The USO & Coca-Cola: A Refreshing 78-Year Partnership
By Samantha L. Quigley
In 1941, two very important things happened that even the best historians would be hard-pressed to mention when questioned about the history of World War II.
The first was the founding of the United Service Organizations. The second was the beginning of what would turn into an enduring partnership between the USO and The Coca-Cola Company.
Charged with bolstering the spirits and morale of young GIs, often far from home for the first time, the USO had a big job to do as U.S. involvement in World War II became more likely by the day.
When the boys ended up on foreign shores in early 1942, the need to keep them connected to the things they missed including family, home, country—and Coca-Cola—was even greater.
Early Days of the USO and Coca-Cola Partnership
Coca-Cola president Robert W. Woodruff understood the importance of the mission and made it clear his company was behind the nation’s service members, making a declaration that would end up costing the company more than $83.2 million in today’s dollars.
“We have to be very specific,” said Ted Ryan, Coca-Cola’s director of heritage communications.
“It’s not a quote. It’s a guiding philosophy that every man in uniform should get a Coke for a nickel, regardless of where he was in the world and what it cost the company.”
That directive, as the Coke employees refer to it today, laid the groundwork for expansion of bottling sites around military installations like Camp Pendleton, California, and Fort Benning, Georgia. As the country prepared for the inevitable, the once sleepy bases were suddenly teeming with soldiers, sailors and Marines training for war.
Coke had always been available to the military, but as the U.S. war machine ramped up, so did the need to provide GIs everywhere with a touch of home. Certainly Coke was critical to that mission—so critical that the company wasn’t subject to the same sugar rationing as the public—but the refreshing soft drink couldn’t do the job alone.
The company also worked with Milton Bradley, the board game manufacturer, to create special versions of popular games specifically for the USO. There also were specially branded sewing kits, one version for each of the three services—the Air Force was established after the war, in September 1947. And of course, the ice-cold beverages.
Neither could accomplish the mission of bringing a taste of home to GIs alone. They merged “to help the spirits of the troops,” Ryan said. “We did it through the USO. [Coke and the other items] were put into the centers and made available to troops wherever they were.
“Wherever the USO is, Coke is, as well. And we’re making life easier,” he added.
And “wherever” was no exaggeration.
As World War II Ramps Up, So Does Coca-Cola Production
Fast forward to 1943 and the “Eisenhower cable” requesting equipment to construct 10 Coca-Cola bottling plants plus 3 million bottles of Coke and enough materials to produce that quantity twice monthly.
“We call it the Eisenhower cable, but it was actually General [George C.] Marshall—Eisenhower’s boss—who sent the cable,” Ryan said.
“Woodruff did one better. We built 64 bottling plants around the world at our own expense to support the war.”
“It was a huge investment, [but] this is what cemented our international growth.”
To make this project a success, Coke sent more than 200 employees to build and maintain the plants and get the product to the GIs. These individuals, three of whom were killed in the line of duty, were civilians but wore military uniforms and the rank of technical observer, making it easier for them to do their jobs without interference.
The bottling plants were mostly in Europe and North Africa, as well as a sizeable operation in the Philippines. But that didn’t mean the GIs in the Pacific theater went without their favorite beverage.
“We created the jungle dispenser, which was a special dispenser that cooled without the use of too much ice so the Coke would still be cold,” Ryan said.
Serving The Armed Forces After World War II
Coca-Cola continued to ensure its soft drink was available to occupation forces even after the war was officially over. Between 1943 and about 1949, service members in the field consumed more than 5 billion Cokes—a number that doesn’t include drinks consumed stateside.
In late 1947, President Harry S. Truman gave the USO an honorable discharge, saying in a statement the organization had “fulfilled its commitment and discharged its wartime responsibility completely and with signal distinction.”
With World War II fading in the glare of a jumpstarted U.S. economy, few Americans thought the country would be fighting across the ocean again in the 1950s.
With the Korean War came the realization the USO was needed—permanently. Again, Coca-Cola was there to help the organization support our warfighters, though the support for Korea and Vietnam centered more on product than on games and ancillary items, Ryan said.
“Because World War II was an era of total war, the entire U.S. economy focused on the war,” he said.
“Whereas—for good or ill—Korea and Vietnam weren’t the same, in that sense. It was about getting the product to the GIs.”
There were playing cards and pens and the like, but it wasn’t the “all-encompassing” effort to provide the many distractions—board games and the other supplies—like during World War II.
Despite public sentiment about Vietnam and the Coca-Cola’s potential for loss if it went against consumer opinion, the company’s support might have surprised some. But that’s not how Woodruff, or his company worked.
“It would have been so anti-Woodruff,” Ryan said.
“I think it’s in our DNA. We have a heritage of help going back. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, Coke is there. Whenever bad happens, Coke is there to help people.”
“Every country in the world, every region of the world, has local employees who are helping,” he said.
“So helping the USO…that’s just something that’s in our DNA to always do.”
Continuing the Support the USO and Troops Today
Erika Von Heiland Strader, Coca-Cola’s director of community marketing pointed to the annual USO care package project Coke employees participate in around Veterans Day. She said employees line up just to sign up because the event is capped at 400 participants.
“It’s our biggest employee engagement event.”
Von Heiland Strader has helped revitalize the Coke-USO partnership with multiple campaigns and engagement opportunities each year. In the recent past, The USO has enjoyed being a part of events like the Coca-Cola 600 at North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just as true to today’s “GIs” as those from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Coca-Cola is still a staple at USO centers around the world.
This summer, for the third consecutive year, the USO is partnering with Coca-Cola and Dollar General to encourage public support of those who serve by creating unique opportunities for Americans to show gratitude and support for service members, veterans and military families.
Military supporters can join the ‘Ranks in Thanks’ by visiting this website to share a message of support via a special interactive portal. Messages sent via the ‘Ranks in Thanks’ platform can be targeted to service members serving or living in specific locations around the globe and will be displayed in USO centers around the world.
Those who send a message will receive a special discount to purchase a military-themed Coke® can sold exclusively in Dollar General stores this summer.
These commemorative cans launched earlier this summer in May, in conjunction with Military Appreciation Month, and run through Labor Day to underscore the importance of connecting service members with the American public they defend and serve. The limited-time cans will feature patriotic thank-you packaging honoring service members, veterans, military spouses, military families and American heroes.
—This story originally appeared on USO.org in 2016. It has been updated in 2019 for style, brevity and accuracy.
Stories in this Series
Feb 24, 2020
Here's How The First USO Centers Were Created
This was the plan in early 1941: America would provide aid and some comforts of home for its swelling military ranks. The government would build and lease buildings and citizens would staff and fund centers through the newly formed USO. It happened that way... some of the time.
Jan 23, 2020
The USO and the NFL are a Winning Team
For over 50 years, the USO and NFL have joined forces to keep service members connected to family, home and country. More than 180 NFL players, officials, coaches and executives have taken part in 49 tours to 24 countries during that span, creating a partnership that has become essential to both organizations.
Feb 4, 2016
‘We Try to Bring America to Them’
In 2015, after recognizing the need for an increased presence in military communities both stateside and abroad, the USO launched an aggressive center expansion effort to bring connectivity, entertainment and programming to more service members and families.
Feb 4, 2016
Addressing the Drift
In October, USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II joined government, nonprofit and corporate leaders at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle to open a dialogue about how best to help transitioning veterans reintegrate into the civilian workforce and their communities.
Feb 4, 2016
Volunteer Profile: Army Spc. Derin Vrana, USO Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan
Behind the grit and determination of a tough soldier making dangerous, daily patrols outside Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, is a vibrant, charming USO volunteer who seems to bring everyone he meets into his circle.
Feb 4, 2016
Home Away From Home
USO centers have served and supported military members and their families for the past 75 years. But among the more than 180 USO locations around the world, two of the newest were built specifically to address the needs of wounded, ill and injured service members and their caregivers.
Feb 4, 2016
Bob Hope USO Shows: The One-Man Morale Machine
For nearly 50 years - from World War II through Vietnam to the Gulf War - The legendary comedian traveled the world, visiting remote outposts and isolated battleships to put on USO shows. It was a collaboration that forever linked the names “Bob Hope” and “the USO,” giving both a new visibility, respect and recognition.
Feb 3, 2016
Finding Kindness in the Darkest Hour
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken the lives of nearly 7,000 American service members. The remains of each one of them have first returned to American soil at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. And the USO is there for every dignified transfer.