The USO was formed in 1941 in response to a request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt who determined it would be best if private organizations handled the on-leave recreation needs of the rapidly growing U.S. armed forces. Roosevelt’s call to action led six civilian agencies to coordinate their civilian war efforts and resources to form a new organization – the USO (United Service Organizations). The six civilian agencies were the Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board. The USO was incorporated in New York February 4, 1941. The USO is a private, nonprofit organization, supported entirely by private citizens and corporations.
Throughout World War II, the USO was the channel for community participation in the war effort. In more than 3,000 communities, USO centers were established to become the GIs' “Home Away from Home.” Between 1940 and 1944, U.S. troops grew from 50,000 to 12 million, and their need for a variety of services grew accordingly. USO facilities were quickly opened in such unlikely places as churches, log cabins, museums, castles, barns, beach and yacht clubs, railroad sleeping cars, old mansions and storefronts.
At its high point in 1944, the USO had more than 3,000 clubs. USOs could be many things to many people: a lively place to dance and meet people; a place to see movies or find religious counsel; a quiet place to talk or write letters; and, of course, a place to go for free coffee and doughnuts.
From 1941 to 1947, USO Camp Shows presented an amazing 428,521 performances. In 1945, curtains were rising 700 times a day to audiences as large as 15,000 and as small as 25 on some outposts all over the world. More than 7,000 entertainers traveled overseas. During World War II, Americans had come together as never before. By war’s end, the USO could claim that more than 1.5 million volunteers had worked on its behalf.
The USO had all but disbanded by 1947. In 1950, when the United States entered the Korean War, the USO regrouped and eventually opened 24 clubs worldwide. Once again, USO Camp Shows performed thousands of times for battle-weary troops and for wounded GIs in hospitals in Japan. In 1952, USO entertainers performed every day for troops in Korea. The truce in 1953 did not decrease the need for USO services – more than a million service members remained stationed abroad. At the request of the Defense Department for continued service for the military overseas, the USO continued to expand worldwide.
The turbulent 60s were full of challenges for the USO. For the first time in its history, USO centers were located in combat zones. The first USO in Vietnam opened in Saigon in 1963. The 17 centers that were opened in Vietnam and six in Thailand served as many as a million service members a month. Bob Hope took his USO Christmas show to Vietnam for the first time in 1964; the shows continued into the next decade. At the war’s height, 40 percent of America’s entire overseas forces were in Vietnam. Some 5,559 USO performances took place during the Vietnam years. As the 60s ended, Americans were still bitterly debating Vietnam War policies. But for the USO, Vietnam meant a chance to assist Americans who were far from home, serving their country in a difficult and dangerous conflict.
In the early 1970s, when the draft ended, the need for the USO was questioned. In 1974, prompted by a report of United Way of America’s Committee on National Agency Support (CONAS), the United Way of America and the Department of Defense conducted a major review of USO programs and services. They visited USO operations and military bases around the world and concluded: “If there were no USO, another organization would have to be created…. Isolation of the military from civilian influences is not, we believe in the interest of this nation.”
Thus, the USO was launched into a new era of peacetime service. New programs were called for to meet new needs, and the USO responded. Programs were developed to smooth frictions between military and local communities by involving personnel in local activities. For the first time, the USO helped military personnel make the transition to civilian life. The USO’s international headquarters moved from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1975, firmly establishing it as an international agency serving U.S. armed forces worldwide.
USO entertainment in the 80s retained its stellar reputation while increasing its range. Superstar rock groups KANSAS, the Doobie Brothers, Cheap Trick; jazz legend Louie Bellson; movie stars Kris Kristofferson, Brooke Shields, Chuck Norris; performers Ann Jillian and John Denver; MISS USAs Michelle Royer, Courtney Gibbs and Gretchen Polhemus; rhythm and blues group Atlantic Starr; a host of country music stars, including Loretta Lynn, Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood, Mickey Gilley, and the Judds; and even Jeopardy! Host Alex Trebek became involved with the USO’s celebrity entertainment program.
The USO’s close association with military leadership was reemphasized in 1987 with the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding between the USO and the Department of Defense. The agreement names the USO as a principal channel representing civilian concern for U.S. armed forces worldwide, under the auspices of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense. The agreement authorizes the USO to play an active role in coordinating local civilian community resources and fostering general civilian interest in the welfare of U.S. armed forces personnel and their families around the world.
1990 found the United States embroiled in a confrontation with Iraq that challenged American troops in new ways. Service members were deployed in the desert for at least six months at a time, with little recreation or contact from home. The Persian Gulf War also challenged the USO to meet the needs of our troops in unique circumstances.
The USO immediately responded by opening three centers in the Middle East and establishing the USO Mobile Canteen program. Mobile Canteens are four-wheel drive, all-terrain vehicles that have refreshments, books, magazines, video and compact disc players, and resources for recreational activities. USO workers drove the vans to wherever the troops were deployed to provide some relief.
On the home front, the USO established the Family Support Fund and Desert Storm Education Fund to support military families who suffered hardships from the deployment or death of a service member. After the troops returned, the USO sponsored a Yellow Ribbon Summer, which included several special events to benefit active duty service members and their families. As a finale, the USO hosted the National Victory Celebration Concert in Washington, D.C., featuring Barbara Mandrell.
The lessons the USO learned in the sands of the Middle East were put to the test in 1992 in Somalia. When then President George Bush announced that American troops would be deployed to Operation Restore Hope, the USO was ready to follow them.
USO Somalia opened December 23, 1992, just for the holidays. The USO secured space in the Mogadishu International Airport and began providing morale-building support and services to the U.S. military. The USO presence in Somalia continued until April 1993 with support from corporations, individuals and celebrity entertainers who visited the troops.
The USO currently operates more than 120 centers – in 10 countries, 21 states and the District of Columbia. More than 33,000 volunteers donated their time and talents during 2005 at USOs around the world. Military personnel and their families visit USO centers more than five million times each year.
To support troops participating in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, USO centers opened in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar. Recently, the USO opened a center at Denver International Airport and a second center in Kuwait. USO centers at the Dallas/Fort Worth and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airports are the only two locations in the United States serving as the focal point for troops arriving on rest and recuperation (R&R) flights from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both centers greet well over 300 service members each day on incoming flights as well as provide support to those returning to duty at the end of their two weeks of R&R. Two special programs – Operation USO Care Package and USO Operation Phone Home – were created to support service members participating in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. To date, more than 700,000 Care Packages and more than one million phone cards have been distributed.
USO airport centers help military travelers with connections, foreign language translation, long layovers and missing luggage. The USO also operates Family and Community Centers to help military families adjust to new surroundings with information on childcare, employment opportunities, parenting, nutrition, budgeting and recreational programs.
Many USOs also offer orientation programs to promote resources within the local civilian community. Intercultural understanding fosters positive interaction between local citizens and their American military guests. Community involvement programs benefit the community and broaden the horizons of all involved.
USO World Headquarters acts as the enabling body for all programs, setting overall policy and strategies, and providing training and technical assistance. It also produces the overseas celebrity entertainment tours, which reach hundreds of thousands of service members each year. Since 1941, every U.S. president has served as the USO’s Honorary Chairman.
Today, USO celebrity entertainment shows are effective morale boosters and remain an important part of USO’s offerings. In 2005, the USO sent 45 celebrity entertainment tours to 28 countries, entertaining several hundred thousand service men and women.
Recent USO tours -- both stateside and abroad -- have featured entertainers such as Robin Williams, Drew Carey, Bruce Willis, Wayne Newton, Gary Sinise, Ben Affleck, Kid Rock, Toby Keith, Jessica Simpson, David Letterman, and “Soprano’s” stars James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico.
As the USO celebrates 65 years of service, the world is witnessing history-making events at a record pace, events that have influenced the very nature and mission of America’s military. But one thing is certain: The USO will diversify and change over time…as it has throughout its history…in order to fulfill its mission to service members and their families