Letters from long ago now lift spirits of WWII's 'Canteen Girl'

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Remembering 'Canteen Girl'

Seventy-five years after "Canteen Girl" sang her last song and shared her final inspirational story with American soldiers and sailors during World War II, their letters still speak to her.

Phyllis Jeanne Creore Westerman, who turned 100 last month, was the host of the popular "Canteen Girl" radio program that aired for several years on NBC radio beginning in August 1942. The show was essentially a home-cooked counter-punch to the infamous "Tokyo Rose" broadcasts airing Japanese propaganda and anti-American rhetoric during the war.

"Canteen Girl," had a simple format — three or four songs wrapped around a story intended to lift the spirits of Americans fighting in Europe and the Pacific. But simplicity and Westerman's sweet singing voice and measured storytelling turned out to be just what the young servicemen were craving.

RELATED: Photos of 'Canteen Girl'

15 PHOTOS
Remembering WWII's 'Canteen Girl'
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Remembering WWII's 'Canteen Girl'
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio actress Toni Gilman, left, and singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, shows off fashions in Washington, D.C. Shown here on a train. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio actress Toni Gilman, left, and singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, shows off fashions in Washington, D.C. Shown here in the dining car of a train. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, who is also heard on CBS Radios Are You a Missing Heir?, show off fashions in Washington, D.C. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, who is also heard on CBS Radios Are You a Missing Heir?, show off fashions in Washington, D.C. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, who is also heard on CBS Radios Are You a Missing Heir?, show off fashions in Washington, D.C. Shown here on a train. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - APRIL 1: CBS Radio singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore, who is also heard on CBS Radios Are You a Missing Heir?, show off fashions in Washington, D.C. Image dated April 1, 1942. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: (center) Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore with Christmas guests -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
CANTEEN GIRL -- Pictured: (right) Host Phyllis Jeanne Creore with Christmas guests -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - AUGUST 1: CBS Radio actress and singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore models dress fashions. Season after season this tailored classic remains ever popular trim, comfortable, simple. Its a perfect back-to-college or back-to-business dress, and its worn here by Phyllis Jeanne Creore, CBS songstress heard on the Hollywood Dreams program. Fashion by University Frocks apparel label, New York, NY. Image dated August 1, 1940. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - AUGUST 1: CBS Radio actress and singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore models dress fashions. Season after season this tailored classic remains ever popular trim, comfortable, simple. Its a perfect back-to-college or back-to-business dress, and its worn here by Phyllis Jeanne Creore, CBS songstress heard on the Hollywood Dreams program. Fashion by University Frocks apparel label, New York, NY. Image dated August 1, 1940. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
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"I got a great deal of fan mail," Westerman recalled from a worn upholstered chair in the living room of the Upper East Side apartment where she has lived for more than 60 years. "The boys would all write together in their letters and ask me to sing certain songs for them."

Westerman, a singer and radio actress who performed as "Phyllis Jeanne" in those days, was ahead of her time as an empowered woman entertainer. She developed the "Canteen Girl" concept based on her experiences entertaining young servicemen at the New York Stage Door Canteen before they shipped out and pitched it to NBC executives.

To her astonishment, they said yes — and provided her with a writer and pianist to produce the weekly 15-minute show from the network studios at 30 Rockefeller Center.

"They delighted my soul," she says of the moment of acceptance, her bright-blue eyes twinkling at the memory.

Westerman — who grew up in Rochester, New York — moved to New York City in 1937 and rented a room at the Rehearsal Club boarding house, along with dozens of other aspiring actresses, singers and dancers. One day, shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan, she saw a notice on the bulletin board "saying that a dance setup for the boys in service was forming."

RELATED: Iconic WWII photos by Joe Rosenthal

41 PHOTOS
Iconic WWII Photos Joe Rosenthal
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Iconic WWII Photos Joe Rosenthal
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, 5th Division, raise the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on Feb. 23, 1945. Strategically located only 660 miles from Tokyo, the Pacific island became the site of one of the bloodiest, most famous battles of World War II against Japan. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines of the 28th Regiment, fifth division, cheer and hold up their rifles after raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, a volcanic Japanese island, on Feb. 23, 1945 during World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Australian and New Zealand fliers arrive at San Francisco on Matson Liner Mariposa Nov. 4, 1941. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Japanese arms plant precision machinists at work on the breach end of a gun barrel in Tokyo, Dec. 1, 1941. Armament production is proceeding at a high pitch of intensity and efficiency. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Japanese guns and material captured at Kokumbuna in the Solomon islands are brought from the front in a jeep on Feb. 12, 1943. American soldiers look them over. Much booty was captured by the Americans when they took Kokumbuna, Japanese strong point on Guadalcanal last January. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marine paratroopers, in training at a South Pacific base, use a portable tripod to shake out their parachutes and remove dirt and leaves on April 13, 1943. S/Sgt. Robert E. Sale of Chicago, right, directs the operation. The towers in the background are portable cabinets for drying wet chutes with heated air. (AP Photo/Pool/Joe Rosenthal)
Marine gunner Charles E. James of Hartland, Wis., demonstrates various methods of snap-shooting pistols to a group of U.S. Marines in training at a Pacific base on April 13, 1943. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Cyclops airdrome in the Hollandia area of Dutch New Guinea on May 12, 1944 is full of activity as Army transport planes land and takeoff from this field captured from the Japanese. In the foreground is the wreckage of a Japanese zero. Soldiers are unidentified. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal/Pool)
Sitting on the remains of a destroyed Japanese Zero at Hollandia, New Guinea on May 14, 1944, are these American soldiers who helped occupy the Japanese-held air field. Left to right: Pvt. Angelo Gemelli, Chicago, Ill.; Pfc. Troy A. Martin, Missoula, Mont.; Sgt. Henry H. Coldeway, Hermleigh, Texas; Pfc. David C. Calvert, Great Falls, Mont.; Pvt. John Henry Pavlowski, Syracuse, N.Y.; T/Sgt. Howard Sandberg, Ronan, Mont.; and T/Sgt. Stanley P. Mach, Posen, Illinois. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Sgt. Raymond W. Davis (lower center), of Utica, Ohio, shows a group of home state boys the proper method of servicing a motor, somewhere in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Standing around the sergeant, left to right: Pvt. Guadelupe Barron, Dayton, Ohio; Cpl. Otis C. French, Dayton, Ohio; Cpl. Willis L. Felver, Piqua, Ohio, and Pfc. Frank E. Davis, Massilon, Ohio. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Five New Jersey boys strike this pose somewhere in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Left to right: Warrant Officer Frank P. Bingert, New Brukswick; S/Sgt. John Petrjcik Jr., Meyuchen; T/3 John Nagy, Perth Amboy; T/5 Mickey Procadding, Princeton; and T/5 Philip Roman, Passaic. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
American artillery fire, which hit the tree under which they were sitting, killed these three Japanese as American forces established a beachhead on Saipan in the Marianas, June 26, 1944. The invasion, closest yet to Japan, was launched on June 14. U.S. Marines are in background. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
These Wisconsin lads find a stack of heavy duty tires the ideal spot on which to relax from their chores at a base in the South Pacific on June 9, 1944. Left to right: T/5 Daniel Buress, of Kenoshan; Sgt. Floyd Davison, of Milwaukee; Cpl. Adolph D. Larson, Deerfield, and Cpl. George Mazanek, Green Bay. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Marines take advantage of natural cover at the beachhead near Asan, Mariana Islands, Guam, July 1944. In background is a burning "duck". (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines move forward in the rain, toward junction with 1st Marine Brigade at the front lines, July 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Soldiers of a parachute unit wash their bodies and clothes, New Guinea, Jul. 11, 1944. (AP Photo)
Transporting a piano to a paratroopers base in New Guinea is no easy feat but these men accomplished it, shown July 12, 1944. Left to right: Pvt. Mike Pazinko, Olyphant, Pa; Pfc. Salvador R. Fiorelli, Philadelphia, Pa; 1st Lt. Arthur E. Schuder, Atlanta, Ga. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Marines land on coral reefs during U.S./Japanese warfare, Guam, Mariana Islands, Jul. 21, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Vehicles are slung over the side of a transport ship in preparation to being run to the Guam shore in a landing craft, July 21, 1944. In the background, partially obscured by haze and smoke from shelling is another landing craft. Photo made on the first morning of invasion to retake Guam. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Guam in the Mariana Islands is pictured on Jul. 27, 1944, during U.S./Japanese warfare. (AP photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Wounded soldiers are carried on stretchers towards a beach where they will be evacuated to a hospital ship, Guam, Mariana Islands, Jul. 27, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Among equipment abandoned by the Japanese as Marines stormed forward is this 25-millimeter anti-aircraft gun near Piti, past Tepungan, July 27, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
A view of destruction in outer Agana, Mariana Islands, Guam, Aug. 1944. (Joe Rosenthal)
Marine Corps General A. H. Noble, left, looks on as Major Gen. A. H. Turnage frisks a captured Japanese carrier pigeon on Guam island in the Marianas, Aug. 2, 1944. Pfc. Louis E. Cook, Jr., of DuQuoin, Illinois, keeps a close watch on the proceedings. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Wreck of a Japanese plane on Tiyan airport after seizure by Marines on the Guam, Aug. 2, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. troops stop to eat on the road to Agana, the capital of Guam, Aug. 10, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines pose at the graves of dead comrades in Guam, Aug. 10, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Tiny natives of Guam hold home-made American flags made by their mothers from parts of dresses while in custody of the Japanese, Aug. 10, 1944. The children waved the flags when the Yanks moved in. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Supported by tanks, Marines of the 1st U.S. Division inch their way up on the beach of Peleliu, during the invasion of the island in the Palau group, on September 14, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
As the U.S. invasion of Peleliu gets underway, various types of landing craft approach the island in the Palau group, ferrying men and material to the beaches, on September 14, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. troops of the First Marine Division storm ashore from beached "Alligator" vehicles at Peleliu Island, Palau on Sept. 20, 1944 during World War II. The invasion started Sept. 14. The smoke is from a burning "Alligator." (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Soldiers stand by a crashed Japenese bomber on Peleliu, Republic of Palau, Sep. 22, 1944. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Fourth Division Marines move in from the beach on Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcanic Island, on Feb. 19, 1945. A dead Marine lies at right in the foreground. Mt. Suribachi, in the background, was turned into a beehive of guns by Japanese troops. It was scaled by the U.S. Marines, who took control. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines aboard a landing craft head for the beaches of Iwo Jima Island, Japan, on Feb. 19, 1945 during World War II. In the background is Mount Suribachi, the extinct volcano captured by the Marines after a frontal assault. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
A U.S. Marine, center, is shot dead during battle for Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 19, 1945 in World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines of the Fourth Division shield themselves in abandoned Japanese trench and bomb craters formed during U.S. invasion and amphibious landing at Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 19, 1945 in World War II. A battered Japanese ship is at right in the background at right. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Two U.S. Marines, slumped in death, lie where they fell on Iwo Jima, among the first victims of Japanese gunfire as the American conquest of the strategic Japanese Volcano Island begins on Feb. 19, 1945 during World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines offer a Japanese prisoner of war, whose face is obliterated by censors, a cigarette after he is captured during American invasion of Iwo Jima, Japanese Volcano Island stronghold, on Feb. 28, 1945 in World War II. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
U.S. Marines kneel in prayer before they receive communion during a lull in the fighting for Motoyam Airstrip No. 1 on Iwo Jima, March 1, 1945. From left to right: Pfc. Edmond L. Fadel, Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Pvt. Walter M. Sokowski, Syracuse, N.Y.; and Pvt. Nicholas A. Zingaro, Syracuse, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Joe Rosenthal, of the Associated Press, photographer with the wartime still picture pool, looks over the scene at Iwo Jima, Japan on March 7, 1945, from which he has sent some of the most graphic pictures of the Pacific war. (AP Photo/U.S. Marine Corps)
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The "dance setup" turned out to be the Stage Door Canteen, a club for servicemen that was a forerunner of the USO.

The club — and many more just like it in other states and abroad — played an important role in keeping up morale, with celebrities like Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn and Ray Bolger showing up to prepare and hand out hot meals while lesser-known volunteers like Westerman danced with the servicemen.

"Those who staffed canteens, hosted radio shows and put on performances at home and abroad provided a connection to home and moments of lightness and normalcy in the most troubling time that many young Americans had ever known," explains Kimberly Guise, a curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Westerman has fond memories of the long hours on the dance floor, though the specter of war was never far away.

"It was very jolly and very gay," Westerman recalls, surrounded by photos, books and mementos from her long career. "And there were some very touching moments, of course, with all of the boys who didn't know what was ahead of them."

Before her time at the Stage Door Canteen, Westerman had earned a footnote in the annals of TV history, serving as a "Miss Television" at the RCA exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair and introducing Americans to the wonders of the new technology.

"I stood on the little stage and told them all I could... over a period of a few minutes," she said. "Then I would select a visitor... and took them out into the yard to stand in front of the (engineer's) truck and the truck transported through coaxial cable the whole program into the building (where) ... people at the 40 television sets were standing, watching."

But the radio show remains her proudest achievement.

In addition to showcasing her lovely singing voice, "Canteen Girl" offered Westerman the opportunity to remind listeners that people on the home front were concerned about their wellbeing and keeping them in their thoughts and prayers, a sentiment that she conveyed neatly in the show's self-penned theme song, "This Is My Wish."

"I wish you luck in everything you do; that all your cares will disappear from view," it went. "And hopes of happiness will all come true. This is my wish."

RELATED: Colorized photos from WWII

24 PHOTOS
WWII colorized photos (BI)
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WWII colorized photos (BI)

Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repairs department of the naval air base, supervises Chas. Potter, a National Youth Administration trainee from Michigan, at Corpus Christi, Texas. After eight weeks of training, he will go into the civil service.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Answering the nation's need for woman-power, Davis made arrangements for the care of her two children during the day and joined her husband at work at the naval air base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Jesse Rhodes Waller, AOM, third class, tries out a 30-caliber machine gun he has just installed in a US Navy plane at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

A sailor at the base wears the new type of protective clothing and gas mask designed for use in chemical warfare in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Jesse Rhodes Waller, AOM, third class, tries out a 30-caliber machine gun he has just installed on a US Navy plane in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Feeding an SNC advanced-training plane its essential supply of gasoline is done by sailor mechanics at Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Av. Cadet Thanas at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Pearl Harbor widows have gone into war work to carry on the fight in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Mrs. Eloise J. Ellis has been appointed by the civil service to be senior supervisor in the assembly and repairs department at the naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

After seven years in the US Navy, J.D. Estes is considered an old sea salt by his mates at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Painting the American insignia on airplane wings is a job that Mrs. Irma Lee McElroy, a former office worker, does with precision and patriotic zeal. McElroy is a civil-service employee at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Aviation cadet in training at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Plane at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Working with a sea plane at the base in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Aviation cadets at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Mechanics service an A-20 bomber at Langley Field in Virginia.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

M-3 tank and crew using small arms at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

M-4 tank line at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

A young soldier of the armored forces holds and sights his Garand rifle at Fort Knox.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Servicing an A-20 bomber at Langley Field.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

A US Marine lieutenant is a glider pilot in training, at Page Field on Parris Island in South Carolina.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

Marines finish training at Parris Island in South Carolina.

(Photo via the US Library of Congress)

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Westernan said the evidence that she was connecting with the mostly young servicemen, many of them away from home for the first time, poured in every day via the mail. She kept nearly all their heartfelt letters and later mounted them in five scrapbooks that she still pulls out for visitors.

"I like your program very much," one apparently injured sailor, Charles Brenner, wrote on Dec. 8, 1942. "I am in the hospital and it makes me feel like I am at a Canteen. If you know what I mean."

Henry, George and Joe, aka "The Supply Room Gang," wrote that they often would sing along to Phyllis Jeanne's songs and especially enjoyed her skits.

"Believe me when I say you make them feel as if their own girl was a talking to them," the letter said.

In another, dated October 1942, a private in the Army Air Corps requested that "Canteen Girl" sing two songs — "We're On Our Way to Tokyo" and "Just Another Night of Dreams"— to lift the spirits of the men in the infirmary where he was being treated.

Westerman, who often read or referenced the letters on the air, was usually happy to oblige, or send an autographed photo to those who requested one.

In a 2013 profile in the New York Times, she joked that, "If they wrote asking for pictures, I would send them, and I'd be the pinup girl for whole camps."

Westerman continued to act on radio and television after the war ended and married a talent executive, the late Theodore "Ted" Westerman, who she says was always supportive of her career and ambitions.

"It was very much a part of our family story," recalls the couple's only daughter, Cynthia Westerman-Clark, who lives in Florida and is a special education counselor. "I've always admired her so much because she went from Rochester to New York City as a young woman hoping to make a career and she did, and it's quite impressive."

Phyllis Westerman, who is frail but otherwise in good health after passing the century mark, said she realized just how much of an impact the "Canteen Girl" had on the servicemen again several years ago, when a New York Historical Society exhibit on her contribution to the war effort renewed interest in her story.

"Boys would tell me about their uncles who thought they were in love with me," she said. "It seems unusual to me for anybody to have popularity after 75 years, so I was actually very blessed."

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