By Sydney Johnson
On December 7, 1941, the United States suffered one of the worst attacks on American soil when the Japanese navy staged a surprise strike on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack killed 2,403 Americans and left 1,178 others wounded. Just a few hours after the attack, the U.S. formally entered World War II.
In addition to being a pivotal moment in military and world history, the attack on Pearl Harbor was also an important moment in USO history.
Hawaii USO’s Beginnings
Although the U.S. didn’t formally join WWII until the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt preemptively approved of a military draft in September of 1940. He also sought to unite several service associations into one organization to lift the morale of our military and nourish support on the home front. Those entities – the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board - became the United Service Organizations or, the USO.
All over the country in 1941, community buildings, church halls and even private residences were converted into USO centers - sometimes called USO clubs or canteens - so that the newly formed USO could serve the roughly 1.1 million recently enlisted service members.
Prior to a USO location in Hawaii, recreational services were first offered in 1941 by Hawaiian locals and existing community organizations. However, by that summer, a local committee – which would formally be established as the Hawaii USO (now called USO Hawaii) in October 1941 – began to plan and raise money for three new USO centers throughout Hawaii.
As USO Hawaii’s physical center plans evolved throughout the organization’s inaugural year, so did its program offerings for the growing military population in Hawaii. In a matter of months, local USO entertainment events popped up in community spaces and USO hostess groups were formed and coordinated holiday programming – all before the Pearl Harbor attack. Although there were no formal USO centers in Hawaii just yet, these early programs were often hosted at local churches, community centers, YMCAs or YWCAs.
“Prior to the Dec. 7 attack, the USO program was largely on a volunteer basis and centered around home entertainment, dances and tours, and entertainment by civic and fraternal groups churches and schools, as well as programs at the agency centers,” noted the 1942 USO Hawaii Annual Report.
However, the conservative scale and relaxed structure of early USO Hawaii would quickly change after the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor attacks transformed history forever.
Pearl Harbor Day Prompts Big Changes for USO Hawaii
On Pearl Harbor Day, the USO and its member organizations’ staff and volunteers were there in Hawaii serving military family members just hours after the attack. According to the 1942 USO Hawaii Annual Report:
“More than a thousand refugee women and children … came to the Army & Navy YMCA for shelter, food and in search of lost friends and relatives … A card filing system was set up by the USO to assist families in finding housing … and to help locate relatives and friends and to provide other emergency information. Program securities took turns playing the piano … which helped ease tension.”
Immediately after the attack, the Army & Navy YMCA in Honolulu became one of the USO’s first official center locations in the territory (as Hawaii was not yet a state) and was known as the USO Army & Navy Club. Eventually, the USO Army & Navy Club would become the most visited club in Hawaii during WWII, hosting over six million service members in 1945.
In the year following the Pearl Harbor attack, dozens of USO locations popped up across the Hawaiian Islands. In 1942 alone, the USO had 80 staff members, 3,000 volunteers and 400 USO Camp Show entertainers operating 51 clubs and 18 mobile USO vehicles across five of the Hawaiian Islands. That year, USO Hawaii served 6,937,606 service members and war workers.
USO Hawaii Centers in WWII
USO operations in Hawaii increased as the war continued.
Soon, the territory would be home to 51 clubs , all with unique backgrounds and legacies. At the peak of operations, eight USO locations were erected in Honolulu alone.
One of USO Hawaii’s WWII locations, called the USO Victory Club, was a popular Japanese department store in Honolulu before the U.S. joined the war. Due to the unique design of the original building, it was the only USO with a rooftop garden and escalators, while offering most of the classic USO amenities. The five-story high center was able to serve as many as 447,000 patrons in a single month.
Another notable USO location was the USO Rainbow Club, which was opened with an intent to consciously serve military members of all racial backgrounds.
“It gave them the impetus to think and to share,” said the USO’s 1945 report.
Hawaii was also home to two USO centers that explicitly catered to service women in WWII. The first was the USO Service Women’s Lounge, which opened in August of 1945. Converted from a Honolulu YWCA building, this location included a library, showers and an impressive powder room. About a month later, the Hui Welina Club opened. According to an article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, this center, which was also located on Honolulu, “[included] the large lounge, lanai, canteen, reading, writing and music rooms and a private dining room and kitchen for special parties.”
Serving During WWII in Hawaii
The USO didn’t only cater to those serving in the military through USO centers or outreach programs during WWII. Like the USO today, the organization and its volunteers met troops - which included more than 2,000 native Hawaiians - where they were, particularly when it came to entertainment.
Entertainers like Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Joe Brown and The Andrews Sisters traveled all over the world to perform for service members so they could enjoy their downtime with some laughter and music. Between 1941 and 1947 alone, the USO hosted 425,000 shows by 7,000 entertainers. Due to the distance between Hawaii and the mainland, the Hawaiian Islands were a popular location for USO Camp Shows.
In fact, USO Hawaii had one of the highest operational tempos of anywhere in the world during WWII, as most service members who fought in the Pacific found themselves in the territory at one point or another. These high-traffic centers supported the military through every obstacle and were ready to serve those sacrificing their lives. In the first year of USO Hawaii’s operations alone, 2,700 volunteers provided support to service members on the islands. At one point, USO Hawaii was given only weeks to build two centers for Marines who were coming home from Iwo Jima. With the help of the Army, Navy and Seabees, they got it done.
When Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945, people all over the U.S. and world took to the streets to celebrate the news. It was no different in Hawaii, especially on Oahu, where Pearl Harbor is located. The day was eloquently recounted in 1946 by Ann Koebel, a USO Victory Club employee:
“Food was not free but sold at cost; however, on V-J day, we served free food to about 12,000,” she said. “I still dream about it.”
A couple weeks later, on September 2, a parade traveled through Honolulu. An archived photo by Loretta Maynard, a Marine, captured the excitement in the Honolulu streets on that historic day. It shows hundreds of service members and a USO truck decorated with patriotic banners in the center of the parade route amidst the crowds – proving the organization’s dedication to its mission of going wherever the military goes.
- Additional support provided by USO Senior Digital Archivist Mike Case.
Printed sources used for this article:
First Annual Report of the Hawaii United Service Organizations. 1942.
-This story was first published on USO.org in 2020. It has been updated in 2021.
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