Vietnam War Veterans-Turned-USO-Volunteers Share How the USO Supported Them Through the War

By Danielle DeSimone

Former U.S. Army Capt. Joe Donner was young when he was sent on his first deployment – and it wasn’t just any deployment. He was being sent to the front lines of the Vietnam War.

Deploying down range can be challenging and frightening under any circumstance, but it was especially difficult for service members during the Vietnam War, which is still remembered – 50 years after its end – for its brutality and high loss of life.

But throughout their experiences while deployed with the Army, Joe Donner and Carl Reiner – Vietnam War veterans who are now USO volunteers – also remember bright moments. Times when they were able to connect to loved ones back home, to take a break from the stresses of war, to be thanked for their service by some of America’s biggest celebrities.

And they experienced many of those moments at the USO.

How the USO Supported These Vietnam War Veterans While They were Deployed

Joe served as an Army aviator and was deployed to Camp Holloway, located in Pleiku, southern Vietnam. One day, Joe and his team were flying to Quy Nhon, along the coast; there was a buzz in the cockpit among the crew that day – his team had heard there was a USO center at the base they were flying to, and their fellow service members had strongly recommended they visit upon arrival.

Photo credit Department of Defense/Sgt. 1st Class Howard C. Breedlove

A reconnaissance platoon from the 1st Air Cavalry Division exits a UH-1D Iroquois helicopter in Du Pho, South Vietnam, in 1967.

The crew arrived and loaded supplies onto their “Huey” (that is, a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter) and prepared to spend the night, returning to their duty station in the morning. Finally, they could go to the long-awaited USO center. It was Joe’s first time at a USO center, and when they arrived, there were three things that immediately stood out.

First, Joe saw the payphone booths, equipped with phones that service members could pick up, at any hour of the day, and be connected to an operator back home in the United States. This operator who would then connect the service member to their family, friends or loved ones, who they could speak to for 10 minutes at a time.

A sailor calls home from USO Saigon in 1970. | Photo credit USO Archives

Second, he noticed the air conditioning. In the hot and humid tropical weather of Vietnam, air conditioning was a rarity in many military buildings, and a welcome respite.

And third was the most crucial thing of all – the ice cream.

“The treat of all treats – they had a little ice cream bar!” Joe exclaimed.

Joe explained that food he ate while on deployment to Vietnam was not always the best, and that even water quality was unreliable. Because of this, to ensure their water was safe, the military and the USO added large amounts of chlorine to it, so that even the ice cream at the USO’s ice cream bar tasted vaguely of chlorine.

“Oh, but we didn’t care because it was ice cream,” Joe said. “It was the idea of ice cream. It was just fantastic.”

An ice cream bar was a simple joy, but, crucially, it was a reminder of home, and that was a huge morale boost for Joe.

Carl, who was also an Army aviator, was especially grateful for the ability to use the USO to call his wife back home, who was serving as the sole parent of their three children while he was deployed.

Photo credit USO Photo

Carl Reiner recalled how much he missed his wife and children while deployed to Vietnam. Luckily for service members like Carl, USO centers on the front lines of the Vietnam War had phone booths that troops could use to call loved ones back home. Today, we provide the same services – but through free Wi-Fi and computers.

USO centers served as crucial outposts for deployed troops during the Vietnam War, and our organization was there from the very beginning.

In fact, 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, coveted 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.

“There were very sweet, middle-aged-to-older ladies that were working in the USO, all American,” Joe recalled. “You know, it’s kinda like walking in and your aunt and grandma are there.”

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.

Photo credit USO

The USO’s second center in Vietnam opened in Da Nang in early 1965.

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, home-cooked holiday meal. If they were lucky, maybe they could even see a USO show.

Joe recalled the USO entertainment he saw while deployed to Vietnam. He distinctly remembered that when Miss America and a few runners-up arrived on a USO tour, Miss America herself insisted on visiting troops in dangerous locations in the mountains of Vietnam, regardless of the risks.

Joe and his crew placed the Miss America winner and other contestants on separate boats, heading up the river, and their Huey helicopter provided cover for them. His crew had radioed to the Army Rangers they were visiting that their caravan was en-route, and simply stated that they were transporting “valuable cargo.”

“We didn’t tell ‘em who was coming,” Joe laughed.

The surprise visit from these American entertainers was a welcome sight for the Army Rangers who were deployed in a high-stakes environment, so far from home.

Martha Raye, Nancy Sinatra and Bob Hope were other USO performances that stood out to Joe throughout his time in Vietnam, and these tours were not without risks. Joe recalls that the morning of a scheduled Bob Hope USO show, patrols from his unit scoured the area beforehand and found several enemy rockets set up with timers, pointed in their direction – and they were timed to go off right in the middle of the Bob Hope USO show.

Photo credit USO Photo

Throughout the 1960s, Bob Hope traveled overseas many times to visit the troops. Here, Hope shakes hands with a service member in Southeast Asia in 1969.

What struck Joe the most about USO entertainment was that many celebrities who traveled to Vietnam were not only seemingly undeterred by the risks of visiting, but were also committed to simply spending time with service members and showing their appreciation. In a war in which the American public was generally unsupportive of service members returning from the front lines, these gestures of appreciation did not go unnoticed by troops who were putting their lives on the line every day.

And when serving under such stressful and risky circumstances, these USO shows served as much-needed moments of levity for deployed service members. To have stars like Bob Hope, 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.

Photo credit USO

Ann-Margret performs for American service members in Vietnam in 1966.

Although the sacrifices they were making and the dangers they were facing were very real, Joe felt that it was much more difficult to be a service member’s family or loved one, waiting for news of their service member back home.

“We’re in the middle of [combat], but we’re taking care trip of ourselves and our buddy next to us, so we’re doing the best we can,” Joe said. “But the people at home had no control, so everybody was panicking.”

It is a sentiment that is often overlooked even today when discussing the U.S. military – while the sacrifices of our service members are immense as they put their lives in danger, it is important to remember that their families at home also struggle. Military spouses and children must navigate daily life without their service member, alongside the fear that comes with not knowing if their loved one will come home from war unscathed.

And in the end, it was being apart from their loved ones that was the most difficult part of deployment for Joe and Carl. It is something that Joe is still sympathetic toward service members today, who must spend long periods of time away from home.

“I don’t care where the war is. Even with today’s technology, you’re still missing home,” Joe said.

Coming Home and Giving Back

When Joe came back from deployment, he didn’t forget what the USO had done for him overseas. He continued to utilize – and support – the USO after he returned home from Vietnam. He began volunteering at his local USO airport center with his stepfather, who was a Korean War veteran. Together, they would take the graveyard shift at the USO center, providing snacks and a safe place to sleep for service members traveling through the airport at all hours of the night.

Photo credit USO Photo

Joe Donner, a former U.S. Army aviator and captain, received support from the USO while deployed during the Vietnam War. Today, he gives back to the next generation of soldiers by volunteering at his local USO center in Atlanta, Georgia.

And today, Joe and Carl volunteer together as part of their Vietnam Veterans of America (Chapter 1030) at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport USO Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

This USO center is often the first stop for today’s Army recruits before they head out to basic training and begin their career in the military. Young and unsure of what awaits them when they arrive, these recruits have the best USO volunteers to greet them when they arrive – veterans who have been through it all, and can prepare them for what’s coming.

For Joe and Carl, it’s a chance to pass along some of the wisdom they’ve acquired throughout their Army careers.

“All we tell 'em is – just do what you’re told and you’ll be fine,” Joe said, after speaking to one individual recruit waiting at the USO center one day. “We were telling him about the camaraderie, that he’s going to make friends for life.”

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members chat with a USO volunteer while playing card games at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport USO Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where Joe and Carl also volunteer.

And Joe and Carl certainly prove that, as these longtime friends both spend their free time volunteering at the USO and other nonprofits with their fellow Vietnam War veterans, which is a close-knit group. Many of these veterans proudly wear their Vietnam War Veteran baseball hats while volunteering, which makes them stand out in public. Sometimes, civilians notice.

“If I’m at the grocery store and somebody says, ‘Oh, thank you for your service’ and you can kind of tell they were not a veteran, my response to them is, ‘Thank you for being the kind of American that I would be willing to die for,’” Joe said.

Today, Joe and Carl continue to embody that spirit of service by giving back to their local communities, serving as USO volunteers and providing wisdom to the next generation of soldiers who come through the USO center’s doors.

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