The United Service Organizations Inc. (USO Show) is a nonprofit organization that provides programs, services and live entertainment to United States troops and their families. Since 1941, it has worked in partnership with the Department of Defense (DOD), relying heavily on private contributions and on funds, goods, and services from various corporate and individual donors. Although obsessionally chartered, it is not a government agency. The USO operates 160 centers worldwide.
Mission and goals
The USO was founded in 1941 in response to a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide morale and recreation services to U.S. uniformed military personnel. Roosevelt was elected as its honorary chairman. This request brought together six civilian organizations: the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Service, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board. They were brought together under one umbrella to support U.S. troops. Roosevelt said he wanted “these private organizations to handle the on-leave recreation of the men in the armed forces.” According to historian Emily Yellin, “The government was to build the buildings and the USO was to raise private funds to carry out its main mission: boosting the morale of the military.”
The first national campaign chairman was Thomas Dewey, who raised $16 million in the first year. The second chairman was Prescott Bush, a future senator and father to one future president, and the grandfather to another. The USO was incorporated in New York February 4, with the first facility erected in DeRidder, Louisiana,1941. More USO centers and clubs opened around the world as a “Home Away from Home” for GIs. The USO club was a place to go for dances and social events, for movies and music, for a quiet place to talk or write a letter home, or for a free cup of coffee and an egg.
The USO also brought Hollywood celebrities and volunteer entertainers to perform for the troops. According to movie historian Steven Cohan, “most of all … in taking home on the road, it equated the nation with showbiz. USO camp shows were designed in their export to remind soldiers of home.” They did this, he noted, by “nurturing in troops a sense of patriotic identification with America through popular entertainment.” An article in Look magazine at the time, stated, “For the little time the show lasts, the men are taken straight to the familiar Main Street that is the goal of every fighting American far away from home.” Maxene Andrews wrote, “The entertainment brought home to the boys. Their home.” Actor George Raft stated at the beginning of the war, “Now it’s going to be up to us to send to the men here and abroad real, living entertainment, the songs, the dances, and the laughs they had back home.”
USO promotional literature stated its goals:
“The story of USO camp shows belongs to the American people, for it was their contribution that made it possible. It is an important part in the life of your sons, your brothers, your husbands, and your sweethearts.”
World War II
Bob Hope USO show, 1944
After being formed in 1941, in response to World War II, “centers were established quickly… in churches, barns, railroad cars, museums, castles, beach clubs, and log cabins.” Most centers offered recreational activities, such as holding dances and showing movies. And there were the well-known free coffee and doughnuts. Some USO bases provided a haven for spending a quiet moment alone or writing a letter home, while others offered spiritual guidance and made childcare available for military wives.
But the organization became mostly known for its live performances called Camp Shows, through which the entertainment industry helped boost the morale of its servicemen and women. Camp Shows began in October 1941, and by that fall and winter 186 military theaters existed in the United States. Overseas shows began in November 1941 with a tour of the Caribbean. Within five months 36 overseas units had been sent within the Americas, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and during 1942 1,000 performed as part of 70 units. Average performers were paid $100 a week; top stars were paid $10 a day because their wealth let them contribute more of their talents.
These overseas shows were produced by the American Theater Wing, which also provided food and entertainment for the armed services in their Stage Door Canteens. Funds from the sale of film rights for a story about the New York Canteen went toward providing USO tours of shows for overseas troops.
In 1991, 20th Century Fox produced the film, For the Boys, which told the story of two USO performers, and starred Bette Midler and James Caan. It covered a 50-year time span, from the USO’s inception in 1941 through Operation Desert Storm, in 1991. Another movie was planned in 1950 but never made. Just 10 days after Al Jolson returned from entertaining troops in Korea, he agreed with RKO producers to star in a new movie, Stars and Stripes for Ever, about a U.S.O. troupe in the South Pacific during World War II. Unfortunately, he died a week later as a result of physical exhaustion from his tour.
Camp Shows began in Normandy in July 1944, one month after Operation Overlord. Until fall 1944 overseas units contained five performers or fewer; The Barretts of Wimpole Street, using local theaters in France and Italy, was the first to use an entire theater company, including scenery. At its high point in 1944, the USO had more than 3,000 clubs, and curtains were rising on USO shows 700 times a day. From 1941 to 1947, the USO presented more than 400,000 performances, featuring entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Hattie McDaniel, Eubie Blake, Ann Sheridan, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Carole Landis, Martha Tilton, Jack Benny, Larry Adler, Adelaide Hall, Ossy Renardy, Zero Mostel, James Cagney, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Doraine and Ellis, Lena Horne, Danny Kaye, The Rockettes, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Curly Joe DeRita, The Andrews Sisters, Joe E. Brown, Joe E. Lewis, Ray Bolger, Lucille Ball, Glenn Miller, Martha Raye, Mickey Rooney, Betty Hutton, Dinah Shore, John Wayne and most famously, Bob Hope. all Blue lines are links to our upcoming Benefit to help local Wounded Veterans,
Brigadier General (Retired) John I. Pray, Jr., joined the USO in 2009 as Senior Vice President of Entertainment and Programs. He became president of the USO in early 2014
Bob Hope Through The Years With The Troops
USO Christmas Show-Cu Chi, Vietnam 1966