The USO: An Icon Born of Necessity
By Christian Pelusi
One of the lessons the U.S. military learned during its involvement in World War I was service men required additional support when they were off duty.
America entered WWI in 1917 and, as the war neared its end, the extracurricular activities within the ranks veered toward the unseemly.
“The United States Army’s attention to morale issues had been a problem for as long as there was an army,” James J. Cooke wrote in “American Girls, Beer and Glenn Miller: GI Morale in WWII.” Whether it was town-based camps stateside or when serving abroad, “soldiers tended to look for something to drink and … too many were inclined [to visit] local prostitutes.”
Venereal diseases and drinking to excess became enemies within the ranks, especially in France. “The twin vices of strong drink and prostitution became a continual area of concern for all Army commanders, but until the entry of America into the Great War, little was done to offer alternative diversions for the troops,” Cooke wrote.
Cognizant of the dangers associated with fielding forces who were either hungover or hobbled by disease, U.S. military leaders looked for alternatives. But General John J. Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces, was too preoccupied with forming his army to address the activities his soldiers were engaged in away from the battlefield. Several private organizations, including the YMCA, Knights of Columbus, the Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, American Red Cross and American Library Association sent supplies and volunteers to France to provide wholesome activities focused on securing the welfare and well-being of young men.
Twenty-three years later, these agencies were drawn together once again.
In 1940, war with the aggressive Axis nations was not inevitable, but was becoming more likely. The “gathering storm” Winston Churchill forecasted had rolled into the British Isles and was now filling American newspapers with stories from the frontlines. The U.S. government moved to bolster Britain and its allies through funding and materials and the war machine was off and running, with private industries providing support to defend the country should the battle be joined. America’s infrastructure was to be tested like no other time in its history and that included a flood of young men dispersed across the country to train for the possibility of war.
Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, a staff officer with the 1st Infantry Division during WWI and aide to General Pershing from 1919 to 1924, saw firsthand the perils young service members encountered on leave and took steps to ensure that America’s fighting force would be better prepared for adversities off the training grounds and battlefields of WWII.
General Marshall called upon several civilians to devise effective support methods, including three men who had played integral roles in supporting American Doughboys in France during WWI—Frederick H. Osborn, Joseph W. Byron and Raymond B. Fosdick. President Franklin D. Roosevelt concurred with Marshall. The new agency would reside in the private sector and Cooke credits these men for formulating an approach that would mollify the government’s anxiety toward effective, nongovernment troop support and presenting services that acknowledged the private agencies’ health and spiritual concerns.
When the USO was created February 4, 1941, there was emphasis on welfare and, with differing belief systems represented, religious services for the men. The new joint agency, was called the United Service Organizations for National Defense, Inc., and combined the YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler’s Aid Society and the Salvation Army.
Walter Hoving, president of the Salvation Army Association of New York, and one of the 10 original directors of the agency, outlined the USO’s initial mission eloquently in a February 5, 1941, New York Times story.
“Our object is to make sure that our soldiers, sailors and other young people who are drawn away from their homes by military service and defense work are provided with wholesome recreational activities and an opportunity to maintain their ties with civil religious life,” he said. “This is not only vital to military morale but also from the standpoint of the future of our youth as peacetime citizens.”
“The USO cast itself as soldiers’ protection from these bad influences,” said Kara Dixon Vuic, professor of war, conflict and society at Texas Christian University and author of “The Girls Next Door: American Women and Military Entertainment.” “It essentially asked Americans to donate so that it could provide soldiers with a wholesome environment.”
That included the home front. “USO clubs were there to make sure that soldiers were surrounded by good, moral influences,” Vuic said. “Clubs provided religious texts and a place to relax and unwind away from bars and disreputable women, and they assured that young men would be able to meet the ‘right kind’ of women through supervised dances.”
Cooke wrote that “alcohol would not be served, but hot coffee, doughnuts, sandwiches and soft drinks would be standard fare for the soldiers. Dances were organized with carefully screened young women and legions of chaperones. No one in 1941 could have envisioned the impact of the USO on soldier morale, nor … the long-lasting impact of the USO on American society.”
The USO’s growth was exponential. In its first five years of existence, more than a million Americans volunteered their services to more than a million visitors. By 1945, there was a USO operation in every state.
For more than 75 years, USO clubs and centers have been places service members go to relax and recharge. Donate today to show gratitude to the men and women who secure our nation’s freedoms.
Dr. Meghan K. Winchell, author of “Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II,” wrote “by September 1942, an average of 4.5 million [military personnel] visited the USO clubs on a monthly basis … [I]n July 1944, 12,740,431 people visited USO clubs.”
Immeasurable was the ability of USO clubs to provide respite for service men that would become the hallmark of the organization.
“The USO was the most important civilian organization dedicated to uplifting the morale of the troops,” Winchell wrote. “Senior hostesses provided a shoulder to lean on, a reminder of mothers back home. They sewed and baked for soldiers and sailors. Junior hostesses danced with service men at USO dances on Saturday nights and reminded them of girls back home. They played cards, board games, ping pong, wholesome games that kept service men out of trouble, most away from bars and brothels.”
Organized support helped drive down the instances of GI venereal disease and alcohol-related incidents but there was more to the USO’s wartime contribution than hospitality and tastes of home.
Author Emily Yellin described the strength possessed by entertainers in her book, “Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II.” Yellin said the newness and “vitality” of the USO offered opportunities for women to participate in the war effort that would go on to shape their roles and for future generations of women. But the duties that women of the USO had during WWII went beyond serving meals to club visitors.
“We can talk about [the USO] as an organization and think of things like wrapping bandages or reading to troops. But the emotional growth and involvement for the women was equally valuable to the effort of the men,” Yellin said. “For USO women, particularly the ones who went overseas to the [Foxhole Circuit] shows, the USO women and the nurses and the Red Cross women were closer than any other women to the battle front, the front lines.
“The work of building morale and helping soldiers and the emotional aspects of war can seem like soft, sentimental work. But people found out that it is a lot harder and a lot deeper than many people originally signed up for.”
This included entertainers, Yellin said, who were told by nurses: “The most important thing” was to not break down. That was “the last thing the boys needed.”
The following is an account Yellin printed in “Our Mothers’ War” from Maxene Andrews, one of the acclaimed Andrews Sisters, who described a performance at a military hospital in San Francisco.
“We walked into the first ward and it was very quiet. When we were announced, there wasn’t any applause at all. It was a very long ward. We were ushered into the middle. There were beds in front of us, beds behind us. We finally looked. The sight was terrible. We saw boys with no arms or legs, with half-faces. The three of us held on to each other, because we were afraid we were going to faint. The terrible thing is to hold back the tears.”
The work of building morale and helping soldiers and the emotional aspects of war can seem like soft, sentimental work. But people found out that it is a lot harder and a lot deeper than many people originally signed up for.
The two most famous women of WWII that Yellin cites were, in essence, motivational posters personified—the flexing Rosie the Riveter and the curvy Betty Grable. History can now draw similarities between both images and the women of the USO. The fortitude of USO women gave service men strength, while their beauty and grace supplied motivation to return home safe.
“I think the word ‘service’ in the United Service Organizations is the key word in all of this,” Yellin said. “When we value service in the same way we value warfare, that’s when people who provide these services will get the credit they deserve.”
One person who did recognize the USO’s importance to the Allied victory was future president and then-General of the Army, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He wrote in his forward to Julia M.H. Carson’s book “Home Away From Home:” “The war was won because of the cooperation of nations and of people within nations. The USO has given an impressive demonstration of the way people in our country of different creeds, races and economic status can work together when the nation has dedicated itself to an all-out, integrated effort.
“The people at home occupy a strategic place in a nation at war. One of their major responsibilities is to convince the armed forces that the country is behind them. In World War II this fact was brought home to military personnel by such service as the USO furnished in its clubs, station lounges and through its mobile units. In addition, USO Camp Shows brought American cheer and laughter close to every fighting front.
“The USO served also in providing a channel through which more than a million civilian men and women were able to help effectively in the war effort. This cooperative, voluntary undertaking has been in line with our democratic way of life, and contributed greatly to victory.”
—Christian Pelusi is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer. This story appears in Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
Stories in this Series
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