In the introduction to their recent book Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces, 1880-1960 (2010) Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi state that sport has been “poorly served in histories of the British armed forces.” This is followed by the assertion: “The study of the roles played by sport in the United States military is somewhat more developed” (pp. 1-3). Given the extensive growth that has occurred since the 1970s/1980s in studying “the history of sport” this lack of attention in both countries seems rather surprising. Although histories of sports and physical fitness programs conducted by the United States Navy during World War II have received at least a modicum of attention, those involving the United States Army barely exist.
To help shed light upon this neglected topic this article focuses upon sports and recreation at two of the largest United States Army installations in California during the Second World War: Fort Ord (home of the 7th Infantry Division) and Camp Roberts (the country’s largest IRTC—Infantry Replacement Training Center). In 1946 Arthur Esslinger (Director of Physical Education at Springfield College) would write: The “attitude of the War Department [US Army] toward physical training and athletics during the war” had been largely “indifference, apathy, misunderstanding, and lack of appreciation.” Even if these words were a bit harsh, an examination of what occurred at Fort Ord and Camp Roberts from 1940 to 1945 supports the contentions made by Esslinger and many of his contemporaries that sports and recreation programs for Army Ground Forces during World War II were considerably less rigorous than were those for other branches of the Service, especially the United States Navy. Words that appeared in the Camp Roberts Dispatch on August 29, 1941, seem especially pertinent when describing the Army’s prevailing orientation: “Happy and Cheerful in This Fine Camp.”