Norma Best was 25 years old and fresh out of law school in 1943 when she felt the tug of patriotism.
Best, now of Bowling Green, was living in Washington, D.C., and trying to begin a law practice when she
decided to serve in the Red Cross to help the war effort.
After training in Virginia for a month, she shipped out on her assignment from San Francisco –
"You didn’t know" where you were going to be assigned, she said. She and about 30 other Red
Cross women boarded their Navy transport ship, the USS General LeRoy Eltinge, with only this in mind:
"We knew we were in a hot area."
The 30 day sea voyage across the Pacific ocean brought Best and her fellow travelers to Calcutta, India,
then still a part of the British Empire.
"We landed there, on the ship, and we got out," she said, "and the first thing I saw was
three men carrying a baby grand piano on their heads, walking down the street. Amazing. And I don’t know
how they got it up there, I don’t know how they got it off."
The Red Cross volunteers were subsequently dispersed to their different stations, called
"clubs," where they provided rest and recreation services for servicemen.
"I was sent to Karachi, to Malir," a part of what is now the capital of Pakistan, at an Army
Air Corps base, said Best. "And it was out in the Sindh Desert. And it was hot. And it was dusty.
And our club was called the Dusty Den."
The clubhouse was simple enough: "it was a cement structure, it was comprised of four rooms,"
she recalled, including an office, reading room, music room and card room. There was also a space for
activities, and a canteen area for snacks to serve the several hundred men on the base.
Anywhere between two to four Red Cross volunteers would be working at the club at a time, she said, and
"the main thing was to have some sort of entertainment that (the servicemen) could have. The last
Saturday of the month, we had a Gambler’s Delight," similar to a Monte Carlo night, featuring
assorted games of chance. "And we always had it on the last Saturday of the month because we
figured they were broke. And we gave them paper money to play with." At the end of the night, an
auction would be held for men to bid on items from the base exchange, which they could later take home
as gifts for their family.
Best noted there was a wealth of talent at the air base if particular entertainments were being planned –
"if you wanted to do something, you could find some of the troops that had done that
That included boxing matches and, once a rodeo, which was held on a July 4 holiday.
"We had a soldier, I think his last name was Gibson, we called him Gibby, and he had been a rodeo
clown. You see, we could get anything in the service."
Gibby’s knowledge of how to build pens, correctly use rope and other such skills contributed to the
event’s success – as did horses and steers on loan from the local British base.
"You’d be surprised," said Best. "We had a good time. They got into the spirit of
Another time, the club held a party for local orphans.
"(The soldiers) took care of them, got them ice cream and cake, and many of them went back to their
duffle bags" and gave the children gifts.
Later, after the soldiers were sent home from the Karachi area, Best and her fellows were moved from the
desert to the bustling metropolis of Calcutta. There, their club, called the Burra Club, was located in
a large building with a dining room, a music room, and even a dance hall.
"The Indians, some of the families, the mothers and dads … wanted to come in and watch the
Americans jitterbug," she said.
To occupy them, the soldiers were taken on tours of the city’s many sights, including nearby temples and
the Ganges River.
"You had to be very careful that you didn’t do anything that would hurt the different religions that
they had," she said.
Even on the ship coming back to the States, they tried to keep the GIs entertained.
"We tried to have things to keep people active," she said, even staging a baby picture contest.
"And I tell you, they all went to their duffle bags and they all brought their baby pictures
back," she said.
"I think everyone got some sort of prize."