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USO Shows in Prose: The Words, Emotions and Hard Realities of the Greatest Entertainment Mobilization the World has Ever Seen

Guitarist Tony Romano accompanies Frances Langford in an impromptu performance in 1944 as Bob Hope, lower right, looks on. Library of Congress

Guitarist Tony Romano accompanies Frances Langford in an impromptu performance in 1944 as Bob Hope, third from right, looks on. (Photo colors altered from original) Library of Congress

“An accordion is the largest piece of property the troupe carries. The evening dresses, crushed in suitcases, must be pressed and kept pretty. Spirits must be high. This is trouping the really hard way.”

Austerity at war is expected. But creature comforts—even in the farthest reaches of war zones—have advanced a little since John Steinbeck wrote those words on a ship off the English coast on June 24, 1943.

Steinbeck made his name with his novels. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962 for a career that included “Of Mice and Men,” “The Red Pony” and “East of Eden.” But roughly 18 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Steinbeck set off on a starkly different literary adventure: that of war correspondent.

His early summer dispatch for the New York Herald Tribune about experiencing a USO show from the mess hall and deck of a military ship—and the different ways the American service men on that ship were experiencing the show—paint a clear, indelible picture of not only what those USO troupers did, but what their performances meant.

And his July 26, 1943, report brought the actions of one Bob Hope, the USO’s one-man morale machine, into clearer focus.

When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.

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Nearly 75 years after the USO’s creation, Hope is still legendary, thanks to the USO shows he started performing during World War II at a time when international phone calls home were impossible and Internet access wasn’t even a concept.

Hope played his first massive show for troops at March Air Reserve Base in California on March 6, 1941, as a favor to his radio producer Albert Capstaff. According to America in WWII Magazine, Hope asked Capstaff why the troops couldn’t come to the studio. Captstaff—who really wanted Hope to play a show for his brother who was stationed at March—explained that there’d be hundreds of service members there.

Capstaff was right. The troops laughed. And Hope was hooked. After that, only nine of Hope’s 144 radio shows during World War II were broadcast from NBC studios.

They know weeks in advance that he is coming. It would be rather a terrible thing if he did not show up. Perhaps that is some of his drive. He has made some kind of contract with himself and with the men that nobody, least of all Hope, could break. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this thing and the responsibility involved. … It has been interesting to see how he has become a symbol.

Comedy in wartime requires deftness. Hope’s USO shows usually employed the same tenor, though the scripts changed often so as to not duplicate the material the troops had heard on his previous week’s radio show. Still, Hope’s rise to icon status can be linked to both his prolific work rate and his unique ability to unite the service members he entertained through laughter, poking fun at universally loathed topics like boredom, homesickness and superior officers.

Hope and his band of entertainers and crew did their first extensive run of USO shows for American troops in the combat zones of North Africa and Italy in 1943. They had an incredibly close call during a tour stop in Palermo, Italy, where German bombers destroyed the docks and buildings in the area around their hotel.

“[Returning to the United States] was something of a letdown,” Hope said, according to the America in WWII story. “Hollywood was tinsel and make-believe and happy endings. Where we had been was mud and reality and horror.”

The close call didn’t deter him. Hope took a USO circuit out to the Pacific theater the following year.

John Steinbeck's World War II dispatches were eventually combined into a book titled

John Steinbeck’s World War II dispatches were eventually combined into a book titled “Once There Was A War.”

A small USO unit is aboard this troopship, girls and men who are going out to entertain troops wherever they may be sent. These are not the big names who go out with blasts of publicity and maintain their radio contracts. These are girls who can sing and dance and look pretty and men who can do magic and pantomimists and tellers of jokes. They have few properties and none of the tricks of light and color which dress up the theater. But there is something very gallant about them.

Of course, Hope wasn’t the only entertainer putting smiles on muddy, forlorn American faces in two different theaters of war. In fact, the USO’s entertainment operation grew so big so fast that it spun off into its own nonprofit—USO Camp Shows, Inc.—in late 1941, just eight months after the USO was formed.

There were plenty of big names—Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and dozens more stars. But there were roughly 7,000 other performers who weren’t coming home to fame and fortune when the war was over.

All together, they performed more than 425,000 USO shows around the world between 1941 and 1947.

Rarely were those shows described in more vivid detail than Steinbeck’s June 1943 New York Herald Tribune dispatch.

“Once There Was A War,” an anthology of Steinbeck’s World War II reporting, was originally published in 1958.

There was the pained smile and tense muscles of the female acrobat who tried in vain, over and over, to pull off a feat of balance on the listing ship.

There was a blues singer doing her best to overcome a busted speaker system, the quality of her voice eroding the louder she tried to sing. And there was the master of ceremonies whose jokes weren’t quite relating to the whole audience—even though the audience was more than willing to help him—until he finally struck gold with a line about military police. “Everybody likes a joke about MPs,” Steinbeck wrote.

All the performers were good enough to make it into the troupe. They were brave enough to make it across the ocean and onto that boat. They were likely even drawing a small wage for their efforts. And by the end of each performance — including a heavy dose of audience participation, coaxing and goodwill — they’d brought a piece of home to a place full of fear.

The audience helps all it can because it wants the show to be good. And out of the little acts, which are not quite convincing, and the big audience which wants literally to be convinced, something whole and good comes, so that when it is over there has been a show.

This piece originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of On Patrol.

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Military in Focus During National Suicide Awareness Month

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, an important time to talk about how many current service members and veterans are struggling with depression and other invisible wounds.

Suicide in the military has become a huge issue over the last decade, with the rate of self-inflicted deaths by both active-duty troops and veterans reaching alarming levels.

But if you need help – or know someone who does – here is a list of places you can go:

  • Military Crisis Hotline: Short of dialing 911 in a life-or-death situation, the military crisis hotline can be your first stop if you or someone you know is feeling severely depressed – even if they just need to talk about what they’re feeling. The phone number is 1-800-273-8255 and you can also chat with them online at militarycrisisline.net.
  • PTSD Coach: The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website and app called PTSD Coach that aims to help troops and veterans manage issues like anger, sleep and trauma triggers.
  • The VA: The Department of Veteran Affairs’ Mental Health page is filled with resources to address a variety of mental health concerns.
  • Family readiness officers, family support groups and family support centers: Every branch of the military has family support services. These officers and groups are huge information resources. Contact your command to find out what groups are available for your family.
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Chicago-Area Kids Raise $100 for USO at Afternoon Lemonade Stand

Marty, Jimmy and Nora McNaughton and their lemonade stand.

Marty, Jimmy and Nora McNaughton and their lemonade stand.

When Erin McNaughton’s three children told her they wanted to start a lemonade stand this summer — with the proceeds going towards the USO — it was a proud parenting moment.

“It was all their own,” McNaughton said. “[You feel like] you’re doing a good job as a parent when they come up with an idea that’s going to help others.”

It started one morning in August when the children, who have an aunt and uncle that serve in the military, decided out of the blue to create a roadside lemonade stand to raise money for the USO.

“They’re around the military atmosphere and they like it and they see [why the military is important],” McNaughton said.

After about an hour of sign drawing, lemonade making and organizing, the kids were out in front of their Chicago-area house ready for their first customer. McNaughton estimates between 20 to 30 people stopped by the stand to buy lemonade that afternoon, although the majority of customers paid much more than the 75-cent list price.

“They were handing over five dollars, 20 dollars,” McNaughton said. “We had a great turnout. It was so cute. ”

At the end of the day, the McNaughton children had raised roughly $100, which they hand-delivered to the USO of Illinois office in downtown Chicago.

“The creative initiative that these young patriots demonstrated is inspired,” USO of Illinois President and CEO Alison Ruble in an email. “Embracing the true meaning of Every Moment Counts, they have provided a poignant reminder of what it means to give back to those who serve our nation.”

Rachel Feinberg, who works as a marketing associate at the USO of Illinois, said the organization only gets a few community-based, spur-of-the-moment donations a year.

“It was awesome,” she said. “The kids looked like they had a great time and it was just great to see some of the younger generation taking on the USO and helping us out.”

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Iraq Vet Remembers 2004 USO Visit with Robin Williams and John Elway

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photo courtesy of Amanda Paquette

A football signed by John Elway and a handkerchief signed by Robin Williams are displayed in the home of Amanda Paquette (inset). Photos courtesy of Amanda Paquette

USO entertainment tours are often tightly scheduled affairs that still yield serendipitous moments. That was the case in 2004, when Amanda Paquette — who served in the Marines from 2003 to 2007, when she left as a sergeant — met Robin Williams and John Elway at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq during the USO Chairman’s Tour. Here’s her story.

My first tour in Iraq, Robin Williams and John Elway came to Al Asad. I was tasked to pick up the press.

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

John Elway autographs a football during a 2004 USO tour stop in Iraq. DOD photo

Me and another lance corporal waited on the VIP pad. There was nothing other than high-ranking officials on the pad that day lined up to greet them. [I was] the only female Marine. As Robin came down the line of guys he saw me, stopped, took my hand, kissed it, and said ‘Oh my God! There are hot women here!’

Later at the show location, the seats had booked up. Me and the other lance corporal didn’t have a place to see the show. John and Robin then gave up their seats in the front. The show then started.

John made the comment to the troops ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, I just know how to throw a football. I’m not funny like Robin!’ Then he threw footballs at us.

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour. DOD photo

Robin Williams greets troops in Iraq during a 2004 USO tour stop. DOD photo

Robin then got up and put on a hell of a comedy show! After all was over I had to pack up the press so I didn’t have time to go to the meet and greet with either one.

[Later] John was on the side of the building and said ‘Are you not a fan of mine? I didn’t see you in line.’ I told him that I was a fan and apologized and told him I had to get the press packed. He then proceeded to get a football from the USO rep, signed it and threw it to me. I caught it! He smiled.

Then, instead of hopping in the VIP cars, he told the higher-ups he was riding back to the VIP pad on my bus with the press! Great, humble guy.

When we got to the VIP pad and John and Robin said their goodbyes. Robin came up to me, signed a USO handkerchief and gave me the biggest, warmest, fuzzy hug and said ‘Stay safe beautiful and thank you for all you do.’

When Robin passed it broke my heart. I’ll never forget the joy he and John brought that day.

EDITORS NOTE: Paquette’s quotes were lightly edited for style

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Your USO at Work: August 2015 — Great Dane Pup Who Needed Help is Returning the Favor


Meet Bandit, the Gentle Giant at USO Fort Leonard Wood

When Kelly Gist adopted Bandit more than three years ago, she didn’t expect him to become a healer.

Sickly, underweight and suffering from a number of health issues, the Great Dane pup looked like he needed more help than he would ever be able to give.

As Bandit grew stronger and healthier, he started accompanying Gist to her job as center director of USO Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. She quickly learned Bandit was no ordinary rescue dog.

“We would bring him into the USO, and as he grew, his interactions with the troops were unbelievable and we realized he had something else to give,” said Gist, who decided to train Bandit as a therapy dog.

Whether it’s visiting patients at the hospital, comforting troops at the Warrior Transition Unit or hanging out with military families at USO Fort Leonard Wood, Gist says Bandit is always ready to comfort those in need.

“If anyone can spend five minutes with him … they’ll realize the difference he can make in someone’s day,” she said.

Bandit isn’t the only one who make a difference in five minutes. Go to USO.org/donate to find out how you can show your support for our troops and military families.


Duracell and Hilary Swank Help the USO Highlight Military Family Issues

Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank has played several roles, but her first was as the daughter of a now-retired Air Force senior master sergeant.

Swank joined military couple Robert and Denise Nilson, Duracell’s Jeff Jarrett and USO Senior Vice President Alan Reyes in New York last month to promote the USO’s partnership with Duracell and the company’s new short film “The Teddy Bear.” The video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, is based on the Nilsons’ deployment experiences.

Duracell is also generously donating $100,000 to the USO Transition 360 Alliance to support the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which helps children deal with their parents’ deployment and other issues that come up when you’re part of a military family.

Bruno Mars Brings ‘Uptown Funk’ to USO Concert at the White House

Grammy-winning recording artist Bruno Mars performed a USO show for cheering troops, military family members and guests of the first family at the White House on July 4.

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Thelier

Bruno Mars and his band perform at the USO’s Salute to the Military show July 4 at the White House. USO photo by Mike Theiler

The superstar sang some of his hits at the annual Salute to the Military USO concert. While storms cancelled the preshow cookout on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama came out and addressed the crowd before Mars’ hourlong set that led up to the fireworks display on the National Mall.

This was the seventh consecutive year the White House has partnered with the USO to host the concert. Last year’s event featured Pitbull, while acts like fun., Cedric The Entertainer, The Killers, Brandi Carlile, Brad Paisley, Train, Jimmy Fallon and the Foo Fighters have also played the White House on Independence Day.

“It was an honor to perform at the Fourth of July concert at the White House,” Mars said in a release. “It was incredible to stand with the first family and the USO to recognize the service and sacrifice of our troops and military families.”

Mobile USO Helps Troops Through Summer Training 

Spending three weeks in the field on a military exercise can make you feel like you’re in another country — even if you never leave your home state.

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Images from the Mobile USO’s stop in Oklahoma. Photos courtesy of Army Spc. Tyler Davis

Ask Army National Guard Spc. Tyler Davis, 21, from Lawton, Oklahoma, who took to Instagram to show his appreciation when his unit received a surprise visit from a Mobile USO during training. Davis, who’s been in the National Guard for more than four years, was pulling 48-hour shifts in the blazing sun when the Mobile USO arrived.

“When we’re out here in the field, we’re adapting to the military lifestyle. … You get completely engulfed in it,” Davis said. “When we first caught wind of the [Mobile USO] coming I made sure to get everyone in my squad signed up.”

A USO center on wheels, Mobile USO units offer troops the same kind of support provided at stationary centers, including video games, movies, Wi-Fi and air conditioning—the most important amenity when training in the Oklahoma sun.

“God bless you guys at the USO,” Davis said. “Without you, a lot of us would probably go insane.”

USO Opens First Staffed Center in Africa

Sometimes they are created to facilitate the changing travel needs of troops stateside. Sometimes they are built downrange and constructed by the troops themselves. Whatever the case, each USO center is opened where troops need them the most. And that most recent need is on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

There are lots of smiling faces inside the new USO center on Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Courtesy photo

After the Defense Department announced it would spend $1 billion over the next 20 years to enlarge the U.S. base, the USO decided it was time to open up a permanent canteen for troops stationed there.

“Most of the troops here are unaccompanied and stay … anywhere from nine months to a year,” USO Camp Lemonnier Center Manager Michael Eyassu said. “They are very excited about [the USO] providing free phone calls to the States since they have to purchase phone cards otherwise.”

Currently the only staffed USO center in Africa, USO Camp Lemonnier consists of two Quonset huts equipped with a lounge area, leather chairs, a full canteen with snacks and treats from home, free toiletries and plenty of phones and computers to use to call home.

“We’ve got something going on every night for the military,” Eyassu said. “We have a lot of fun, and we’re getting more and more foot traffic each and every day we’re open.”

You can support troops deployed to bases around the world by visiting USO.org/donate.

USO Partner Almay Highlights the Strength and Determination of Military Women

Almay is partnering with the USO and celebrating female service members with their Simply American campaign. As part of the initiative, the cosmetics giant is donating $250,000 to the USO and creating a #SimplyAmerican social media push to raise additional funds and awareness.

AlmayThe company is highlighting military women throughout the summer in two unique ways. First, they’re embarking on a summer-long road trip to fairs and festivals to create what they’re calling a Simply American experience that celebrates female service members, military wives and their families.

Almay also is soliciting photos that capture “Simply American moments.” The company will donate one dollar for every like or share on social media that uses the hashtag #SimplyAmerican, up to a total of $10,000.

Go to Almay’s Simply American page to see if the road trip is coming to a city near you.

USO Opened Up a New World for This Military Spouse

Karolina Wignall has been connected to the military for as long as she can remember.

Karolina Wignall

Karolina Wignall

She grew up in the military, living in Texas, Georgia, Germany and Las Vegas during her formative years. She later married an Air Force pilot, moving around the globe to places like Okinawa and Virginia.

Wignall, USO Europe’s operations manager, understands the sacrifices troops and military families make every day, but she didn’t know much about the USO before becoming a volunteer in 2010.

“All I knew about the USO was what I saw in the airports,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what volunteering for the USO really meant.”

She quickly learned what the USO’s all about by racking up hundreds of volunteer hours in a few months. “Averaging 40 hours a week as a volunteer, I was hooked,” Wignall said. “The USO opened up a whole new world to me and I haven’t looked back.”

Hired as a full-time employee a short time later, she’s been with the organization ever since and has watched as the USO has evolved with the military.

“We have come a long way from just providing comfort and respite for our troops during wartime,” she said. “We are with the young troops when they first enter military service, when they deploy, and when they return home.

“Always by their side” is more than a slogan. It’s what the USO—backed by volunteers and employees like Wignall — does each and every day at more than 160 USO locations around the world.

“No matter what stage they are in during their military career, the military community can be sure the USO will always be there, providing whatever it takes to ensure that the military community knows we stand by them,” she said.

From start to finish, the USO supports troops and military families through each step of their journey. And we can’t do it without you.

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“An Eye-Opening Experience”: How the USO and RP/6 are Showing Transitioning Troops the Way Forward


TACOMA, Washington—Even the most experienced soldier can use a hand when leaving the Army.

“After 28 years I was certain that I had this whole thing down,” said retired Army Sgt. Maj. Lee Baleme, now an RP/6 Fellow. “It was an eye-opening experience to think that I was going to make that transition — smoothly — and then realize that I wasn’t.”

RP/6, part of the new USO Transition 360 Alliance, connects service members and their families with resources and organizations in their community that support their transition. This concierge approach incorporates several USO Transition 360 Alliance partners (including Hire Heroes USA, Stronger Families and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids) in an attempt to cover both the personal and professional issues military families face when moving to the civilian world.

The USO plans to incorporate RP/6 services at some of its stateside locations in the near future.

“[Veterans and transitioning military] can come [to RP/6] and find that person [who] will point them in the direction of the resources that they need,” Baleme said. “From housing issues to employment, school and even family issues, transition from active duty to the civilian has never been an easy nut to crack and I think RP/6 found a great partner in the USO.”