Morale, Welfare and Recreation in WWII National Parks

Wartime rationing of gasoline and rubber, travel restrictions, and an exodus of men to the war effort collapsed wartime visitation to national parks.  In 1941, over 19 million people visited national parks.  By 1944, that number had dropped to 7 million.  Post-war reports estimated that military personnel accounted for 1/2 to 1/3 of all park visitors during the war. As division after division found rest and healing in national parks, a generation of park lovers was born.

In wartime, the best function of these areas is to prove a place to which members of the armed forces and civilians may retire to restore shattered nerves and to recuperate physically and mentally for the war tasks still ahead of them.
Wartime NPS Director, Newton Drury

Less than one year after Pearl Harbor, the War Department, National Park Service (NPS), and park hotel and restaurant operators sat around a conference table for two days.  Their objective was to discuss the military use of national parks for the morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) of American servicemen.   All parties came to the table in hopes of supporting the health and resiliency of Americans fighting overseas.

Each party also had a secondary motive. For the NPS, officials hoped that offering up national parks for recreational and patriotic uses would stop current military efforts to harvest park natural resources and take over parks as training areas. The agency also hoped that divisions of military troops recreating in national parks would put heads in hotel beds and fill restaurant tables, appeasing park concessions. The War Department sought to find large, government-owned facilities where they could cheaply occupy servicemen yet to be deployed and heal those weary from war.

After the two day meeting, the War Department agreed to use park concession facilities where it was mutually beneficially to both the concessions, parks, and local military divisions. The NPS provided the US Army Morale and Welfare Divisions (MWR) with a map of every state with a national parks and the names and addresses of the NPS officials at the park, regional and headquarters level. MWR program directors were directed to use the maps to establish relationships with local NPS units and develop a plan for military visits to national parks.

In the southeast, the NPS designated a representative within each unit to consult with area Army units on recreation plans. Where construction was needed, the Great Depression leftover, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), constructed facilities to meet the needs of personnel and fleets.


Formal Recreation Camps

B&W large group of soldiers post in front of cave entrance
Servicemen visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

National Park Service

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Rattlesnake Springs became a full time recreation camps for troops with the swimming pool having a ‘particular appeal.’ It was estimated that 1,000 soldiers a month were spending the night in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. This was partially due to the efforts of the superintendent who traveled to regional bases to personally invite the troops.  Famous actor Clark Gable visited Carlsbad in 1943 to mingle with troops and boost morale. The camp at Rattlesnake Springs was disbanded in 1944 and many of the materials were moved to an Army camp near Santa Fe. Though several buildings remained standing for some years, the last building was demolished in the 1950s. A few rock foundations survive as remnants of the camp, and stately rows of large cottonwood trees mark the site.

Catoctin Mountain Park
After enduring heavy casualties on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, United States Marines were housed at Camp Greentop in Catoctin Mountain Park for rehabilitation and rest.

Denali National Park
In Denali, then known as Mt. McKinley National Park, the McKinley Park Hotel was converted into a recreation camp for soldiers fighting in the Aleutians until 1945.  The camp housed up to 200 soldiers at a time on 7 day furloughs.  In addition to using concession-operated facilities such as the hotel, the US Army also leased camps that the Army staffed and operated. At war’s end, it was estimated that between 6-8,000 soldiers a month arrived in the park.

Grand Canyon National Park
In 1944, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Harold Bryant estimated that about a third of park visitation was military.  Forty-four special permits authorized overnight bivouacs of one to three days for more than 19,000 troops. Several army groups and the Kingman Army Air Group used the recently abandoned village CCC complex as a recreational camp.  

In almost no time, the facility resembled a military post, as the Army Groups renovated some of the buildings as barracks, officer quarters, mess hall, and post exchange. Troops rotating from active duty at Kingman to recreate a few weeks at a time. Men wore Class A uniforms when not on work detail, shopped at the PX to avoid taxing limited supplies at Babbitts Store, and were cautioned to carouse at camp rather than crowd the El Tovar Hotel bar. Otherwise, they were invited to mingle with residents, shop at curio stores, and take advantage of curtailed concessioner services.The men apparently did mingle, to the extent that noncommissioned officers were cautioned to monitor their men’s activities.“Guests” were not allowed in camp after midnight and never to the barracks, and military police were stationed at the El Tovar Hotel as well as the women’s dormitory.

B&W photo of large building in background on hill
The 'new' Army-Navy Hospital opened in Hot Springs, AK in 1931.

National Park Service

Hot Springs National Park
Veterans had been using the public bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park since earlier wars and continued to seek its healing waters in World War II.  In October of 1942, the military took over the Eastman Hotel as an annex of the Army-Navy Hospital, later building an aerial walkway between it and the main hospital. Military doctors used the hot spring water for treatments.  One positive side effect of this was a boost in the bathing business during and immediately after World War II.

In 1944, the Army began redeploying returning overseas soldiers and Hot Springs was chosen as a redistribution center for returning soldiers. In August 1944 the Army took over the Arlington, Majestic, Park, and DeSoto Hotels as part of the redistribution program. Soldiers from the west-central states received a 21-day furlough before reporting to the redistribution station. They spent 14 days updating their military records and obtaining physical and dental treatment. The soldiers had time to enjoy the baths at a reduced rate and other recreational activities during this time. The redistribution center closed down in December 1945 after processing more than 32,000 members of the military. In 1946, after the war, the Eastman was demolished. The Eastman annex was converted to officer's quarters and office space.

small buildings and dirt roads shown from the air, B&W
The Army Camp at Katmai in 1963.

National Park Service

Katmai National Park and Preserve
By 1943, the U.S. Army Air Corps had established two rest and recreation camps in Katmai for airmen from Nakneh and King Salmon Air Bases. The camps and the closed status of the park provide airmen anglers with sole access to some of the best trout fishing in the world. Both camps were located at the west end of Naknek Lake. Enlisted men used the Naknek Recreation Annex No. 1, known locally as Rapids Camp, and officers used Annex No. 2, known locally as Lake Camp. The heavy volume of airmen fishing at the recreation areas led to measured depletion in fish populations that concerned biologists.

B&W; soldiers in front of large Sequoia
Soldiers recreating the park pose in front of large Sequoia tree.

National Park Service

Sequioa Kings Canyon National Parks
In 1944, park officials reported that “military personnel travel to the two parks represented 18,852 of the total of 121,494 visitors, or 16 per cent. Many company or battalion units spent varying periods up to two weeks at campsites in the park, resting, bivouacking, or on minor maneuvers.” Particularly in the Wolverton Area, it was noted that ‘The park personnel helped in numerous ways to bring to the soldiers the fullest possible benefit of their stay.’

Though these military stays were often reported in numbers, one park official took the time to reflect on the true benefit of military visits to national parks.  In 1945, he wrote “Even more than in normal times, the parks served as havens both of physical and mental relaxation for the weary. The numerous voluntary expressions in the matter from visiting military personnel and war-workers from the shipyards and airplane factories of the nearby metropolitan areas were a stimulant to the morale of the park employees who, too, have had some trying times in carrying on under wartime conditions and handicaps. "

Yosemite National Park
Probably the most famous healing experiment in national parks during World War II took place at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.  The “U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital Yosemite National Park, California” was commissioned on June 25, 1943. Eleven days later, the first patients arrived. They were veterans of the Battle for Okinawa. During the time the hospital was in commission 6,752 patients were admitted. Of these about 65% were returned to duty and the remainder discharged from the Service. The greatest number of patients at any one time was 853. The hospital was decomissioined in 1945.

Other parks reported high visitation from military troops.  In 1943 alone, Gettysburg National Military Park, Castillo De San Marcos, Gulf Islands National Seashore and Joshua Tree National Monument reported over 200,000 visits from soldiers.

American Parks Support Allied Troops

B&W; sailors in front of low buildings and hay pile
Sailors in the Navy camp at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site assist in park maintenance.

National Park Service

Though American troops were the primary users of WWII military recreation camps in parks, allied troops benefited as well.  The NPS permitted many Recreation Demonstration Areas (recreation areas near cities) and five vacant Civilian Conservation Corps camps for use by British and French soldiers.  By the end of the war, national parks were known to provide respite and recuperation for 21,910 British sailors and 443 French sailors.

Catoctin Mountain Park
In addition to the wartime construction of the presidential retreat now known as Camp David and hosting an active spy school, Catoctin Mountain Park also housed a rest a recreation camp for British sailors. On June 2, 1941, permission was granted by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy for the recreational use of the camps at Catoctin for British sailors. These camps provided "a tremendous amount of good to personnel who had many months of arduous sea duty."

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site
In 1942, Hopewell Furnace welcomed sailors from the British Man-of-War HMS Nelson.’  The skeleton park staff that remained on site extended a welcoming hand to the allied sailors arranging outdoor movies and a hot dog roast.  Local boy scout troops were persuaded to loan their canoes to the camps..  

Park officials repeatedly note in memos that they were struggling to maintain the park, protect its historic resources, and run military camp operations with almost no staff. The park superintendent struck a deal with the Navy, permitting the Navy to continue to use the camps as long as they took over maintenance, policing, waste disposal, and utility bills.  The superintendent had high praise for the work done by the sailors and was especially thankful when “several sailors jumped on the park’s fire truck to fight three local forest fires during the first weekend in May.” Near the end of the war, the crew of the HMS Nelson presented the park superintendent with a plaque thanking him for his service to the Royal Navy.

By the summer of 1944, the Navy Rest Camp at Hopewell Village National Historic Site had provided a refuge for 2,665 British sailors and almost 500 Free French sailors.

Mammoth Cave National Park
Though little is known of the details, postwar reports state that Mammoth Cave ‘ministered to the recreational needs of a large number of soldiers including british veterans.’


Parks for Patriotism

Early in the war, the NPS Advisory Board recommendedthat the National Park Service should immediately undertake the encouragement of national pride in our new armed forces as well as our citizenry which is so essential for the defense and preservation of our country.’

Their recommendations including expanding park interpretive programs, dissemination of park literature to troops, and the use of parks for morale building efforts.  One such example of this was a March 1st 1942 radio broadcast from Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine to Douglas Macarthur and his men on the Bataan Peninsula.  

The NPS expanded its literature program.  Its publication “Welcome to the Members of the Armed Forces,’ became so popular with troops overseas that the NPS was forced to increase its production of the guide. Originally 150,000 copies were issued in four editions. Copies were sent to USO centers and POW Camps. Base librarians recalled NPS publications being the ‘most popular and read items’ in base libraries. One librarian added “that every time she looks around, she can see one or more boys curled up in a chair taking a ‘cheap furlough’ with an NPS publication.

One surprise request came from the Eight Service Command of the Army  on October 22, 1945, for "all descriptive materials available concerning the historic points of interest in this country.” The materials was to be used for “instructing German Prisoners of War, attending American History classes.”

Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields across the country hosted military units for patriotic tours and the study of historic military maneuvers - a practices that continues today. NPS staff also prepared guidance for national parks and other historic sites for protecting cultural artifacts for enemy invasion and bombing.  

Of course, there were many times when war impacted the patriotic use of parks during the war. Post-war reports noted that the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site presentation the “pageant ‘The Lost Colony' was discontinued by the Army in connection with blackout precautions on the Eastern Coast.” At Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine the Coast Guard discontinued boat transportation between historic points of interest.

Park staff and families that remained in parks during the war participated in various homefront activities.  At Grand Canyon National Park, the Superintendent zoned the local village for fire and blackout contingencies, and residents served as air raid wardens, participated in elementary military drill and firefighting classes, guarded strategic points against sabotage, and manned lookout towers to spot forest fires as well as enemy aircraft. They continued to participate in varied social and business clubs, but spent considerable free time organizing bond drives, collecting scrap paper and rubber.

Last updated: November 9, 2017