USO World Headquarters
The great intangible of America's wars beyond logistics, beyond strategy, beyond wonder weapons and generals, is the spiritual force of its fighting men and women--and that is the force that the USO so magnificently serves. The USO is a private nonprofit, charitable organization, which serves as a link between military personnel and the American people. The USO's mission is to enhance the quality of life of the men and women of the armed forces and their families worldwide.
The United Service Organizations (USO) is a nonprofit corporation that operates various support services for people enlisted in the United States armed forces. The group began in World War II, and it was widely known for providing entertainment to the troops. Some of Hollywood's biggest stars and the country's leading musicians donated their time to entertain U.S. soldiers at home and abroad. The USO continues to arrange entertainment for the armed forces, setting up tours at domestic military camps and at installations across the globe. The group supports the military in many other ways as well. The USO provides childcare for the families of military personnel; it runs deployment centers, providing snacks and rest areas for personnel in transit; it operates a contingency travel fund to help military families in need, and it runs Operation Phone Home, providing donated prepaid phone cards to servicemen and women. The USO also runs mobile canteens, which are four-wheel drive vehicles that can go out in the field to provide troops with rest facilities and access to phones and e-mail. The USO also runs cyber-canteens, which provide Internet access to military personnel. The group operates family and community centers domestically and abroad. Besides serving currently enlisted military personnel, the group provides services to veterans and to the families of people in the military. The USO is not funded by the government, though the President of the United States serves as its honorary chairman. It is backed by individual and corporate donations and has an endowment of around $25 million. The group is run by an estimated 12,000 volunteers worldwide. The USO operates more than 120 centers, split almost evenly between domestic and international operations. The USO serves roughly five million people each year.
Roots in World War II
The United Service Organizations was founded in 1941 as a response to the rapid mobilization of U.S. forces as the country entered World War II. Some charitable groups had worked with American soldiers in France during World War I, providing them with recreation and food and helping them maintain contact with their families. In 1940, several of these groups met in New York under the auspices of the National Jewish Welfare Board to consider similar action in the current conflict. At the same time, President Roosevelt was worried about the morale of troops waiting to deploy overseas. He wanted a centralized organization that could set up near bases all over the country. Six nonprofit groups formed the United Service Organizations for National Defense: the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler's Aid Association, the Salvation Army, the National Catholic Community Service, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). The leaders of the new USO met with Roosevelt and basically agreed to run the organization along lines he proposed. The government would be responsible for putting up buildings for the USO, and the USO would organize recreation in them. The USO incorporated in 1941 and quickly raised $16 million under the leadership of Thomas Dewey. Dewey resigned to become governor of New York, and the chairmanship of the USO passed to Prescott Bush in 1942. Bush was later elected senator from Connecticut and was the father of President George H.W. Bush and grandfather of President George W. Bush. Over the World War II years, the USO raised $33 million.
The money the group raised was quickly spent on installations across the United States and behind the front lines in Europe. The foremost function of the USO clubs was to keep soldiers and sailors occupied before they shipped out. The United States had a relatively small military before World War II. The country instituted a draft in 1940, and by the end of the war the United States had 12 million people in uniform. Many soldiers were young and had never been away from home before. Rural army bases often had no entertainment facilities beyond perhaps one small movie theater. Conversely, big cities offered a wealth of diversions that could be overwhelming for small-town enlistees. USO centers and clubs opened near bases and in areas where large numbers of military personnel passed through. The clubs provided free coffee and snacks, and civilians, mainly women, could volunteer to work at the USO centers, doing whatever was needed. This could be cooking, cleaning, chatting, or serving as a dance partner.
Soon after the USO's own incorporation, it incorporated a subsidiary company called Camp Shows, Inc. Camp Shows was fully funded by the USO, but its executives were people from the entertainment industry like Abe Lastfogel, head of the William Morris Agency. Camp Shows quickly organized four main tour circuits, bringing full-cast Broadway shows to some venues and arranging for smaller vaudeville acts, singers, and entertainers to perform for troops at far-flung bases. Camp Shows, Inc. brought some 7,000 performers on tour during World War II. Entertainments were held in Burma, China, Brazil, Bermuda, Alaska, the South Pacific, and the Soviet Union, as well as in many other spots in countries in Europe and across the globe. Camp Shows drew the biggest stars of the day, including Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ann Sheridan, Dinah Shore, the Andrews Sisters, and Bob Hope, who became more than any other performer the face of the USO. The stars donated their time and often put themselves in danger to bring their acts to troops in combat zones.
Adapting to New Roles after World War II
The USO was a huge popular success during World War II. It involved thousands of volunteers and by the end of the war brought hundreds of shows daily to military personnel scattered across the world. Immediately after the war, the USO focused its efforts less on entertainment and more on giving practical aid to soldiers returning home. Then, in January 1948, the USO's president announced that the group had fulfilled its mission and was now disbanded. USO canteens were taken down or restored to other uses. Only six months later, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, worried about the growing Cold War with the Soviet Union, inquired about reinstating the USO. Members of the six founding organizations met again, and in January 1949 the USO was reconstructed. The organization got a new president, Harvey S. Firestone, Jr. of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., and a new mission. The USO was to support the military whether in peace or war and to help both veterans and enlisted personnel negotiate between civilian and military life.
The new USO was to be supported by community charity groups such as the Community Chest. However, such charities often had other priorities, and funding for the peacetime USO fell far short of expenditures. After only a year, the new USO was out of money. The group officially suspended operations, only to be brought back with the outbreak of war in Korea. The USO was given a renewed mandate by the Department of Defense. The USO then raised some $13 million to support the troops in Korea. From 1950 to 1953, the USO again sent scores of big-name entertainers to perform for service personnel. The group also poured resources into service centers located near large rural military bases. By the end of the Korean War in 1953, the USO ran almost 300 service centers domestically and overseas.
The USO continued as a peacetime organization through the 1950s. However, financial support for the group fell, and by 1962 the USO was again near folding. At that time, the group reorganized, making some of the larger domestic USO centers responsible for their own fundraising. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam began to escalate in the early 1960s, and the USO opened its first club in Saigon in 1963. More and more troops entered Vietnam in 1964, and the USO soon ran more than a dozen clubs in Vietnam and Thailand. Entertainers such as Bob Hope, John Wayne, and Raymond Burr dedicated themselves to USO tours during the Vietnam War. The USO also began providing other services for military personnel, such as opening free phone lines so troops could call their families back home. The USO also ran a chartered flight service between 1970 and 1972, taking soldiers on leave home to the United States inexpensively.
The Vietnam War engendered massive public resentment to the military. After the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the USO found itself again lacking funding. The military itself changed after Vietnam, converting to an all-volunteer force. The USO had to adapt to these new conditions. The Department of Defense and the charitable organization United Way commissioned a study in the early 1970s to determine if the USO was still essential. The study concluded that the USO had an important role to play, particularly in bridging the gap between the military and civilians. As the group closed clubs and service centers in Vietnam, it opened or enlarged facilities elsewhere abroad, such as in Japan and Germany. The USO also began focusing on the different needs of the all-volunteer force in the 1970s. After the Vietnam era, more military enlistees had families. The USO set up family centers to provide education, daycare, and social support to military wives and children. Women also began to enlist in greater numbers in the 1970s, and the USO set up women's resource centers to help them.
The USO underwent several organizational changes at the end of the 1970s. In 1977, the group moved its world headquarters from New York to Washington, D.C. This brought it closer to the heads of the armed forces. Until the late 1970s, the six groups that had founded the USO had continued to play a role in its management. In 1979, the YMCA, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and the other groups severed their ties with the USO. The USO was given a federal charter by act of Congress that year. This stimulated fundraising and also gave the USO a bigger slice of funds generated by the umbrella charitable organization the United Way.
New Challenges in the 1980s-90s
The USO continued to run hundreds of service centers and clubs near military bases at home and abroad in the early 1980s. During peacetime, however, the organization had a low profile. Fewer celebrities were interested in touring for the USO. In the mid-1980s, the USO suffered a blow when it was evicted from its quarters in New York's Times Square. The USO had had a presence on or near Times Square since its inception in 1941. The area was the center of huge victory celebrations at the close of World War II, and the USO continued to serve tens of thousands of military personnel annually out of its Times Square building into the 1980s. In 1986, the building the USO rented was sold and slated for demolition. The New York USO moved twice, for a time operating out of a hotel room.
In 1987, an American sailor died in a grenade attack on a USO club in Barcelona, Spain. In 1988, the USO club in Naples, Italy, was struck by a car bomb. Five people died and more than a dozen were wounded. Even in peacetime, the American military presence abroad was often resented, and the USO, as a gathering place for soldiers, was targeted.
In the Philippines in 1989, threats against the American military forced commanders to confine all personnel to their bases. The USO then took on the job of entertaining the soldiers and sailors who were confined without leave. Though the USO's celebrity entertainment wing had become much smaller, the group still attracted some big stars in the 1980s, such as Billy Joel, who performed in the Philippines in 1989. The USO was also successful in bringing aboard country music stars in the 1980s, including Loretta Lynn and the mother-daughter duo the Judds.
USO in the Gulf Wars
The USO went back into high gear in 1990 with the build-up of troops in the Persian Gulf. Many corporations made large contributions to the USO at the start of the first Persian Gulf War. Four corporations, the Coca-Cola Co., beer manufacturer Anheuser-Busch Cos., the communications company AT&T, and the American International Group each donated $500,000 to the USO. The money was used to pay for celebrity entertainment for the troops in the Persian Gulf. (Though entertainers donated their talent, travel and other costs could run quite high.) The USO operated some 150 centers in the United States and overseas by 1990. The group saw a swell in its donations and number of volunteers as troops shipped out for the Middle East.
After the short-lived Persian Gulf War, the USO slipped again into peacetime mode. It continued to send entertainers on tours of military facilities around the world. The USO made a new effort to bring in black artists in the mid-1990s. Over half the U.S. military at that time was African-American. The group began a series of rhythm-and-blues tours in the mid-1990s. Some of the tours had direct corporate sponsorship, such as an AT&T-sponsored tour of popular singers to bases in the Caribbean in 1994. The USO also focused on efforts to ease family life for military personnel. At bases abroad, the USO sponsored language classes, cooking clubs, and local tours. Near military bases in the United States, the USO set up computer terminals with free Internet access, allowing families left at home to e-mail relatives deployed abroad or on ships at sea. By 2000, the USO was bringing in just over $8 million in annual funds.
In 2001, the USO of Metropolitan New York assisted firefighters and wreckage crews after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11. The USO organized volunteer chefs, many from prestigious Manhattan restaurants, to cook food for rescue workers aboard a donated commercial ship. In 2002, the USO got a new president and chief executive, Edward A. Powell, Jr. Powell had worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs after leaving the Navy. The USO increased its fundraising and added to its endowment in the early 2000s. The terrorist attacks in 2001 initiated a flood of donations to the USO. The group, which had always lost visibility in peacetime, had worked hard in the late 1990s to find more donors. By 2002, the USO had a host of new corporate backers. These included the Walt Disney Company, the cable network ESPN, Northwest Airlines, Nissan, General Dynamics, and Wal-Mart. The organization also continued to be supported by the United Way, private foundations, and the Combined Federal Campaign.
With troops again deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2003, the USO was at the forefront, coordinating various efforts to support the military. The USO held fundraisers in conjunction with several large grocery chains, allowing supermarket shoppers a convenient way to donate money and supplies. The USO coordinated a campaign to donate prepaid phone cards to personnel deployed in Iraq. In addition, the group found volunteers to staff overburdened transit centers. The USO center at the Los Angeles airport, for example, saw triple the amount of people pass through weekly as troops were sent to the Middle East. To cope with the sudden influx of soldiers, the USO went from a volunteer staff of four to a staff of almost 40. In June 2003, the USO launched its first entertainment tour in Iraq since the official end of hostilities. The USO sent not only singers like Wayne Newton and long-time USO entertainers the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, but also sent professional basketball players to run basketball clinics for soldiers. The USO had been officially disbanded once in its history and was close to closing its doors several other times. Nevertheless, over 60 years the group had shown that it was always ready in a crisis and never idle for long.