The United Service Organizations
The USO strengthens America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.
Those of us of a certain age (maybe 60 and up) will certainly know about the USO, probably from the Vietnam era, mostly. Some of us might have seen movies or documentaries where USO programs were featured, or we saw snippets on nightly newscasts. Others might have actually been there, in a sea of olive drab uniforms, when famous actors and singers and dancers entertained the throngs at USO sponsored shows. But I wonder how many millennials (and younger) know anything at all about this wonderful organization that has for decades brought home and hope to members of our armed services around the world.
The USO was founded in February 1941, almost a year before the United States entered World War II. It was President Franklin Roosevelt’s idea to form an organization that would provide support services to our military personnel. Essentially, he wanted to boost the morale of the men and women who were serving their country. The government would provide tax dollars to build or purchase buildings for USO centers, but the USO would be responsible for raising private funds to cover all its remaining expenses. They relied heavily on volunteers, and they still do.
After the organization was established in 1941, USO centers sprang up everywhere—in churches, barns, railroad cars, abandoned buildings, museums—just about any space that could accommodate crowds of military personnel and local volunteers. Dances were very popular, but sometimes all the service men and women wanted was a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Quiet spaces provided a welcoming atmosphere for writing a letter home or reading a good book, and some centers offered childcare for military wives and even spiritual counseling.
The USO is best known, though, for its live performances, or Camp Shows. By the fall of 1941, USO Camp Shows, Inc. had created 186 military theaters in the United States, and eventually, seventy overseas units were in place to provide entertainment for the troops. These shows were produced by the American Theatre Wing in their Stage Door Canteens. It took a little time to get the ball rolling, but by 1944, there were more than 3,000 USO clubs around the world, and as many as 700 Camp Shows were seen by our men and women in uniform every day. Between 1941 and 1945, the USO sponsored over 290,000 performances for more than 16,000,000 servicemen and women in the United States and abroad. And they certainly didn’t forget the wounded soldiers and sailors and airmen, providing entertainment for more than 3,000,000 men and women in 192 different hospitals around the world.
You might recognize the names of some of the people who performed for our troops during World War II (especially if you’re in the over 60 crowd):
Dinah Shore . . . Betty Grable . . . Rita Hayworth . . Mickey Rooney . . . Irving Berlin . . . Laurel and Hardy . . . Ann Sheridan . . . Bing Crosby . . . Chico Marx . . . Danny Kaye . . . The Andrews Sisters . . . Marlene Dietrich . . . Edward G. Robinson . . . John Wayne (who was born in Winterset, Iowa, by the way—it’s about 130 miles south of Algona on Highway 169) . . . and last, but certainly not least, Bob Hope
If there’s one person who epitomizes the organization known as the USO, it has to be Bob Hope. Born in England in 1903, his family emigrated to the United States five years later. He was already an established comedian and Broadway and film star by the time the U.S. entered World War II. In September 1939, he happened to be sailing on the RMS Queen Mary (see my June 23, 2021 blog post “R(oyal) M(ail) S(hip) Queen Mary”) when the war broke out in Europe. Because he loved to entertain, he volunteered to perform for his fellow passengers on that voyage, and in May 1941, he performed his first USO show. It was the beginning of his extraordinary career with the USO which spanned almost fifty years. He made fifty-seven tours with the organization, entertaining the troops he loved during WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf War. And think about this: he spent forty-eight Christmases overseas, entertaining American military personnel. His passion and legacy were unequaled.
At the U.S. Capitol Building in May 1978, a plaque honoring Bob Hope was dedicated. Seven years later, the USO’s headquarters building in Washington, DC was renamed the “Bob Hope Building.” During a televised 90th birthday celebration in 1993, General Colin Powell thanked Bob for his tireless work with the USO, and General William Westmoreland offered gratitude for his loyalty to the GIs throughout the Vietnam years.
At the Library of Congress, you can find the Bob Hope Collection. It includes manuscript materials (scripts, jokes, monologues, correspondence), photographs, sound recordings, and moving images, all documenting Bob Hope’s career as an entertainer, actor, comedian, and philanthropist. All told, the collection spans over 860 linear feet. By my calculations, that’s just over 286 library shelves. That’s big!
Bob Hope was 100 years old when he died on July 27, 2003 at his home in Toluca Lake, California. I must admit I was not a huge Bob Hope fan when I was younger. I guess his particular brand of comedy didn’t especially appeal to me. But, as I prepared to write this blog, I thought a lot about how he dedicated his life to bringing joy to our troops around the world. I couldn’t help but admire the man and appreciate the deep respect he had for our men and women in uniform. That means a lot more to me now.
In 1943, war correspondent Quentin Reynolds suggested in an article in Billboard Magazine that entertainment should be considered and treated as an essential war industry “so long as it’s for the boys in service.” Considering the positive impact the USO Camp Shows had on the morale of our brave men and women who were serving their country, I would whole-heartedly agree.
There was a USO center in Algona during World War II, but I don’t mention it in my novel, My Mother’s Friend. I could have and maybe should have, but when I finished the first draft, I discovered I’d written enough words for three novels (ahem!). There would not be room to add anything to my story (but plenty of opportunities to cut). So, Sgt. Jackson and Cpl. Phillips and Cpl. Bickford and Pvt. Mattingly probably did spend time at the Algona USO center on State Street (Main Street in my book) in downtown Algona, but we don’t get to read about those experiences. Maybe I can save that for the sequel.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.