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'There's a uniform in your future'

Recruiting for the National Guard during the Korean War

By Alexander F. Barnes and Terra C. Gatti

In Virginia there were a number of open houses to showcase the local Guard units. This photograph shows one such event at a 176th Regimental Combat Team armory near the Richmond Airport in Sandston.

In Virginia there were a number of open houses to showcase the local Guard units. This photograph shows one such event at a 176th Regimental Combat Team armory near the Richmond Airport in Sandston.

With the end of World War II, it appeared that the U.S. military would follow the same pattern as after previous wars and quickly dwindle. Within a few short years after the war, most regular Army units were reduced to a relative handful of combat veterans and many young draftees. Under the budget cutting ax wielded by the Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and President Harry S. Truman, himself a former National Guard field artillery officer and First World War combat veteran, the Armed Forces were crippled. As Clay Blair wrote in his history of the Korean War, “the army was not well trained or well manned. In 1948, owing to the shortage of funds, ‘basic training’ had been cut to a mere eight weeks.”

Making matters worse, many of the draftees who were inducted into the Army were reluctant soldiers at best, and potentially trouble at worst. Equally disconcerting was the attitude of many of the volunteer enlistees for the Army; they had joined to “see the world” instead of being prepared to defend it.

The comic book “What’s in it For You?” that carefully shows a young man’s personal journey from a selfish high school football player to a proud member of his local National Guard unit with the help of his girlfriend.

The comic book “What’s in it For You?” that carefully shows a young man’s personal journey from a selfish high school football player to a proud member of his local National Guard unit with the help of his girlfriend.

By 1952 some things had changed. The Korean War had been going on since June 1950 and, after a really bad start, the regular Army was rounding into shape and holding the line. To support that force, the Congress passed the Universal Military Training and Service Act in 1951. It lowered the induction age from 19 to 18½ and extended active-duty service commitments from 12 months to 24 months. For families all across the country with teenage sons, the question of military service was a tough one: Allow your son to be drafted and possibly sent to Korea to fight or encourage him to join a local National Guard unit and stay home – unless, of course, his unit is mobilized and sent to Korea.

As it turned out, some 138,600 Army National Guardsmen were called to active duty due to the crisis in Korea. Among the units being mobilized were eight National Guard Infantry Divisions. Then, as now, a large proportion of the Army’s ground combat units were in the National Guard. Of the eight divisions mobilized, the 45th (Oklahoma National Guard) and the 40th (California National Guard) deployed to Korea for combat operations. Four other National Guard Infantry Divisions: the 31st (from Alabama and Mississippi), the 37th (Ohio), the 44th (newly assigned to Illinois), and the 47th (Minnesota and North Dakota) all served in the States performing training missions to prepare other soldiers and units for combat. The final two Guard divisions which were activated were the 28th (Pennsylvania) and the 43rd (from the New England region). After training, these divisions were sent to Germany to release Regular Army units for duty in Korea.

Modern day research

While cataloging the many boxes of hardcopy records of the Virginia National Guard from the period 1918 to 1962, we found a number of interesting documents. One large box of files described the recruiting efforts by the Virginia state headquarters and the individual units during the turbulent 1950s. The files also contain samples of some of the actual recruiting materials that were available. Notable among the many reports and samples was a list of potential recruiting campaign slogans, including the ominous “There’s a uniform in your future…” with the underlying message being to pick your uniform wisely.

And how did Virginia’s National Guard units use the materials? In a March 1952 statewide recruiting report each unit was required to provide a synopsis of their efforts. The 29th Signal Company, based in Norfolk, said that in addition to spreading posters throughout the city, “comic books and retirement policy folders were placed in barber shops, shoe repair shops, and other places where prospective recruits might occasion to read same.” South Boston’s Company F/116th Infantry wrote that they employed newspaper stories and radio spot announcements. Company G of the 116th, from Farmville, tried a different approach; they offered their soldiers five dollars from the unit’s NCO Club funds for each recruit brought in.

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The comic book “What’s in it For You?” shows a young man’s personal journey from a selfish high school football player to a proud member of his local National Guard unit with the help of his girlfriend.

The comic book “What’s in it For You?” shows a young man’s personal journey from a selfish high school football player to a proud member of his local National Guard unit with the help of his girlfriend.

The Service Battery/227th Field Artillery, in Clifton Forge, attempted something similar by offering a Savings Bond to the soldier bringing in the most recruits. Unfortunately, during the month the contest was to take place, a flu epidemic swept through the area and closed the schools, limiting access to potential recruits. As a result the contest had to be extended into the next reporting period. Results of that extension have yet to be found in the files. Fortunately, a copy of the comic book “What’s in it for You?” has survived and extracts can be seen in the pictures with this article. It tells the story of how Don, a selfish high school football player, learns to be a team player by joining the National Guard. Don’s redemption is triggered by his dating Sue, the coach’s sister, who explains to Don the importance of the National Guard in peace and in war. How Sue is so knowledgeable? Well, in addition to being the football coach, her brother is also in the National Guard. Ultimately, Don joins the Guard and becomes a better teammate and person as the result.

A small collection of recruiting pamphlets and programs from the Virginia National Guard archives from the 1950s and early 1960s.

A small collection of recruiting pamphlets and programs from the Virginia National Guard archives from the 1950s and early 1960s.

And what was the recruit required to give in return for all of the benefits associated with Guard membership? Only three things: 1. Remain in the unit; 2. Attend drills regularly; and 3. Maintain satisfactory training proficiency. The unspoken requirement, as noted earlier, was that the recruit was also required to go on active duty if his unit was mobilized. This was a sticking point for many; The Medical Company in Roanoke reported that “the majority of the men talked to as well as their parents seem to think that as soon as they enlist the Guard will be called.” The unit’s conclusion was that “If this one point could be overcome by more publicity from a reliable source a larger number of men probably would enlist.”

Current Recruiting and Retention efforts

Today, Virginia’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion includes more than 100 recruiters spread across the state. They generally employ fewer comics in their recruiting efforts, but still stress the benefits of service in the National Guard, including college tuition assistance, a monthly paycheck and affordable health, dental and life insurance. They’re ever-present at community events, from fairs to high school and college football games, and have worked hard to adapt to the recruiting world post-pandemic, relying on social media platforms to inform and reach potential recruits.

In addition to the comic books, there were radio programs using big-name Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Day, and Roy Rogers to support the Guard’s recruiting efforts.

In addition to the comic books, there were radio programs using big-name Hollywood stars such as John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Day, and Roy Rogers to support the Guard’s recruiting efforts.

Proof that recruiting for the National Guard during the early 1950s was a challenge everywhere; this letter from the archives was written to the Adjutant General of Virginia from the Headquarters of the New York National Guard looking to share recruiting techniques and materials. General Waller’s later response; we’ll share all we have with you but we are struggling also.

Proof that recruiting for the National Guard during the early 1950s was a challenge everywhere; this letter from the archives was written to the Adjutant General of Virginia from the Headquarters of the New York National Guard looking to share recruiting techniques and materials. General Waller’s later response; we’ll share all we have with you but we are struggling also.

Conclusion

Throughout United States history, recruiting for the military has always been a challenge. Even in publicly supported wars, such as World War I, over 70 percent of the 4 million soldiers were brought in via the selective service. Nevertheless, National Guard units have always prided themselves on voluntarily representing their community and so reaching out locally with recruiting tools was an important part of the effort. .

Back in the 1950s, there were a number of campaigns and recruiting tools used to help families and potential recruits make their decision…and determine exactly which uniform was in their future.

Alexander F. Barnes is the Command Historian of the Virginia National Guard and is the author of eight military history books. Terra Gatti is assigned to the Virginia National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion and has deployed to Kosovo and the Middle East.

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