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YMCA armed services records

Identifier: Y.USA.4


Historical data, correspondence, reports, memoranda, articles, newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, scrapbooks, and other records documenting the YMCA's work serving the armed forces community from the time of the Civil War through the present. The records are divided into five, separately described series. Records related to YMCA welfare work during each of three major armed conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries make up the bulk of the collection. These include the United States Christian Commission-related records representing the Civil War era, records from World War I work, and United Service Organization-related records, which cover the YMCAs role in founding and operating the USO during World War II. Records concerning YMCA involvement in other wars, including the Spanish American, Korean, and Vietnam wars, can be found in the general and administrative series which also includes historical and background data; financial records; conference, committee and personnel files; and other records of the Armed Services Department and its predecessor and related organizational units. Also included in the collection is a series of scrapbooks and photo albums, primarily dating from the time of World War I.


  • 1863-1987.


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Work by the YMCA on behalf of individuals serving in the armed forces began during the Civil War and has continued to the present day. What began as a war emergency service was later to become an integral and continuing part of the YMCA's total ministry.

Established in London, the Young Men's Christian Association came into being in 1844 expressly for young men who were flocking to the city, whose home and religious ties had been broken by the Industrial Revolution, and whose way of living tended to be "careless and immoral" due to the fierce temptations of the modern city. In less than a decade, the YMCA had spread throughout England to the Continent, and in 1851, to Canada and the United States where it took root in widely distant cities. Providing services to the young men in the armed forces was a natural extension of the work already underway by the YMCA.

The earliest YMCA work with the armed services was a small peacetime effort on board a naval training ship in Portsmouth, Virginia. Historian C. Howard Hopkins notes that in 1856 the YMCA's Portsmouth Association, with the government's endorsement, placed books in the ship's library and later received permission to hold meetings. Similar services were initiated by the Boston Association in 1859.

The YMCA's broader volunteer service to the Armed Forces, however, dates from April 1861, when a handful of YMCA volunteers sought to assist soldiers and sailors. This initial group aided the soldiers in the encampments where they were stationed temporarily on their way to the front. Later, growing numbers of volunteers accompanied the soldiers to the battlefields. Starting with the small "army committee" set up by the New York Association to extend preaching services, individual religious visitation, and publications to soldiers stationed outside New York City, the work soon grew to a cooperative venture by 15 northern associations which formed the Christian Commission. Following its appointment in November, 1861, the Commission moved quickly to organize on a national scale. Its first meeting was held December 11 in Washington and included a conference with President Lincoln and the securing of endorsements form the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. During its four years of operation, the Commission recruited 5,000 volunteer "delegates" who served in every theater of the war. This was the nation's first large-scale civilian volunteer service corps.

Relief agencies such as the Red Cross had not yet been created, and the military chaplaincy was in its infancy. Therefore, volunteers were recruited from many fields, serving as surgeons, nurses, chaplains and chaplains' assistants. Others distributed emergency medical supplies, food and clothing. They served on the battleground with horse-drawn canteens, built and operated special-diet kitchens in hospitals, brought books and prefabricated chapels to soldiers and sailors, taught enlisted men how to read and write, maintained a hotel for soldiers on furlough and provided free meals. YMCA prisoner-of-war work — undertaken on a massive scale later during World Wars I and II — began during the Civil War, when the U.S. Christian Commission ministered to Confederate soldiers in northern prisons and sent supplies to Union soldiers in Confederate prisons. Throughout the Civil War, the Commission distributed more than 100,000 cases of food, clothing and medical supplies, and 12 million books, magazines and pamphlets. Its volunteer delegates wrote more than 90,000 letters for the sick and wounded, and distributed $1,000 a week in postage for the soldiers' use. To get supplies to the delegates, the Commission created 111 YMCA Army Committees as auxiliary units.

In the three decades of peace following the Civil War, the YMCA movement continued its services to soldiers and sailors, generally in state militia camps. Through its Militia Camp Program, the YMCA established the nation's first recreational, sports and counseling services for military personnel. In 1889, the YMCA established its first permanent Army YMCA, Fort Monroe, Virginia.

The YMCA's tradition of "following the flag" abroad began in the Spanish-American War, when YMCA volunteers were dispatched to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. So quickly did the YMCA act that its supplies were in Cuba and the Philippines before those of the Army. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders wrote their early dispatches on YMCA stationery, and troops in the Philippines used YMCA medical supplies.

This work for soldiers and sailors was so highly regarded that the YMCA's central body, in 1898, established a permanent Army and Navy Committee, resulting in a rapidly expanding peacetime development. Within five months after the establishment of a permanent department to serve the Armed Forces, the YMCA began constructing large, well-equipped buildings to serve the military. The first was the Brooklyn, N.Y., Navy YMCA, opened in February 1899. Soon, YMCA Army and Navy buildings were around the world.

In the years before World War I, the YMCA movement developed the type of building and mobile equipment later used during the conflict in Europe. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the YMCA had developed the know-how, skill and experience to launch a massive program of morale and welfare services for the military — both at home and overseas. Its services were offered to the government, and President Woodrow Wilson quickly accepted them. Never in history had an organization brought aid to so many men, over such wide geographic areas and under such adverse conditions, as did the YMCA during the first World War. According to Gen. John J. Pershing, the YMCA conducted 90 percent of the welfare work among American Forces in Europe during the war.

Several innovative projects created by the YMCA during WWI were destined to become institutionalized: 1) Overseas entertainment for the troops, which would be carried on by the United Services Organizations (USO), an organization which the YMCA would help create 20 years later. 2) Overseas "exchanges" for the convenience of the troops, which was continued by the services. 3) Educational scholarships for veterans, which would give rise to the GI Bill. 4) The concept of R and R for battle-weary personnel, which would become routine in future conflicts.

Following WWI, the YMCA was the only civilian organization with an extensive, nationwide peacetime program for serviceman. In these years, a large investment was made in Army and Navy buildings and equipment and an extension of services to meet the needs of military personnel.

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent build-up of America defense forces, the YMCA prepared for another national mobilization, coordinating its work with military leaders. To better manage a large volunteer effort, in February 1941 the YMCA joined five other national voluntary organizations — the YWCA, the National Catholic Community Service, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Salvation Army, and the National Travelers Aid Association — to create the United Service Organizations for National Defense, or USO.

As the largest participating organization, the YMCA operated 25 percent of the 464 agency-designated USO centers in the United States; and, at its war-time peak, directed a professional staff of 1,022 people, 30 percent of all USO personnel. The YMCA served members of the Armed Forces through both the USO centers and its network of community Associations in cities and towns nationwide.

Following the disestablishment of the USO on Dec. 31, 1947, the YMCA's Army and Navy Department moved immediately to fill the ensuing gap in social services to the Armed Forces. In 1948, its name changed to the YMCA Armed Services Department to conform to the newly organized Defense Department. The YMCA Armed Services Department assumed responsibility for 26 branches operated by the USO. It established work overseas where it owned property and where needs were critical needs, including services on Guam and recreational programs in 19 port cities of the Mediterranean area for the Sixth Fleet.

To meet the increased demands for support during the Korean War, the Associated Services reactivated the USO in January 1951. Once again, without interruption of programs, the YMCA became USO's major operating agency. This role continued through the Vietnam conflict and into the 1970s.

In the mid-'70s, however, the YMCA's National Board of Directors determined that its work with the USO had been successfully completed and that it should resume delivering its unique direct services to the military within its own organization. The establishment of an all-volunteer Armed Forces after the Vietnam conflict brought new demands to organizations serving young military people. It was necessary to keep up with changing social patterns and expectations of young people. Also, the number of young families in the military was increasing and YMCA programs had to meet these new needs.

Following the YMCA's decision to focus on direct services, the USO asked the YMCA to assume responsibility for 12 USO centers in the United States. The YMCA accepted the challenge and added these units to the Armed Services YMCA network on January 1, 1977.

On January 1, 1984, following a two-year organizational review, the YMCA's Armed Services Department was reorganized as the Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) of the USA and chartered as a National Member Association of the National Council of YMCAs of the USA. The major philosophical reasoning behind this action was to shift direct programming activities from the National Headquarters to a local member association. This new organizational structure helped clarify its role and provided for greater flexibility in responding to the needs of military leaders. In 1986, the ASYMCA National Headquarters moved to the Washington, D.C., area to better access military leadership. The YMCA continues to serve the military community through its network of Armed Services YMCA branches and units, and through a number of community YMCAs conducting special programs for service members and military families.

Historical information was quoted in large part from the Armed Services YMCA web site ( Additional information was excerpted from Serving the U.S. Armed Forces, 1861-1986: The Story of the YMCA's Ministry to Military Personnel for 125 Years,by Richard C. Lancaster.


267 Cubic Feet (485 boxes)


Historical data, correspondence, reports, memoranda, articles, newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, scrapbooks, and other records documenting the YMCA's work serving the armed forces community from the time of the Civil War through the present.


These documents are organized into the following separately cataloged series:

  1. General Administrative Records
  2. United States Christian Commission-Related Records
  3. World War I-Related Records
  4. United Service Organization-Related Records
  5. Scrapbooks and Photo Albums


This inventory contains a summary description of each of the series comprising the collection. Detailed narrative descriptions and box contents lists for each of the several major sections into which the records are divided are available as separate documents.


Photographs of armed services work are available in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives photograph collection.

Processing Information:

Catalog Record ID number: 4342462

An Inventory of Its Records
Finding aid prepared by Lara D. Friedman~Shedlov.
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Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area