The Great Beard Contest of 1941

Last week, Heidi transferred several reels of film documenting “overseas activity” in the summer of 1941. Nestled among shots of city streets and training exercises were playful scenes depicting a facial hair contest at Fort Stotsenburg in the Philippines. If a beard contest doesn’t scream “put me on the Internet” I don’t know what does, so here you have it.

At the end of May 1941, the United States found itself up against the brink of war. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed an “unlimited national emergency” that required the nation to ready itself “to repel any and all acts or threats of aggression directed toward any part of the Western Hemisphere” and again reminded Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The commanding officer’s memo announcing that the men should allow their beards to grow appears to be an attempt to lighten the grave situation.

Stills from Overseas Activity, 1941, Reel 1 (Local Identifier: 111-M-656).

In the scenes that follow, the beards are displayed and the judges examine them. They declare a winner and hand over the prize.

Stills from Overseas Activity, 1941, Reel 1 (Local Identifier: 111-M-656).

The images captured in these scenes may be some of the last light moments the soldiers experienced. Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8th 1941. After six months of battle, the Philippines was surrendered to the Japanese. The American and Filipino soldiers left behind were treated harshly, forced to participate in the Bataan Death March and suffering in prison camps. The Allied Forces did not return to win back the Philippines until October of 1944, completing their task upon the Japanese surrender ten months later.

Watch the complete reel (the beard contest begins at 2:42):

2 thoughts on “The Great Beard Contest of 1941

  1. Audrey –

    If you’ve not already done so, you might want to see if someone at the Air Force HRA would be interested in this as it documents a pretty interesting episode.

    This wasn’t Army or Fort Stotsenburg; it was the Army Air Corps and Clark Field (which took over most of Stostsenburg), and the CO at the time, Lester Maitland, ran a beard growing contest to attempt to combat low morale after service tours had been involuntarily extended.

    It’s described here:

    Given what happened at Clark, and that on top of it most of these look to be support or bomber crew, it wouldn’t surprise me if casualty rates of these men hit over 80%.

    Thanks for finding this!

    1. Thanks so much for the additional information! Now that you’ve brought up Maitland’s name it reminds me that he was also featured in the 1925 Billy Mitchell barbecue film that we wrote about last year. I didn’t put the pieces together on that one. Thanks again!

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