Seventy years ago this year, on the eve of one of the deadliest wars in the history of the world, draftees had begun to pour into the American military. A far-sighted leader had the idea that in addition to beans and bullets, our troops would need a home away from home and some morale-enhancing entertainment in all the far-flung places.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was that leader and his request brought six civilian organizations under one umbrella—United Service Organizations, or USO—to provide morale and recreational services to those called from civilian life to fight the coming war.
It was during the winter of 1941 that the USO was born of a president’s brainstorming. A bit later that year, and hardly noticed, was my own arrival in Bryan, Texas. My future and that of the USO would be interwoven and bound up with the wars of both the 20th and 21st centuries.
Three weeks after I was born, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America was finally thrust into the widening war that had been destroying Europe since 1939. My dad and five of his brothers—plus four of my mom’s brothers—served in uniform in that war. My first memories are of houses full of frightened women watching out the windows for the telegraph boy. I did not meet my father until late in 1945.
Dad and my nine uncles told stories of visits to USO canteens from Hollywood to New Guinea, and along the routes to the front lines in Europe. The USO was always there for the troops, and they appreciated it.
The USO, chartered by Congress but not a government outfit, is operated mostly by civilian volunteers and funded by private donations. At its high point in 1944, when our military ranks had swollen to 15 million men and women, the USO was operating over 3,000 clubs worldwide.
The idea of entertaining our troops was popular from the get-go. Between 1941 and 1947, the USO put on more than 400,000 performances for the troops. Think Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Marx Brothers, James Cagney, and Glenn Miller. During the Korean War it was Debbie Reynolds, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Rooney, and Jayne Mansfield. Vietnam brought John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Martha Raye, Joey Heatherton, Anita Bryant, and Rosey Grier. And through all those wars there was Bob Hope, golf club in hand, cracking wise.
For an hour or two the troops could stand down and forget the war, even with the killing and dying just a hill or two away or down a jungled valley. It was magic. We were all transported to a more pleasant, safer place.
At Christmas 1965, I was in An Khe, Vietnam, and staked out a good spot up front at the Bob Hope Show. Joey Heatherton danced wildly and we all fell in love with her. The next year it was Ann-Margret who was the runaway favorite of every man who saw her.
Then and now, USO centers provide a place with coffee and snacks, and a quiet lounge with comfortable chairs where soldiers can catch a few ZZZZs, or write a letter home, or chat with one of the volunteers. They are a welcome refuge in busy airports where troops wait for their flights home, or back to Iraq and Afghanistan or some other duty station, foreign or domestic.
Through the years the world has changed, wars and weapons have changed and both the USO and I have had to adapt to those changes. When I first went to war it could take a day or more to get a report from the battlefield to the front pages of newspapers and two or three days to get television film on the air. Today’s high-tech tools and satellite communications now speed words and images along that once tortuous route in a matter of seconds.
The services have changed as well. Our military ranks are no longer filled by draftees. Since the end of the Vietnam War we have had an all-volunteer force, and today most troops are married and have families. The USO has spread its wings to offer help to those families on the bases where they live.
Seeking to meet an urgent need, the USO has implemented programs to help those who come home wounded or injured and face months or years in military hospitals. The help extends to families who must travel to be with their loved ones while they heal.
A new center has been built with USO help at Dover Airbase in Delaware to serve the grieving military families who go there to witness the solemn arrival home of flag-draped coffins containing loved ones killed in action.
For over four decades, from the first year in Vietnam to the last tour in Iraq in 2006, I covered America’s troops at war, trying to tell their stories in newspaper and magazine articles, in books, and even a well-received movie.
When I turned 65, I knew I was too old to be running up sand dunes chasing after 19-year-old soldiers and Marines. I may have hung up my helmet and boots, but I will never stop caring about those who serve and sacrifice, and the families who make that service possible by their own selfless sacrifices while a father or mother is deployed to combat. They and their families, and the millions of veterans of past wars, are the finest of their generation.
I may have gotten too old to shoulder a pack and run with the young GIs, but I can still speak up on their behalf from time to time, and I can still give the USO my whole-hearted support in its important mission. So should you.
Our uniformed military comprises less than one percent of our population of 300 million. We call on them and their families to bear the entire burden of protecting and defending us. We owe them an incalculable debt, and what the USO does every day is a vital part of meeting that obligation.
The USO is staying as young as the troops it serves. It is evolving to meet new challenges and changes every day.
I wish the organization and its thousands of volunteers a loud and cheerful Happy 70th Anniversary. I am confident the USO will be there for our troops as long as they both are needed. We pray that one fine, not-too-distant day the words and wishes expressed by the USO motto—Until Every One Comes Home—come true.
Until then, the USO will be there, providing a touch of home, a welcoming smile and the knowledge that they are not forgotten or alone for all our military men and women.
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Joseph L. Galloway is a war correspondent, author, and syndicated columnist who recently retired after more than 50 years as a news reporter.