Your Virtual USO Club on the Web!

   Check back soon for a virtual version of a USO canteen somewhere in England. For now, check out the WW II history of the USO ...

CARTOON (10 K)Historical Overview of the USO
   In 1940, America’s military was rapidly growing in response to the increasing threat which preceded entry into World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt challenged six private organizations — the YMCA, YWCA, the National Catholic Community Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler’s Aid Association, and the Salvation Army — to handle the on-leave recreation needs for the members of the Armed Forces. The six organizations pooled their resources and the United Service Organizations — which quickly became known as the USO — was incorporated in New York State on February 4, 1941. The original mission of the USO was to provide an affordable place for newly drafted soldiers, many away from home for the first time, to be entertained without getting into trouble. The first USO centers were in railroad sleeping cars, barns, museums, and churches, and within its first four years had operations in three thousand locations. LITTLE ROCK USO CLUB (17 K) As the U.S. plunged into World War II, Hollywood looked to do its part. Hollywood would turn the USO into the greatest booking agent in the world. Actors familiar with playing lavish theaters like the Ziegfeld or Schubert now found themselves on the "Victory Circuit," playing in such remote places as Goose Bay, East Dhahran, and Uijongbu on makeshift stages, on the hoods of jeeps, in foxholes, in the blistering sun, and in the freezing cold. The jokes may have been terrible, the songs may have been performed to the background of gunfire, the sound systems may have been horrible, but just the presence of these stars brought sick, lonely, and wounded G.I.s a desperately needed slice of home. One need only see Frances Langford on an icy stage in Belgium, wearing a sexy dress (because that’s what the soldiers wanted to see), to know how far the devotion went on a USO tour. Soon, the USO became famous for its cavalcade of Hollywood’s greatest talent performing in front of the troops in every World War II theatre of battle; this all-star lineup included Bob Hope, The Andrews Sisters, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, James Stewart, Laurel and Hardy, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, and Marlene Dietrich.

   As noted above, by 1944, USOs were found in over 3,000 locations throughout the United States (click on the thumbnail at above right to view a larger version of the postcard, which depicts the USO Club in Little Rock, Arkansas), primarily staffed by the USO’s most precious resource, volunteers. President Roosevelt became the first USO Honorary Chairman, a position accepted by every President who followed.

The Main Street USO Building, Monroe, NC (click to view a larger version).

The USO Club, Hattiesburg, MI, in 1943 (click to view a larger version).

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   HEDY LAMARR (5 K)Early in 1941, entertainment industry professionals (like Hedy Lamarr, left, pictured in 1943 along with character actress Mary Gordon in Hollywood's USO canteeen; click for a larger version) helped the USO begin "Camp Shows," with the entertainers waiving pay and working conditions to bring live entertainment to the troops at bases within the United States. With America’s entry into World War II, "USO Camp Shows" expanded to bring live entertainment to Americans fighting overseas. Bob Hope made his first USO tour in 1942. While the Nazi army and the Japanese Imperial armed forces forbade troop entertainment because it was felt that such frivolity would distract from the single-minded pursuit of total victory, the United States believed in no such thing; the USO knew that a glimpse of Betty Grable’s legs proved to be a great inspiration for young men thousands of miles from home to win World War II.

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   Following the Allies liberation of Rome in 1943, The first overseas "USO Canteen" was established in Rome following the Allies liberation in 1943. The Canteen served American troops in the midst of World War II.

   Between 1941 and 1947 USO Camp Shows presented 428,521 performances for audiences ranging from 25 soldiers to more than 15,000 military personnel. More than 7,000 male and female entertainers traveled overseas as part of USO shows. Some died in plane crashes or when a ship was sunk; a few were killed when camps were bombed or strafed.

PLAY, JACKSON, PLAY — It's September 1943, and American troops in Africa and the Near East have been enjoying scenes like this in recent weeks, provided by Jack Benny, who has been touring the war fronts under USO auspices. Benny delayed the beginning of his fall radio season until Sunday, October 10, in order to spend more time with the boys. He returns to NBC on that day with his regular troupe — Mary Livingston, Rochester, Dennis Day, and Phil Harris’ orchestra. Photo from the Webmaster's collection.
   The USO, unlike most organizations of that time, made a serious and sustained commitment to including African-Americans in its shows, among its staff and volunteers and in its audiences. A few shows and clubs were racially integrated but "Jim Crow" laws, societal prejudice, and segregation within the military limited the possibility of widespread integration. However, the USO opened more than 300 clubs for African-American troops and stationed Traveler's Aid workers in the black section of segregated bus and train stations as well as at embarkation ports.

   By the end of WW II, more than one and a half million volunteers had worked for the USO within the U.S. and overseas. Most were women.

   The American Red Cross and the U.S.O. were the only organizations officially sanctioned by the U.S. government to send personnel overseas during World War II. However, many other organizations contributed to the war effort within the United States.

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   On December 31, 1947, President Harry S. Truman thanked the USO for fulfilling its mission with "singular distinction" and granted the USO an honorable discharge from active service.

(Portions reprinted from original text at the USO Web Site.)

So, let's check out the Canteen! (Click "Next" to enter) ...