By P. KELLY SMITH
Every year on Veteran’s Day, we as a nation set aside a day of remembrance for those servicemen and women who fought to keep the freedoms we enjoy today. One such LDS veteran is Norma Squires Smith, who served in World War II as a singer overseas in the United Services Organization, (USO).
From singing in the tabernacle at age 11, to throwing baseballs with David O. McKay’s son, Smith’s career as an entertainer has taken her far and wide, leaving behind memories of a lost but not forgotten time.
Smith, now 76 and residing in San Jose, Calif., went from singing in a nightclub in Hollywood to performing before soldiers in North Africa and Italy.
Many of these performances were within three miles of the fighting and in front of crowds of 5000 servicemen.
From an interview in her home she said the nostalgia about WWII has led her to wear a replica of her USO uniform to entertain veteran groups today. Smith recently had her picture and a plaque of her experiences overseas, go up in the war memorial room of Hollywood High School, where she attended in 1936.
Smith was only 21 when a call from a talent scout came offering her a position in the USO. “The possibility of going overseas gave rise to a series of emotional reactions and I was asking myself: can I leave my home and parents and face the unknown?” Smith said.
But before she knew it she found herself saying, “yes” and getting fitted for her uniform and getting shots for typhoid and tetanus.
“The FBI ran a complete security check on me, had me fingerprinted and told me that if I were captured by the enemy, I would be treated as a POW-Capt. status,” Smith said.
Smith said she knew she would be in dangerous circumstances, but wanted to do her part for the war effort. The USO shows ran from October 1941 to June 1944, with her travels taking her through Alaska, North Africa, Italy and England.
The USO provided nearly 124,000 shows to 71.4 million men.
Her first impression of the war was of the poor, weary servicemen in the Aleutian Islands, near Alaska, where she was first assigned.
“Most of these men had not seen a woman, yet alone a white woman, in 18-20 months, so they were quite happy to see us.”
While overseas, Smith found herself occasionally attending a LDS church service. Smith said being one of the only women in the chapel was a little awkward, but the men made her feel right at home. “It was wonderful to see how well our boys conducted those services and what a sincere feeling there always was there. Their testimonies of what the gospel had done for them overseas was an inspiration.”
Smith began performing at a young age, singing on Salt Lake’s KSL radio broadcast by age nine. When she was 11, she was asked to sing a solo with the Tabernacle Choir at the Annual Conference in the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1932.
President David O. McKay introduced her and presided over the meeting. This would not be her first meeting with the prophet though.
In 1934, David O. McKay’ family lived just two apartments away from Smith and her family on North Temple. Smith said she remembers getting together with the other kids from the neighborhood, to play softball.
David O. McKay’s youngest son, Bob was one of Smith’s playing buddies.
Smith said, “They gave me the nickname, “Powerhouse,” because I could really hit the ball pretty good. I vividly remember one day playing ball and we all looked up and saw David O. McKay walking down the steps with his beautiful Collie dog, “Scotty” by his side. I know I saw a halo over that beautiful head of white hair as he walked towards us.”
As the war came to an end, so did Smith’s life as a traveling performer. “Everyone wanted to forget the war and get on with the rest of their lives. Now everyone is so nostalgic about the war and so interested. Everyone wants me to sing again in my uniform — so I do,” Smith said.
Last year she attended a reunion for the 487th bomb group. She was in London celebrating their 100th mission 50+ years ago. She’s also been in the production of the play “South Pacific” in which she added a touch of authenticity, as she sang the same songs she did during the war.
From a little girl singing in the Tabernacle to making history with the USO, it is no wonder her life has come full circle. And it’s no surprise that 50 years ago, some GI cast his eye on a blond-haired soprano, whose voice helped soothe the angst and heal the soul.