By Danielle DeSimone
Over the course of the USO’s 80-year history, the organization has seen it all: the beaches of France, the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Saudi Arabia and the mountains of Afghanistan. But most importantly, the USO has witnessed several generations of service members, military spouses and military families pass through its doors – and has provided them with crucial support by boosting their morale and keeping them connected to one another throughout their time in the military.
Starting in 1941 and in the eight decades since, the USO has remained committed to always standing by the military’s side, no matter where their service takes them.
The USO During World War II
A few months before the United States’ official entry into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was already creating a support system for the nation’s Armed Forces. Bringing together the Salvation Army, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the National Catholic Community Service, the National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board, these six organizations formed the United Service Organizations (USO) on February 4, 1941. The USO was created specifically to provide morale and recreation services to the troops.
Then, in December of that same year, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the wheels of war were set into motion. As America’s service members quickly pivoted and prepared themselves to enter the fray on the front lines, the USO pivoted along with them, beginning an 80-year tradition of always being by their side.
As hundreds of thousands of troops began to mobilize overseas to the Europe and Pacific Theatres, the USO created a network of centers and lounges across the United States for their recreational use. Churches, stores, museums and even locations such as barns and railroad cars were quickly transformed into welcoming spaces for service members. Although the federal government built or leased the buildings in which these centers were housed at the time, the services provided by the USO were – and continue to be – funded and staffed by charitable donations and volunteers. At each of the more than 3,000 USO centers that were in existence at the peak of the USO’s wartime operations, service members could always turn to the organization for a place to relax with their fellow service men, tuck into a homecooked meal or receive a welcoming smile from a USO hostess.
These centers became pivotal social spaces for troops. At both these centers and military bases, the USO provided service members with stellar entertainment throughout the war, with a variety of performances from Bob Hope, to Dinah Shore, to Laurel and Hardy.
These USO locations went beyond just entertainment, however. USO centers served coffee and snacks, as well as offered stationery for service members to use to write letters back home, bunks to take naps, services to mend uniforms and the latest phonograph records.
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For the wives following their soldier from camp to camp within the U.S., the USO created programs and services for them as well. Aside from entertainment events geared specifically to the spouses of service men, the USO also provided them with resources for financial budgeting, childcare, education and social events to meet other spouses.
For service members without families or those far from loved ones, USO centers throughout the U.S. and U.S. territories offered other recreational activities such as the beloved USO dances, where young USO hostesses dressed in their best attire would provide service members with a wholesome morale boost by dancing, chatting and socializing with attending service members.
Ultimately, the mission of the USO hostesses and junior hostesses was to make service members feel at home. Even while technically in the United States, many of these service members had packed their bags and left their loved ones and homes without any knowledge of when – or if – they’d be coming back.
On the front lines
Meanwhile, in the Europe and Pacific Theatres, the mission of delivering a piece of home to military members was even more crucial. In the approximately six years that the U.S. was involved in WWII, more than 16 million Americans left their homes to serve. To alleviate the strain of being far from home and loved ones, as well as ease the intensity of fighting a war, the USO stepped up to help.
It was during World War II that the USO created and established its legacy of entertainment through USO Camp Shows. Roughly one month after Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 26 USO entertainers arrived on Utah Beach to perform for the troops. From there, a number of USO Camp Shows troupes traveled across Europe, often featuring celebrities so committed to boosting the morale of “the boys” that they insisted on traveling right to the front lines. Actress and singer Marlene Dietrich was so determined to reach soldiers in the center of the war that her fellow performers often joked that “she was always trying to get us killed.” USO reports state that some USO Camp Shows even performed within 500 yards of the front lines.
These USO Camp Shows traveled through North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, where morale boosts were especially needed. For the service members fighting a long, drawn-out war in Asia, these visits from the USO were pivotal.
“Believe me when I say that laughter up at the front lines is a very precious thing – precious to those grand guys who are giving and taking the awful business that goes on there,” Bob Hope, USO icon and legendary comedian, said in 1944.
“There’s a lump the size of Grant’s Tomb in your throat when they come up to you and shake your hand and mumble ‘Thanks.’ Imagine those guys thanking me! Look what they’re doin’ for me. And for you.”
At the peak of the war, the USO estimated that 1,000,000 service members were served per day, in one capacity or another, with more than 1,100,000,000 total served since the organization’s founding in 1941. By the end of World War II, the USO had put on more than 300,000 performances with nearly 5,000 entertainers.
Today, the idea of celebrities traveling to visit service members has become a commonplace within American culture, but it was not always. These USO performances on the front lines of World War II paved the way for the many decades to come of USO entertainment for the troops.
Korean War and Vietnam War
In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, the USO’s future seemed uncertain. The organization was “honorably discharged” by President Truman, and to the history books, it appeared that the USO closed its doors and was inactive for several years. However, USO records show that government officials were concerned about what the disappearance of the USO would mean to the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of service members returning home during peacetime, and instead kept some basic operations in motion. In the five years between WWII and the Korean War, the USO continued to welcome service members at centers and lounges both in the U.S. and abroad; additionally, USO entertainment shows visited the many wounded soldiers recuperating in military hospitals after the war.
However, in 1950, the Korean War broke out; just five years after that, the Vietnam War began. Just one year before the Korean War, in 1949, President Truman reactivated the USO in anticipation of needed support for these troops and in the following years, the statement that at the USO, “we go where they go” became even more poignant, as the doors opened to the first USO centers in combat zones.
At home, the USO continued to be a home away from home for the hundreds of thousands of service members who were deployed or reassigned to new duty stations across the country. Unfamiliar with their new city, town or base, these service members knew that they could always turn to the USO for entertainment, activities or even just a place to relax. These centers also offered services to the spouses of these service members, such as childcare at the USO center or social events.
On the front lines
Throughout the Korean War, the USO continued to provide the entertainment and support the organization had become famous for during World War II – including a special appearance by superstar Marilyn Monroe. However, it was a few years later, during the Vietnam War, that the USO’s services became even more crucial.
According to a Mar. 6, 1963, article in the Nashville Tennessean, the USO arrived in Vietnam even before the first American troops, opening a center in Saigon that very year. Thousands of service members would arrive in Vietnam two years later, after the Marines’ made landfall in Da Nang, and would eventually step through the doors of USO Saigon – one of the few air-conditioned buildings in the entire country at the time.
At the peak of the war, the USO had 17 centers in Vietnam and 6 in Thailand. Many of these were staffed by civilian female volunteers who had left home themselves to provide a morale boost to troops serving under high-stress conditions. These USO centers became save havens throughout the war. Because so many civilian communities throughout Vietnam were at risk of attack, service members often had almost nowhere to go in their free time away from the front lines – that is, no place other than the USO.
Here, they could call home, take a hot shower and get something to eat – either a snack, a signature USO hot dog, or even a full-fledged, homecooked holiday meal. If they were lucky, maybe they could even see a USO show.
In a war that is still remembered for its brutality, these USO shows served as much-needed moments of levity for deployed service members. To have stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Ann-Margret travel to the Iron Triangle or the deck of an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea to perform for them, service members were given – for just a moment – a small piece of home and a “thank you” for their immense sacrifice.
And after 1964, holidays on the front lines would never be the same. It was this year that Bob Hope brought his first-ever Bob Hope USO Christmas Show to Vietnam with a star-studded cast ready to entertain service members just when they needed it most. The show would become a yearly tradition and it continued until 1990, but also solidified Bob Hope’s legacy as a USO icon and unwavering supporter of America’s military.
Desert Storm and Other Conflicts
As the world moved into the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the United States engaged in a series of conflicts and peacekeeping missions. Most notable of these, which the USO provided support for, were the Gulf War, Operation Joint Endeavour and Operation Restore Hope.
Throughout these conflicts and missions, the USO pivoted to provide up-to-date support for a very different military compared to that of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Whereas only 7,000 women served in the Armed Forces during the entirety of the Vietnam War, more than 41,000 women deployed to combat zones during the Gulf War in just 1990-1991. Modes of communication with loved ones back home, as well as the very locations in which the military was fighting, also changed and developed, meaning that the USO had to as well.
At home, USO programs began to focus on military families as well as service members. Military spouses could turn to the USO for support groups that would offer advice, access to other helpful resources and a community of fellow spouses to turn to. These kinds of programs were especially important for the spouses of deployed service members, who suddenly had to handle all the affairs of their household, as well as their own careers and families, on their own.
USO airports throughout the country became known not only as a lounge for service members, but a place for all members of the military community to rely upon when struggling with travel delays, flight cancellations or simply needing a refuge after long hours of traveling. At home or abroad, when service members or military spouses saw that familiar red, white and blue logo, they knew they could finally relax.
On the front lines
As U.S. efforts shifted toward the Middle East, so too did the USO. Many centers continued to operate at full capacity throughout Asia as well as Europe, supporting American service members and military families that were based there in preparation for Middle East operations. When U.S. forces moved into Bahrain and Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, the USO followed. In 1991, three USO centers were opened in the Middle East in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Here, they provided all the traditional services of a USO center as well as entertainment from the likes of Jay Leno, Steve Martin and – in his final USO show – Bob Hope.
In Bosnia during Operation Joint Endeavour, troops received visits from the likes of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, while troops deployed to the peacekeeping mission of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia had access to their very own makeshift USO center in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Pittsburgh Steelers football great Terry Bradshaw talks with troops during his visit to Tuzla Air Base, Bosnia, in 2000.
Pittsburgh Steelers football great Terry Bradshaw talks with troops during his visit to Tuzla Air Base, Bosnia, in 2000.
In both these Middle East centers and those throughout Europe and Asia, the USO continued to serve as a home away from home for service members and military families alike. In places like Europe, military families might not have language skills or knowledge of their new country, and so the USO would provide information and guided tours of the surrounding areas to orient them. In whichever region, when far from everything familiar, even the sight of American snacks or welcome signs written in English at a USO center could be a comforting sight. Providing these USO centers and resources to the military community created a network of support across the globe, ensuring that the USO was – and continues to be – always by their side.
Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – and Today
September 11, 2001, changed everything. The United States entered the Global War on Terror and the military community was suddenly faced with new challenges and missions overseas. Since 2001, more than 2.77 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan on 5.4 million deployments – and over half of those who have deployed have done so more than once.
Aside from the strain of deployment on the service member, military spouses and children must also weather the storm of military life and all its uncertainties. Because of this, over the past 20 years the USO has particularly focused its efforts on supporting not only service members, but their spouses and children as well, throughout their entire military journey.
Over the past two decades, the USO has offered more entertainment and support programs for military spouses and military children than ever before.
Some programs are specifically geared toward supporting military spouses, such as USO Coffee Connections, a recurring military spouse networking event where MilSpouses can build personal and professional connections with others in their community. For expecting mothers, the USO Special Delivery presented by Johnson & Johnson program provides both military spouses and service members with free baby showers. Since many soon-to-be parents in the military live far from their families or are new to their duty station, having these events provides a support network for parents-to-be.
The USO has also launched support for service members and military spouses as they assimilate into their civilian communities after their military career. The USO Pathfinder® Transition Program creates a customized action plan for each participant, assisting in everything from education to financial readiness to career advice.
Throughout their entire journey of service, USO locations themselves – whether they’re a brick-and-mortar building with four walls on a base, a Mobile USO van sent to support National Guard members during hurricane relief or a USO2GO kit downrange – serve as a place of respite for our military community.
On the front lines
As hundreds of thousands of service members were deployed to the Middle East in the 2000s, the USO opened multiple centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, expanding the USO’s footprint into combat zones. These centers, run by USO staff living permanently in the region and service member volunteers, offered a welcome respite and reminder of home to those on the front lines.
In recent years, centers in the Middle East region have hosted everything from weekly trivia nights and Super Bowl Sunday watch parties, to baby showers and holiday meals. Entertainers have traveled to this region as well, with celebrities such as Robin Williams, NFL and NBA all-stars, Scarlett Johansson, Trace Adkins and more performing on the austere stages of the front lines.
These programs and support have been centered around the USO’s mission: to strengthen America’s service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation. That commitment to connection is infused in everything the USO did and continues to do.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, programs like USO Operation Phone Home® delivered prepaid international phone cards to deployed troops, free of charge, to ensure they could stay in touch with their loved ones. USO centers in this region – as well as in Europe, the Pacific and the continental United States – were also outfitted with their own phone rooms, computers and, eventually, free Wi-Fi for service members to use to connect with their family and friends back home.
Programs have continued to focus more and more on ensuring service members remain connected to their families waiting for them back home. For example, the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program allows service members to record themselves reading a bedtime story to their child and have that recording, as well as the book, shipped back home. Today, it is one of the most popular programs among deployed service members.
And from the front lines to the recovery room, the USO has stood by our wounded, ill and injured service members. USO Warrior and Family Centers serve in support of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and Fort Belvoir, Virginia. At each of these locations, the USO center provides an ADA-compliant space in which service members and their caretakers can find programs and services in a supportive and home-like setting.
Most recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO has once again pivoted to meet the military community where they are through virtual and socially distant programs. In a difficult year in which the world saw the largest deployment of the National Guard since World War II, military members needed morale boosts and connections to their loved ones more than ever. From drive-thru high school graduation ceremonies to virtual baking classes with Martha Stewart, the USO remained committed to its mission.
As the USO enters its 80th year, we look back on our history of continuous support for our nation’s military and their families with great pride. Over the past eight decades, no matter the conflict or period of peace, the USO has always stood by their side – and will continue to do so in the years to come.
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