In early 1941, we were a nation on the brink of war.
England and France were already at war with Germany. Japan had invaded China years earlier, and soon Pearl Harbor would draw the U.S. into a worldwide conflict.
With global tensions escalating, our military was growing, and so were the needs of our troops. But at the time, there was no single organization focused solely on supporting our men and women in uniform.
At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, six civilian agencies came together and created a partnership called the United Service Organizations for National Defense, later known as the USO. It became official on Feb. 4, 1941.
The original USO mission statement is typed on yellowing paper and bound in a slim black volume that we dug out of the archives at our Arlington, Virginia, headquarters.
It reads in part:
“The purposes for which this corporation is formed are to aid in the defense program of the United States by serving the religious, spiritual, welfare and educational needs of the men and women in the armed forces and defense industries [and]… to contribute to the maintenance of morale in American communities…”
The original six organizations making up the USO were the Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, National Jewish Welfare Board and National Travelers Aid Association.
During the war, the USO opened more than 3,000 centers across the country, setting up facilities in any available space—log cabins, museums, castles, barns, railroad sleeping cars and storefronts. The USO soon became famous for its Camp Shows, with more than 7,000 entertainers traveling overseas to perform for the troops.
In the decades that followed, the USO continued serving troops with entertainment, recreation and social support programs in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and the Balkans.
In the 21st century, the USO has followed our servicemen and women to bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Now it’s tackling another challenge—expanding services for wounded, ill and injured troops along with their families and caregivers.
Seventy-one years later, the mission statement is shorter and simpler, but the mission itself remains the same:
“The USO lifts the spirits of America’s troops and their families.”
- Ellen Bjork, USO Director of Internal Communications, & Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development; Photography by Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer