Guest Editorial: The USO at 75
It’s 1942, the uncertain, early days of World War II, and you are a young soldier assigned to a training base far from home: Camp Polk, in rural Louisiana, to be precise. What could possibly defeat your boredom, loneliness and creeping dread of the future?
“There are two brand-new, well equipped USO centers available to us here,” Cpl. William E. Lyon wrote in a cheerful letter quoted by the Chicago Tribune that difficult year. “Both have large dance floors where the light-footed boys can strut their stuff with the young women from nearby towns. Music is furnished by a well-stocked juke box or one of the many orchestras that have been organized at Camp Polk. For those of us who don’t dance there are ping pong tables and radios set next to deep, comfortable chairs, where we can sit and listen to our favorite programs. There’s something about listening to those programs and knowing the folks back home are listening, too, that makes a fellow feel just a little closer to home.”
Sgt. Andrew L. Michuda said in the same article that before the USO, an off-duty Saturday night meant making the rounds of local honky-tonks. In fact, guys in uniform were so unaccustomed to wholesome recreation options they were suspicious of the USO. “At first we distrusted them and thought they might be new ‘clip joints,’” he wrote from Fort Sill, Okla., referring to seedy nightclubs that overcharged for booze.
We’re looking back at the USO because the civilian nonprofit marks its 75th anniversary on Thursday. Anticipating America’s entry in the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 pushed the idea of creating the United Service Organizations to lift morale and provide, shall we say, healthy distractions for the troops. The organization today continues the work of supporting service members and families.
Back in 1941, the USO needed to raise funds — quickly — because the country was mobilizing for war. The total number of active duty military personnel skyrocketed from 500,000 in 1940 to more than 12 million in 1945. That first year the USO organized 400 clubs nationally. Chicago’s first USOs opened in 1942.
Once facilities opened, there was recruiting to do: USO centers needed hostesses to greet soldiers and, yes, dance with them. Young women wanted to contribute to the war effort. The problem was their boyfriends. Syndicated columnist Doris Blake worried that jealousy sometimes trumped patriotism, so she chided those civilian boyfriends to let their girls do their duty.
“They could court their girls every night in the week,” Blake wrote in August 1942. “Why should they begrudge the soldiers one evening of innocent fun? Since it was under the auspices of the USO, it was bound to be a well-chaperoned, well-conducted party.”
Funny enough, Blake answered her own question about why those boyfriends were worried: “A uniform is attractive. There is something romantic about a chap who is going to risk his life in the service of his country.” Hmm, so maybe the real point of Blake’s lecture was to get those civilian boys to enlist.
The USO’s highest-profile connection to the war effort was the camp shows that toured war zones and featured such entertainers as Bob Hope along with plenty of singers and starlets. “I know you’ll enjoy the girls. You remember … girls?” Hope teased in his monologue during a 1944 show recorded at a “fleet hospital on the edge of a coconut grove somewhere in the South Pacific.”
Hope’s audience that day consisted of wounded veterans of the Saipan, Tinian and Guam campaigns. They whooped and laughed like they hadn’t had a fun moment in a very long time.