The USO was formed in response to a 1941 request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who determined it would be best if private organizations handled the on-leave recreation of the rapidly growing U.S. armed forces. Roosevelt’s call to action led to 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 (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board. 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 GI.’s “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, the 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 U.S. 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 the Evac 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 Department of Defense’s request 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 “customers” 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. There were a total of 5,559 USO performances 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 away 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), 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 have become involved with 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 the U.S. armed forces worldwide, under the auspices of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense. It 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.
1990 found the United States embroiled in a confrontation with Iraq that challenged American troops in new ways. Our service members found themselves 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 new 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 from the heat and boredom.
On the homefront, the USO established the Family Support Fund and Desert Storm Education Fund to support military families who suffered hardship from the deployment or death of military personnel. After the troops returned, USO sponsored a Yellow Ribbon Summer, which included several special events to benefit active duty members of the armed forces and their families. As a finale, 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 former President George Bush announced that American troops would be deployed to Operation Restore Hope, the USO was ready to follow them. USO Somalia opened on 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 help and support from corporations, individuals and members of the USO team around the world, and with celebrity entertainers visiting the troops year round.
In December 2003, the USO opened a new center in Kuwait to comfort and support the men and women in uniform who are involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Based at Camp Wolverine, the new center is equipped with Internet and e-mail access, and will provide a link to family and loved ones left behind. The center will serve service women and men transitioning to and from combat operations in the region as well as troops passing through Kuwait for R&R in the United States or other locations.
Recently, USO Centers opened at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Raleigh/Durham Airport in North Carolina, Italy and Qatar. In 2005 the USO opened its first center in Afghanistan, the Pat Tillman USO Center, at Bagram Air Base.
The USO currently operates 122 centers worldwide. USOs in 10 countries and 21 states use the services of some 33,571 volunteers, including members of the World Board of Governors, the USO’s governing body, and those who dish up Thanksgiving dinners to USO guests.
In 2004, the USO sent 51 Celebrity Entertainment tours to 22 countries, entertaining more than 377,802 service me n and women.
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 uniformed men and women each year. Since 1941, every U.S. president has served as the USO’s Honorary Chairman, including President George W. Bush.
There are 31 USO Airport Centers to help military travelers with connections, foreign language translation, long layovers and missing luggage.
No matter where American service families are stationed, their concerns are similar to any American family. The USO operates 84 Family Centers to help military families adjust to new surroundings with information on childcare co-ops, employment opportunities, parenting, nutrition, budgeting and recreational programs.
Many USOs 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.
Today, USO Celebrity Entertainment shows are effective morale boosters and remain an important part of USO’s offerings. Even in peacetime, entertainers provide a much-needed break in the midst of duty tours overseas. Recent USO tours have featured entertainers such as Wayne Newton, Robin Williams, Drew Carey, Bruce Willis, Gary Sinise, Ben Affleck, James Avery, Kid Rock, Henry Rollins, Howie Long, Terry Bradshaw, David Letterman, and "Soprano's" stars James Gandolfini and Tony Sirico. Domestic shows were added to the longstanding international tour list, featuring Sugar Ray Leonard, Emeril, "JAG" stars Karri Turner and John Jackson, and Rachel Proctor. Longtime USO entertainers, such as the Dallas Cowboys' Cheerleaders and Joan Jett, continue to donate their time and talents to entertain the troops.
As the USO celebrates 64 years of service, the world is witnessing history-making events at a record pace, events that are sure to influence the very nature and mission of America’s military. At least one thing is certain: the USO will diversify and change over time…as it has for more than sixty years…in order to fulfill its mission to U.S. military personnel and their families "Until Every One Comes Home."