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, 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 USOówas incorporated in New York State on February 4, 1941. By 1944, USOs were found in over 3,000 locations throughout the United States 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.
Early in 1941, entertainment industry professionals 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 and the USO/Bob Hope partnership has continued for more than five decades. Between 1941 and 1947, over 7,000 "soldiers in greasepaint" performed an incredible 428,521 USO shows. The USO show concept has endured and continues today as "USO Celebrity Entertainment."
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.
Public support of the USO again declined following the U. S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The United Way and DoD jointly commissioned a Blue Ribbon Study Committee to determine if the USO had become obsolete as a result of the initiation of the "all volunteer armed forces." The Committee concluded that "if there were no USO, another organization would have to be created" to replace it. "Isolation of the military from civilian influences is not, we believe, in the interest of this nation." With this endorsement, the USO reemerged in the early 1970s with programs and services designed to meet the changes in the military population, many of whom were married.
During the 1970s, outreach programs for the increased number of military families began worldwide. More USO centers were established in airports to meet the needs of military travelers. USO job assistance programs began for men and women leaving the military. And USO shows for troops stationed around the world continued.
In 1977, the USO Headquarters relocated from New York to Washington, D.C., underscoring its role as a national agency serving the Armed Forces. By 1979, the six founding agencies withdrew, leaving the USO totally independent. On December 20, 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the USO Congressional Charter into law (Title 36, U.S. Code, Chapter 45) and the USO became incorporated in the District of Columbia.
The USO Congressional Charter states in part that "The objects and purposes of the corporation are to provide a voluntary civilian agency through which the people of the Nation may, in peace or war, serve the religious, spiritual, social, welfare, educational, and entertainment needs of the men and women in the Armed Forces within or without the territorial limits of the United States, and in general, to contribute to the maintenance of morale of such men and women? The Charter also entrusts management of the USO corporation to a board of governors, and provides that the corporation shall have all the powers necessary "to establish, regulate, and terminate State, regional, local and overseas councils, organizations, chapters, or affiliates in such manner and by such rules as it deems appropriate so as to enable it to carryout its powers and accomplish the objects and purposes set forth ?
In the early 1980s, tours by Lou Rawls and Loretta Lynn revived the USO's stagnant entertainment momentum. 1983 found Bob Hope and his USO show Christmas Special entertaining Sailors and Marines off the coast of Lebanon. Major rock musicians also began touring for the USO. In 1984, a large USO center opened in Haifa, Israel, and centers in Europe, the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Far East continued to provide USO services. On November 9, 1987, the terms of a new DoD MOU recognized the USO as the principal channel representing civilian concern for U.S. Armed Forces around the world. A position enhanced through a series of endorsement letters from Secretaries of Defense which embrace the DoD/USO partnership, the latest dated 29 April 1997 from Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.
Terrorism touched the USO on April 14, 1988 when a car bomb exploded outside the USO Fleet Center in Naples, Italy. The center was destroyed and the bomb killed five people including the first woman in the U.S. Navy to die in a terrorist attack.
In 1990, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait prompted a massive buildup of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The USO opened operations in Saudi Arabia while providing stateside support for families of those deployed to the Middle East in support of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Numerous celebrity entertainers, including Bob Hope, Steve Martin and Jay Leno, volunteered their talent to the USO. USO mobile canteens, large 4-wheel drive trucks with snacks, drinks, movies, and much more, rumbled over desert terrain to bring a "touch of home" to American troops. After Desert Storm, the USO opened centers in Dubai and Bahrain, primarily to support Sailors and Marines during port visits.
The 1993 U.S. peacekeeping effort in Somalia resulted in the opening of a USO center in a battle scarred building at the Mogadishu airport. USO programs and celebrity entertainment shows were quickly mobilized. The USO established a "Standard Operating Procedure" (SOP) with Central Command followed by a similar document with Headquarters, Eighth United States Army, which outlined the parameters for USO participation in future military endeavors.
A 1994 U.S. peacekeeping initiative in Haiti was supported by entertainers and items for the troops delivered by the USO. And, in 1996, a USO center was opened in Kaposvar, Hungary and, in 1997, in Taszar, Hungary as American troops were assigned to restore and maintain peace in Bosnia. And, in November 1997, a USO mobile canteen began providing services for Bosnia area troops.
The USO's commitment to be America's link with her men and women in uniform has withstood the test of time. With the continued dedication of the USO legion of volunteers and charitable support from individuals and corporations, the USO will provide its "touch of home" for as long as we have those in service to their country.