Even Through Its 'Honorable Discharge,' the USO Has Served for 80 Unbroken Years

By Mike Case

“USO has a job to the well-being of the country and its fighting men…we face a responsibility to stand by during the difficult days of transition from total war to total participation in an achieved peace” - USO President Lindsey Kimball, February 4, 1946

USO staff and U.S. service members outside of the USO center at Hanapepe, Hawaii during World War II. | Photo credit USO Archives

The USO’s story is relatively well known by now. The organization was founded on February 4, 1941, just before the United States entry into World War II. It rapidly expanded from a patchwork collection of local efforts with a handful of volunteers to a robust international organization.

According to USO historical documents, at the peak of operations in March 1944, the USO had over 1 million volunteers and over 3,000 locations. The organization quickly becoming an essential part of the war effort by offering now-legendary entertainment as well as programs and services for members of the Armed Forces and their families.

“Honorable Discharge” letter from President Truman to the USO on Dec. 31, 1947. | Photo credit USO Archives

With the end of WWII, the need for the USO became uncertain and plans were made for the termination of the organization. On December 31, 1947, the USO was “honorably discharged” by President Truman, only to be called back to service and reactivated by Truman for the Korean War in 1949.

This is the standard narrative repeated in every telling of the USO’s story. Even the official USO timeline repeats this story of a brief “inactive” period, representing only a short pause in service in support of the United States military.

However, thanks to recent findings in the USO’s archives and external sources, we’ve learned that the actual story of this brief “inactive” period is more complicated. Historical documents show that the USO never stopped serving during this time, despite the “honorable discharge,” meaning that the USO truly has an uninterrupted 80-year record of service to the military.

Even After WWII, the Need for the USO Was There

During WWII the USO came to be seen as essential. This public sentiment, coupled with the organization’s size, made shutting down the USO quickly at the end of the war an undesirable option.

With hundreds of thousands of returning troops in transit and fresh troops headed for occupation duty overseas — as well as the many thousands of soldiers and sailors recovering in hospitals — the need for an organization such as the USO was just as pressing as it was during the war.

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As early as June of 1946, in a report on the future of the USO to the organization’s Board of Governors, then-USO President Lindsey Kimball wrote about government officials who expressed concerns about what the absence of an organization such as the USO would mean for the military in peacetime:

“…the secretaries of War and Navy have been concerned lest the majority of the people of the United States revert to their pre-war indifference to the welfare of their own armed forces.”

The USO Board of Governors’ minutes from a May 10, 1946, meeting again emphasize that this need for the USO after the war was foreseen:

“The Secretaries of War and Navy have also indicated a desire to have USO type of service for the Armed Forces following 1947.”

Historical Documents Show 80 Years of Unbroken Service

President Harry S. Truman (left) receives the first new red, white and blue flag of the newly reorganized USO from Harvey S. Firestone, Jr., the USO’s new president at the White House on May 19, 1949. | Photo credit Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

It comes as no surprise then, that even after the organization’s formal “honorable discharge,” the organization continued to answer the call to serve. In fact, in his 1949 reactivation statement, President Truman notes this continued effort, and said:

“Some 105 servicemen’s clubs, lounges, and information centers continued to be operated by the six national agencies, with USO funds, in locations near military installations. USO funds also continued to support a program of live entertainment for 112 army, navy, and veterans hospitals, carried on by veterans hospital camp shows.

Indeed, with only a skeleton headquarters staff on the books to oversee remaining financial and real estate obligations left over from WWII, the USO continued to provide programs directly to service members during from 1947-1949.

During these years, the USO continued to operate clubs and lounges, as well as sent USO entertainers to perform for thousands of wounded service members recovering in hospitals.

An internal historical document from February 10, 1949, titled, “A List of U.S.O. Operations Serving Personnel Of The Armed Force in the Continental United States,” lists operating USO clubs and lounges during that time. The title is a bit inaccurate, as in addition to listing facilities in every state, the District of Columbia and the then-territories of Hawaii and Alaska, it also lists several overseas USO locations, including on in Frankfurt, Germany, and Shanghai, China.

Photo credit USO Archives

Cover of a 1949 USO internal document listing USO operations.

The list of operations also includes military hospitals at which USO entertainment units appeared in the first three months of 1949.

Photo credit USO Archives

Domestic USO Locations Map as of May 19, 1949.

Other USO archival materials produced during this time, such as the March 3, 1949, document, “Community Responsibility to our Peacetime Servicemen and Women,” and a map from May 19, 1949, showing the locations of open and operating clubs and lounges conclusively illustrates the USO’s 80 years of truly uninterrupted support.

Photo credit USO Archives

Detail of a page from the 1949 list of USO Operations. Locations outside of the continental United States.

Today, the USO is proud to continue building on its continuous 80-year history of supporting service members and their families, and looks ahead to carrying forward this legacy into the future.

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Additional written resources used for this story:

USO Board of Governor’s History of the USO Part III. Page 535.

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