The United Service Organizations (USO) have provided a bridge between the American people and the U.S. military. Delivering a multitude of services in both war and peace, the privately funded nonprofit organization’s mission is to provide morale boosts, services, organized entertainment and recreation to men and women in uniform. Its slogan is, “Until Every One Comes Home."
It all started in 1941, just prior to World War II with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He determined that private organizations could best handle on-leave recreation for the fast-growing U.S. armed forces.
Six civilian agencies answered the call: 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. Thus the USO was formed, entirely supported by private citizens and organizations.
The USO centers established the “Home Away from Home" theme for the GIs. By 1944, the military had grown from 50,000 to 12 million men and women. With the rapid growth grew a need for a variety of services. The purpose: to serve the educational, religious, social, spiritual welfare and entertainment needs of the armed forces, was immediately created by the USO. The facilities were opened in such unlikely places as churches, log cabins, castles, barns, beach clubs, yachts, railroad sleeping cars, storefronts, museums and old mansions.
The USO centers meant many things to the military. They could be a place for coffee and doughnuts, a lively place to dance and meet other people, view a movie, write a letter, or find religious counsel. With the help of entertainment industry professionals, the USO established “Camp Shows." Entertainers waived their pay to bring live entertainment to the troops on the bases within the United States. With the beginning of the war in 1942, they expanded their efforts to bring live entertainment for fighting Americans overseas. The USO/Bob Hope partnership formed and continued for more than five decades.
From 1941 to 1947, there were no fewer than 428,521 live performances for the USO Camp Shows. The first overseas “USO Canteen" was established in 1943, following Rome’s liberation. The 7,000 grease-painted entertainers, some of whom were famous, came from all over the world and performed for audiences of 25 to 15,000. At its peak in 1944, both recreation and entertainment for the soldiers were provided in more than 3,000 communities at home and abroad. Americans came together as never before, and by the war`s end the USO could claim that more than 1.5 million volunteers had provided services during the war.
By 1947, with the war over, the USO`s public support declined and the organization all but disbanded. When the United States entered the the Korean War in 1950, the USO regrouped. They eventually opened 24 clubs worldwide. Rallying to the needs of the service men and women, the USO entertainers gave thousands of performances in Korea. By 1952, there were daily performances for wounded soldiers in the evacuation hospitals of Japan. Even with the truce in 1953, the need for USO services did not decrease. With more than a million service members stationed abroad, the Department of Defense requested continued service for the military, and the USO expanded its efforts worldwide.
The 1960s brought many challenges to the USO, now that several clubs were located in combat zones. In 1963 the first USO center opened in Saigon, Vietnam, which was followed by 17 centers throughout the country, and six in Thailand. Serving a million clients a month, the show went on. With 40 percent of America’s forces overseas and despite the Vietnam War’s most dangerous moments, a total of 5,559 USO performances were staged. Even with some Americans at home debating Vietnam War policies, the USO continued to assist soldiers far away from home, by whatever means necessary.
The 1970s came quickly with the draft ending and the need for the USO was once again questioned. A review of the organization was prompted in 1974 by the United Way of America’s Committee on National Agency Support (CONAS) and the Department of Defense. Those agencies visited USO operations and military bases around the world to view their programs and services. Their conclusion was unanimous: “If there were no USO, another organization would have to be created.... Isolation of the military from civilian influences is not, we believe at this time, in the interest of our nation."
With those agencies` full support, the USO launched into a new era of peacetime service. New programs were needed and the USO quickly responded. Providing services so the military personnel could transition to civilian life successfully, and by involving them with their local communities, was a new venture that the USO did not take lightly. USO moved its headquarters from New York to Washington, D.C., in 1977 and became recognized as a national agency serving the armed forces.
Outreach programs began worldwide and more USO centers were established in airports to assist the needs of military travelers. Job assistance programs were added, and the USO entertainment shows continued around the world. More centers were opened in Israel, Europe, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Far East.
A big day for the USO organization arrived in 1987 with the signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding between the USO and the Department of Defense. The agreement specifies that the USO is "the principal channel representing civilian concern for the United States armed forces worldwide."
The Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted a massive relocation of U.S. soldiers. Opening operations in Saudi Arabia, USO again provided support for the families of those deployed to the Middle East. Once more, numerous famous entertainers volunteered their talents for the morale and encouragement of the American soldiers.
The Persian Gulf War also brought additional challenges, and the USO responded by opening three new centers and establishing the USO Mobile Canteen Program. The four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles moved throughout the war zone, providing books, magazines, video and compact disc players as well as refreshments to the soldiers in the field. Back on the home front, the USO continued to support military families who suffered hardships.
For those involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, men and women in uniform gained access to their loved ones at home and abroad through e-mail provided by the USO centers. In 2004, the USO dispatched 55 celebrity tours to 22 countries, where 348,000 service men and women were entertained.
As of 2004 the USO is currently operating 123 centers in 10 countries and 21 states, proving that no matter where people in uniform are stationed, they are identified and provided with information to make their lives easier. Eighty-six USO family centers feature childcare, employment opportunities, parenting, nutrition, budgeting and recreational programs. Thirty-one USO airport centers assist the military travelers with connections, layovers, missing luggage and foreign language translation.
Even today, amidst terrorist threats and continued acts of war, the USO continues to respond to the needs of those who serve the country, “Until Every One Comes Home."