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Saturday, April 04, 2020

Truman: "None will look askance and say, 'Where was Freemasonry in this hour of need?'"

by Christopher Hodapp



Last year I was researching information about Masonic communities activities during World War II and the creation of a national network of U.S.O.-like service clubs by grand lodges and the Masonic Service Association. By the war's end there were 90 Army-Navy Masonic Service Centers located in major Masonic halls all across the country that provided meals, recreation, transportation, letter-writing material and services, and free long-distance phone calls to military personnel.

Now the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri has just posted this Youtube video of a later radio and newsreel address by Harry Truman about those very Masonic Service Centers. It was his second such message widely disseminated to the public about how Freemasonry served the military at the time.

(If it doesn't play above, visit the link HERE.)

The program was the brainchild of the MSA's director Carl H. Claudy and Missouri Past Grand Master, Senator Harry S Truman. In July 1941, Senator Truman gave a national radio address entitled “Masonry Serves the Armed Forces” in which he outlined programs being proposed by the Masonic Service Association to help, aid and assist servicemen in the event of war, and he exhorted brethren across the country to get busy immediately putting them into practice. It was clear that war in Europe and Asia was coming to the American soldier sooner than later, and Truman’s radio message was the official call to action for the nation’s Freemasons. Truman’s encouragement would become even more influential to Masons and the public in general, as he would soon be named as Roosevelt’s vice presidential running mate. 

The video above is actually a follow up message reporting on the activities of the Centers a year into the program.

Between 1941 and 1945, more than 16 million American men and women would eventually serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and another 3.5 million worked as federal civilian employees during the war. Those are all sobering statistics today in an age when just one half of one percent of Americans are in uniform. Never before would so many Americans be uprooted from the familiar surroundings of their homes, families and communities, and moved to so many unfamiliar regions of the nation and the world with so little preparation and support.

The more than two and a half million U.S. Freemasons across the country had a major stake in the lives of military personnel. By 1944 during the height of the war, the MSA would estimate that 25% of all servicemen and women were either Masons, or from the families of Masons.

Years before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II, the national Masonic Service Association had done a national survey of Masonic halls and military bases. It was determined that they already had ideal social facilities sitting in nearly every American city and town, large and small, in the form of existing Masonic temples. The post-WWI building boom of the 1920s meant the Masons had plenty of big, centrally located buildings that would could accommodate visiting soldiers in large numbers. 


With a little bit of work, combined with their own dedicated volunteers from within the wider Masonic family of organizations, the Masonic Service Centers were born. The first center was officially opened in 1941 in the large Masonic temple in Columbus, South Carolina. By the war’s end, there were about 90 centers nationwide.


The Masonic Service Centers were designed to address the huge morale problem of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers far from home for the first time in their lives, suddenly finding themselves in strange towns without friends or relatives. The Centers received no funding from the USO or any other federal agency. Many religious groups also sponsored their own similar sorts of social centers for soldiers, but in public notices about the Masonic centers it was stressed that they were open to all service personnel regardless of race, creed, color or Masonic affiliation. That made them different from other church-related centers across the country, or private membership clubs that often had racial or religious restrictions, which were so common to the period. 


In my own state, just between January 1944 and the official end of the war in August of 1945, Indiana’s Masons hosted more than 80,000 service personnel at its two Service Centers. Agents, hostesses and Cadettes wrote thousands of letters and made hundreds of phone calls on behalf of soldiers unable to contact home on their own, and even communicated with lodges in other jurisdictions to report on the status of their military members while in the state. Throughout the course of the war, an average of 100 soldiers a day came through each of our centers.

Harry Truman assumed the presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. After the conclusion of the war, President Truman and Carl Claudy still saw an ongoing purpose for the fraternity and the MSA’s national leadership in helping the military. At Truman’s encouragement, the Masonic volunteerism of the Service Centers was converted into the MSA’s hospital visitation program in 1947, which continues to this very day. 

There may be a very simple motivating factor that drove men to join the ranks of our fraternity during and after the war. Truman's messages went nationwide, on radio and in movie houses. In this one he says something that may have resonated with a bigger cross-section of the American public than you might imagine today when most of us don't hear common messages from influencers and newsmakers anymore. He says, 
"At this very moment, in foxholes and on shipboard, beneath the sea and in the air, countless hands are being clasped in fraternal recognition as brothers find one another in the darkness as well as in the daylight. And countless fathers bravely wishing 'Godspeed' to their departing sons are saying, "Boy, when your hour of darkness and loneliness comes, find a Freemason, and tell him you are the son of a Freemason, and you'll find a friend..."
Stop and think for a moment about the power that message must have had, coming from the man who would soon be Vice-President and then President himself, and the tens of thousands who remembered it and took it to heart, both during and after the war. Fourteen years after the end of the war, American Masonry hit its membership record of more than 4 million members.

It's no wonder they joined in droves.

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