13 Things You Probably Did Not Know About the USO During World War II
1. USO clubs were everywhere. Several estimates put the number at roughly 3,000 USO clubs worldwide during World War II. Some were run out of established or newly constructed buildings. Others were run out of homes, barns, museums, railroad sleeping cars and churches. Today, the USO has about 160 locations worldwide.
2. Pugilists welcome. Some USO locations had boxing rings and punching bags, as the sport was far more popular than it is today.
3. Smokes, but not booze. USO snack bars sold cigarettes to troops, but didn’t sell liquor. Today, alcohol and tobacco are forbidden, but all snacks at USO locations are free to troops and their families.
4. Celebrity waiters. Stars of the stage and screen weren’t just entertainers back in the 1940s. They’d also bring you coffee and a donut. At New York City’s famed USO Stage Door Canteen, troops could meet the stars of the day, watch them perform and even be waited on by them. At the USO Hollywood Canteen, some stars worked shifts in the anonymity of the kitchen.
5. Keeping uniforms spiffy. Some World War II-era USO centers offered a button-sewing service.
6. The woman in charge. In keeping with the era’s gender roles, many USO clubs had the position of senior hostess. An esteemed woman from the local community, the senior hostess coordinated the junior hostesses and large-scale activities at USO clubs.
7. No slacks allowed. Junior hostesses were arguably the most famous feature of stateside USOs during the World War II era. These young women catered to and danced with troops, among other upkeep duties. They also had a fairly formal dress code—no slacks allowed—compared to today’s volunteers.
8. Things junior hostesses were forbidden from doing. Smoking inside most USO areas, drinking alcohol on the job, dancing with other women when troops were present, refusing to dance with a service man unless he was being “ungentlemanly” and dancing “conspicuously.”
9. Mobile USOs aren’t a new thing. Mobile USOs started circulating in the lower 48 states in 1942. They consisted of trucks with generators, screens and projectors to show film reels and many were equipped with a public address system, turntables and records, sports gear, board games, books and snacks. And because no World War II USO experience was complete without a dance, the local USO would often organize carloads of junior hostesses—with chaperones—to meet at Mobile USOs.
10. $33 Million. That’s roughly how much money was raised by the USO from its inception in 1941 through the end of World War II in 1945. Thomas Dewey and Prescott Bush spearheaded the fundraising campaign. Factoring in inflation, that’s the equivalent of $433.7 million today.
11. USO tours were dangerous. Thirty-seven USO entertainers died during World War II. The most famous entertainer who didn’t make it back was legendary big band leader and then-Army Major Glenn Miller, whose plane disappeared over the English Channel on the way to France.
12. The world’s largest producer of banana splits? The USO’s Honolulu center became famous for making banana splits for troops during World War II. According to the book, “Always Home: 50 Years of the USO,” the center went through nearly a ton of bananas and 250 gallons of ice cream a day at the height of its operation.
13. Helping start the modern childcare industry. Today, millions of working families drop children off at day care. That wasn’t the case entering the 1940s. However, with many women going to work to support the war effort—and their husbands often deployed—select USOs started their own day care operations.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.
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