On the same wood floors in John Sternitzke's office, World War II soldiers danced with their dates to the swinging beat of the 80th Division orchestra.
The stage is gone, but the dance floor, like the red brick exterior and the simple “USO” sign painted in white, has stood the test of time. Sternitzke bought the then vacant Gandolfo building at 202 S. 1st Ave. in the mid-1990s knowing it was steeped in history but failing.
“People wondered why the hell I did it,” he said. “It's because no one thought I could.”
Its renovation complete, the building holds several offices, including Sternitzke's engineering firm, Sternco, and the Yuma Visitors Bureau. As a tribute to the building's military past, he prefers to rent the upstairs apartment to someone in the armed forces — a Harrier pilot currently lives there.
The Gandolfo, built in 1917, was first a theater and over the years became a furniture store, VFW lodge and gymnastics center. But what may be the most amusing slice of its history is the building's brief stint as a USO club during World War II.
When Sternitzke first bought the building, he found a box of weathered war ration books and a few photographs of soldiers, but they didn't tell much of a story. With few people alive to recount its past, some years ago Sternitzke — hooked on history since the eighth grade — paid a high school student to dig up old newspaper stories about the USO club.
Named the Hilltop USO, it opened in January 1944 and seems to have been met with much enthusiasm by locals.
“There will be plenty of boogie woogie music and dancing to provide lots of entertainment for the evening,” according to an article from 1945.
During the war, Yuma, vast and remote, became an ideal spot for the military to train soldiers for desert warfare and to test bridges. For these servicemen and their wives stationed here, the USO was a place of respite.
During Hilltop's dedication, a military colonel expressed his appreciation for the USO:
“The men being trained near here live in sand and dust, sleeping under canvas as they are being hardened to prepare them for the hardships to come soon in battle overseas. It is difficult to explain to civilians the feeling these men have for a building, a place where they may come for rest and recreation during brief leave periods.”
A reminder that those were days of segregation, there was a separate USO building for black enlisted men, according to newspaper articles. It was located on 1st Street in a building that no longer exists, and there is little mention of its activities.
According to newspaper accounts, the Hilltop USO regularly hosted evening dances and showed movies (one starred Bing Crosby). It had a kitchen and a place where soldiers could write letters.
In the basement, there were ping-pong tournaments and bridge games. A snack bar served coffee, doughnuts and soft drinks. The servicewives club also held meetings there.
Local residents decorated the building on holidays and kept the snack bar stocked. A shortage of coat hangers once spurred an eager request for donations.
“Your Sunday evening buffet suppers are splendid,” a visitor from the USO headquarters was quoted as saying. “A little home cooking is grand for the boys.”
But the dances seemed to have attracted the biggest crowds:
“The weekend will prove a busy time at the Hilltop USO, with a dance schedule for tonight which is always popular with the servicemen.”
The USO swing orchestra, the 80th Division orchestra and the Yuma Army Air Field orchestra all played at the USO dances.
Sternitzke knows of one occasion when the street was packed with wall-to-wall soldiers because of a Saturday night dance.
Of course, women were encouraged to attend. “The GSO girls are asked especially to turn out in full numbers,” one reporter wrote.
Shortly after the war ended, the Hilltop USO closed its doors, later to become a furniture store. An article dated Dec. 7, 1945, marked a dinner as the final social event.
While renovating the Gandolfo building, Sternitzke uncovered some remnants of the Disney cartoon mural painted by Disney artists during the USO days. Disney, he said, was well known back then for its efforts to cheer up the troops.
Sternitzke said it was a “total buzz kill” to know that this bit of history was never preserved, but he's thankful nonetheless he was there to discover it.
“Finding that is just a gem,” he said.