Throughout World War II, the United Service Organizations (USO) provided entertainment for enlisted servicemen and women in the United States during their off-duty hours and entertained American troops overseas and in hospitals through its subsidiary, USO-Camp Shows. Massive population shifts caused by the military's mobilization of troops and the need for industrial workers throughout the country led to inadequate off-duty housing and recreation options in American communities for people in the military service. As a civilian, volunteer organization, USO attempted to ease this problem.
It is likely that many servicemen and women spent their entire wartime experiences in the vicinity of a USO club or canteen. Of the 16 million individuals who served in the military, 25 percent remained in the United States throughout the war, and many of them frequented USO establishments. By September 1942, an average of 4,500,000 servicepersons visited USO clubs on a monthly basis. These numbers increased greatly as the war progressed. By July 1944, 22,740,431 people had visited USO clubs.
In anticipation of the United States' entrance into the war, the Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Associations, the Salvation Army, the Jewish Community Centers Association, the National Catholic Community Service, and the Traveler's Aid Association of America combined to form the USO in February 1941. This marked the first time that the country's key religious organizations had joined for a common purpose on the national level. These agencies operated their own clubs and canteens under the auspices of the USO and offered spiritual guidance to servicepersons of all faiths.
Servicemen and women of all racial backgrounds relied on the USO to alleviate the boredom, loneliness, and
tension of military life. USO clubs gave them—and a smaller number of industrial workers—free coffee, meals, lodging, and mailing services. It also entertained them with dances, ping-pong, board games, picnics, art classes, and other amusements. Servicemen and hostesses made USO dances with big band music and jitterbugging a Saturday night mainstay throughout the war.
Between 1941 and 1945, the American people donated $200,000,000 to the USO. The organization was spending $4,000,000 a month by the war's end. At the war's height, in 1944, the USO operated 3,035 clubs and canteens, which assisted a million people each day. The USO operated 178 clubs in places such as Hawaii, Panama, and the Philippines. One and a half million Americans had volunteered for the USO by the end of the war in 1945.
The United States military sanctioned USO-Camp Shows, and it became the only organization to entertain troops overseas, bringing 4,900 performers to perform in 300,000 shows for troops stationed abroad and in 192 hospitals stateside. Famous actors, singers, and musicians volunteered at the American Theatre Wing's Stage Door Canteens in New York, Cleveland, Hollywood, and elsewhere. The comedian Bob Hope began entertaining troops in May 1941 and after the war began led USO tours in Europe and Africa. Mobile USO units also distributed religious material and stationery and showed popular movies to servicepeople on maneuvers in the United States.
Although both men and women volunteered for the organization, women coordinated most USO activities and their labor kept the clubs open throughout the war. The senior hostesses were married women, usually over thirty-five, who acted as surrogate mothers to servicemen. They talked with them during informal counseling sessions, baked cookies for club cookie jars, and made sandwiches by the dozen. They mended uniforms and sewed on chevrons, and they chaperoned contact between junior hostesses and the servicemen who attended USO functions.
The USO counted on junior hostesses, usually women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to lift servicemen's morale by dancing with them, playing board games, and engaging them in light conversation. While policies varied from club to club, for the most part senior hostesses did not allow juniors to leave USO premises with servicemen. The USO put this rule in place to safeguard the reputations of its female volunteers and to maintain the what it promoted as the organization's wholesome character. The army and navy, along with USO leaders, hoped that participation in USO activities would reduce the military's high rates of venereal disease and alcohol consumption. Junior hostesses volunteered for the USO to fulfill what they considered their patriotic duty and to socialize with servicemen in a positive environment.
USO hostesses fulfilled the symbolic roles of mother and sweetheart in the lives of servicemen. Their service contrasted with that of women who took on new and sometimes controversial roles as a result of the war, such as soldier or industrial worker. The USO was a home away from home for servicemen and women and helped them to maintain their ties to civilian life and their humanity during a time of crisis.
Coffey, Frank. Always Home: 50 Years of USO—the Official Photographic History. Washington D.C.: Brassey's (U.S.), 1991.
Lovelace, Maryann. "Facing Change in Wartime Philadelphia: The Story of the Philadelphia USO." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123 (July 1999): 143–175.
Meghan Kate Winchell
During World War II, USO became the G.I.'s “home away from home,” and began a tradition of entertaining the troops that continues today. Comedian Bob Hope presented his first USO tour in 1942, a practice he continued into the 1990s. USO regrouped in 1950 for the Korean War, after which it was recommended that USO also provide peacetime services. During the Vietnam War, USOs were located in combat zones.
USO began a new era of social services in the 1970s and 1980s. A 1987 Memorandum of Understanding between USO and the Department of Defense named USO as the principal channel representing civilian concern for American forces worldwide. In the 1990s USO delivered services to 5 million active duty service members and their families. Through 125 airport, fleet, family and community centers, mobile canteens, and celebrity entertainment, USO continues to be a touch of home to America's troops.
Frank Coffey , Always Home: 50 Years of the USO, 1991.
Jennifer L. Blanck
USO • abbr. ∎ ultra stable oscillator. ∎ United Service Organizations.