother’s enlistment as a naval pilot, Jack Kennedy insisted on fighting during World War II. Because of his back injury, Kennedy was disqualified from the army, but managed to receive a spot in the Navy in 1941 thanks to his father’s connections. By 1943, Kennedy rose to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade and had his first combat command on the PT-109. The PT-109 was stationed in the Soloman Islands, about 1,000 miles East of Papua New Guinea. In August 1943, PT-109 was accidentally struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, ripping the boat in half. As a result, Kennedy had to lead his remaining crew on a three-mile swim to a group of small islands. They were stranded for four days until rescued by a group of Soloman Islanders. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism. In 1944, Kennedy had to return to the U.S. for treatment of injuries sustained in the event, at which time he learned of the death of his older brother, Joe Jr., who was carrying out a mission in England. Kennedy was honorably discharged in 1945.
Don Rickles, who died in April 2017, emerged in the entertainment business as a comedian. After befriending Frank Sinatra, Rickles started appearing in various TV shows and movies, including Kelly’s Heroes and C.P.O. Sharkey. Younger readers may recognize Rickles as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies. Before his comedic career, Rickles enlisted in the Navy. Joining soon after his graduation from high school, he served for two years. As Seaman First Class, he traveled to places like the Panama Canal, Papua New Guinea, and San Francisco aboard the USS Cyrene. He was honorably discharged in 1946.
A noteworthy movie star of the 1960s, Paul Newman starred in dozens of films, earned a plethora of awards, and used his fame to become a philanthropist, activist, and entrepreneur. Featuring striking blue eyes, Newman’s extensive filmography includes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Cool Hand Luke. After spending a year at Ohio University, Newman joined the Navy in 1943. After undergoing testing at Yale University to join the Navy Air Corps, it was discovered that Newman was color-blind, disrupting his dream of becoming a pilot. He was still allowed to attend traditional navy boot camp, which eventually led to his qualification as an aviation radioman third class and shipment to Hawaii. After traveling all over the Pacific, Newman was discharged in 1946.
Other celebrities also contributed to the war effort. Ernest Borgnine, lead actor on the 1960s sitcom McHale’s Navy, served in the U.S. Navy from 1935-1941, but reenlisted after the bombing on Pearl Harbor and was discharged in 1945. Henry Fonda, known from The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men, enlisted in the Navy to serve in a real war outside of a film set from 1942-1946. Comedian and long-time talk show host Johnny Carson enlisted in the Navy in 1943 and served until the end of the war. One of the last living actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Kirk Douglas spent three years in the Navy until discharged due to sustained injuries. Even Humphrey Bogart of Casablanca and Sabrina, as well as being a World War I Navy veteran, volunteered to do U.S.O. and War Bond tours during World War II. Just looking at this group of men demonstrated the great impact the war had, calling people to serve for various reasons and permanently changing their lives. Compared to the wars of the past few decades, none featured a draft that called so many individuals to service like the Second World War.
Beyond the Combat: the USO and WAVES
Coleman Kent arrived in Hawaii in 1944 looking for opportunity. According to his letters, he wanted to work, meet a nice girl, and have fun. Naval service on the islands did not necessarily help him accomplish these things. Along with other men, he undertook part-time work in a real estate office, until the Navy prohibited servicemen from continuing. He took week trips to other Hawaiian islands so that he could enjoy the warm weather and the beaches, while his family back in Virginia suffered through the snow. He wanted to lounge on the beach all day long. Kent’s social life revolved around two groups: the USO and the WAVES. They allowed servicemen like Kent to attend exciting events and to interact with women, while, more importantly, getting their minds off of the problems they encountered on duty.
Founded in 1941, the USO (United Service Organizations) was created to organize recreational activities for military men, while helping communities that wanted the economic benefits of the war but were unable to deal with the influx of so many people. Additionally, the USO recruited woman to act in different roles to meet the needs of servicemen. Senior hostesses were wives, 35 and older, who filled the role of ‘mother’ for the homesick young men. They provided some sewing, home cooking, and even advice, acting like mentors by listening to the soldiers who needed to talk. The more lively role was filled by the junior hostesses, younger ladies who danced and made social events fun. The events of the USO were intended to have servicemen fraternize with respectable women and for them to avoid indecent situations. In Hawaii, USO dances were segregated between black and white troops during the first part of the war, still featuring strict guidelines for black troops when they were integrated. Kent related in his letters that dances occurred every day. Sometimes musical guests would entertain the troops, like on June 13, 1945 when Kent met American jazz singer and band-leader, Bob Crosby. He spoke with Crosby after the show, with Crosby stating he had been performing in the south for other servicemen. Interestingly, Kent heard the first announcement of the war’s end while at a USO show.
The WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, were females who joined the Navy following the bombing on Pearl Harbor. Beginning in the summer of 1942, over 25,000 women joined the WAVES within the first year. Their role did not typically include combat, but the women received training in various fields including aerial navigation. The WAVES program developed for the purpose of putting women in men’s positions so that those men could be available for sea duty. For most of the war, the WAVES were limited to the U.S. mainland until the end, when they were authorized to serve in select U.S. territories. One of these places was Hawaii. Kent detailed the coming arrival of an outfit of WAVES in Oahu in a June 1945 letter. He felt quite unsure about them, hoping they would have no impact on him. But Kent benefited from the WAVES socially. He encountered WAVES at multiple dances, loving them as dance partners and sources of entertainment. They seemed to make him feel less homesick. While their official duties were very important to the war effort, they provided some unofficial benefits to the servicemen.
Just by writing down some of his daily events, Coleman Kent, Yeoman Second Class, revealed some exciting aspects of serving during World War II. While risking his life for his country, Kent was able to explore a completely new place and meet a wide variety of new people. He encountered numerous celebrities and various women who contributed to the war effort. He joined the U.S. Navy at a time when it was undergoing great development and expansion. Weapons, vessels, and strategy saw improvement. African-Americans and women were slowly allowed to hold positions. While the war brought insurmountable devastation and tragedy, it encouraged change in every aspect of society. It required the involvement of everyone, and changed people’s lives permanently. In Kent’s case, he returned home to Richmond, Virginia after the war’s end, where he married and lived the rest of his life. But his letters endure by illustrating a glimpse of the life of a World War II seaman.
 Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume 1: The Battle of the Atlantic September 1939-May 1943 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), LVI-LVII.
 Melissa T. Brown, Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender on U.S. Military Recruiting Advertising during the All-Volunteer Force (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 78, 81; “Research Starters: The Draft and World War II,” The National WWII Museum New Orleans, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/draft-and-wwii ; “Research Starters: US Military by the Numbers,” The National WWII Museum New Orleans, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers.
 Clayton McClure Brooks, “Conversations Across the Color Line: Interracial Cooperation and the Making of Segregation in Virginia, 1900-1930,”(PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2006), 11-12; Charles W. Johnson, “V for Virginia: The Commonwealth Goes to War,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100.3 (1992); Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 17 October 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia;. “Rural Life in Virginia,” Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/rural-life-virginia.
 David Farber and Beth Bailey, “The Fighting Man as Tourist: The Politics of Tourist Culture in Hawaii during World War II,” Pacific Historical Review 65.4 (1996), 641.
 Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 21 March 1944, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia.
 “John F. Kennedy: World War II Naval Hero to President,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/kennedyww2.htm ; Alan Axelrod, Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed WWII Mission to Save London (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 254.
 “#VeteranofTheDay Don Rickles,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/36879/veteranoftheday-don-rickles/.
 Shawn Levy, Paul Newman: A Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 38-39.
 Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 31 October 1944, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia.
 Beth Bailey and David Farber, “The ‘Double-V’ Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, Racial Ideology, and Federal Power,” Journal of Social History 26.4 (1993), 827; Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 22 August 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 16 June 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 20 November 1944, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Meghan Kate Winchell, “Good Food, Good Fun, and Good Girls: USO Hostesses and World War Two” (PhD diss., the University of Arizona, 2008), 18, 49, 215-217.
 Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 16 June 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 11 March 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Coleman Kent to Marguerite H Davis, 10 May 1945, Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia; Cecilia Rasmussen, “Those Flying Waves of WWII,” Sea Classics 35.12 (2002), 10; “WWII and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service),” Armed Forces History Museum, http://armedforcesmuseum.com/wwii-and-waves-women-accepted-for-volunteer-emergency-service/.
Armed Forces History Museum. “WWII and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).” http://armedforcesmuseum.com/wwii-and-waves-women-accepted-for-volunteer-emergency-service/.
Axelrod, Alan. Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed WWII Mission to Save London. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Bailey, Beth and David Farber. “The ‘Double-V’ Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, Racial Ideology, and Federal Power.” Journal of Social History 26.4 (1993): 817-843.
Brooks, Clayton McClure. “Conversations Across the Color Line: Interracial Cooperation and the Making of Segregation in Virginia, 1900-1930.” PhD diss., University of Virginia, 2006.
Brown, Melissa T. Enlisting Masculinity: The Construction of Gender on U.S. Military Recruiting Advertising during the All-Volunteer Force. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Farber, David and Beth Bailey. “The Fighting Man as Tourist: The Politics of Tourist Culture in Hawaii during World War II.” Pacific Historical Review 65.4 (1996): 641-660.
Johnson, Charles W. “V for Virginia: The Commonwealth Goes to War.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100.3 (1992): 365-398.
Kent, Coleman. Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs. The Mariners’ Museum Library, Newport News, Virginia.
Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
Mariners’ Museum and Park. “Coleman Kent Letters and Photographs.” http://test.marinersmuseum.org/#/object/ARC144.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II Volume 1: The Battle of the Atlantic September 1939-May 1943. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
National Park Service. “John F. Kennedy: World War II Naval Hero to President.” https://www.nps.gov/articles/kennedyww2.htm
The National WWII Museum New Orleans. “Research Starters: The Draft and World War II.” https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/draft-and-wwii.
The National WWII Museum New Orleans. “Research Starters: US Military by the Numbers.” https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-us-military-numbers.
Rasmussen, Cecilia . “Those Flying Waves of WWII.” Sea Classics 35.12 (2002): 10.
Virginia Historical Society. “Rural Life in Virginia.” http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/rural-life-virginia.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “#VeteranofTheDay Don Rickles.” http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/36879/veteranoftheday-don-rickles/.
Winchell, Meghan Kate. “Good Food, Good Fun, and Good Girls: USO Hostesses and World War Two” PhD diss., the University of Arizona, 2008.