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.


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.

The Stories Behind Military Challenge Coins


They’re one good deed and an open palm away. And they can be kinda heavy.

Challenge coins permeate the military. Almost everyone with a significant rank doles them out. Even the commander-in-chief has one.

If you’ve been in the military for a while, you probably have a case or a rack (or a vintage sea chest) to display your coins. Coins reared their heads (or tails) in mainstream culture this spring when the popular design podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on their existence, purpose and history. The podcast even highlighted an oft-repeated awkward civilian moment: the first time a service member shakes their hand and simultaneously plants a coin in their palm.

At the USO, we know a handful of people who have a few (hundred) coins from their years both serving in the military and serving troops. And behind every coin is a pretty cool story. Here are five of them:

Rachel Tischler

Three of the scores of coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure as USO Vice President of Entertainment.

Three of the coins Rachel Tischler has received during her tenure with the USO. USO photos by Eric Brandner

Rachel Tischler has taken more flights into the Middle East than a lot of service members. The USO’s Vice President of Entertainment has traveled the world supporting USO tours, including 15 trips to Iraq. She’s collected a lot of coins along the way, too. Here are the stories behind the three pictured above:

Dempsey and Tischler. DOD photo

Tischler with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. DOD photo

  • Top of the World: “That’s from Greenland, from the Vice Chairman [of the Joint Chief’s of Staff] tour,” Tishler said. “You can only land there a couple times of year because the runway is frozen ice. And it’s 200 people in the middle of nowhere. I can’t even imagine [a full] deployment.”
  • Gen. Ray Odierno’s coin: “Gen. Odierno was a permanent institution. I saw him every time we went over there,” Tischler said. “I think about it as [a symbol of] all the good work the USO did in Iraq and specifically his support of the USO and entertainment.”
  • The South Park coin: “I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to have this one [on display for this story] but I do love it,” Tischler said laughing. She received the coin with a take on the signature “South Park” line on it from a unit during a USO entertainment tour to Iraq. “I just loved it because I love ‘South Park.’ … You have to admit that is a good sense of humor for [being deployed].”

Glenn Welling

USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling holds his personal coin, which he's carried since he deployed to Iraq in 2008. USO photo

The personal coin of USO Vice President of Operations Glenn Welling who is also a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. Welling has kept the coin in his pocket every day since he deployed to Iraq in 2008.

Glenn Welling always has a challenge coin on hand. It’s his own.

Glenn Welling

Glenn Welling

“For the first 20 years of my Navy career, I had no concept what [challenge coins were about],” said Welling, the USO’s Vice President of Operations and a command master chief petty officer in the Navy Reserve. “When I was selected to be a command master chief in the Navy, I decided it would be a good idea to have my own coin minted so I could recognize sailors that were part of my organization for exceptional service.”

Welling had 100 personal coins minted before deploying to Iraq in 2008.

“This particular coin has been in my pocket every single day since June of 2008, which is when I left for Iraq,” he said.

Welling's sea chest, where he keeps his coin collection.

Welling’s vintage sea chest, which he bought to display his coin collection.

Welling said the coin, along with a prayer stone his neighbor gave him that he also still carries each day, “provided me comfort and security while I was deployed.”

He’s scheduled to retire in October after 37 years in the Navy. But he won’t be taking his coin out of his pocket.

“I may not be in uniform anymore, but I’ll always be a sailor,” he said, smiling. “Til the day I die, I’ll carry my coin with me.”


Dr. JD Crouch II

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II holds his recently minted personal coin.

USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II had a clear direction in mind for his first personal coin.

USO President and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II shakes volunteers' hands. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

Crouch greets USO volunteers last fall. USO photo by Gretchen Ertl

“[The USO is] a strong support center for that military family – for spouses, for children as well as the people who sort of orbit around that military family,” Crouch said. “So I thought having that at the center of my coin reflects everything we do: The service members themselves and the family members that also serve in their own way.

“I wanted this to be something that was both reflective of the values [of the USO] and also reflective of the emphasis that I want to place on things while I’m here.”

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews

USO Director of Information Technology Val Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews hold up a coin they both received in 2012 for their work building the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

USO Director of Information Technology Valerie Donegan, left, and USO Director of Logistics and Facilities Jonathan Matthews display a coin they both received in 2012 for their on the USO Warrior and Family Center on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Valerie Donegan and Jonathan Matthews are critical to planning the USO’s computer and facilities infrastructures around the globe, which puts them in some interesting places.

In the photo above, Donegan is holding the coin then-Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region commander Maj. Gen. Michael T. Linnington gave them to commemorate their roles in building the USO Warrior and Family Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan holds a coin she received in Iraq in 2009.

Donegan and Matthews were installing the USO’s downrange satellite communication system in 2009 when they received the coin in the inset photo at then-Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was a trip they’ll never forget for sobering reasons, including their leg in Afghanistan.

“[That trip was] also where I saw my first dignified transfer,” Donegan said. “We hadn’t been at the [USO Pat Tillman Center] for two hours …”

“And everybody stopped,” Matthews interjected.

“Everybody stopped and you lined up,” Donegan said. “That was my first time ever to see a [dignified transfer] out to a flight line.

“There’s nothing as powerful as standing on that flight line watching those coffins go by. … I think that’s really the first time I understood the role [the USO] plays.”

Joseph Andrew Lee

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee holds up the coin President Barack Obama gave him in 2011.

Joseph Andrew Lee has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. It’s a great skill to have if you’re a multimedia journalist like Lee, a gregarious former public affairs Marine who chronicles USO stories.

Joseph Andrew Lee

On Aug. 9, 2011, Lee was working at Dover Air Force Base in the wake of the greatest single-event loss of life U.S. Special Operations has experienced. Three days earlier, a Chinook helicopter carrying 38 coalition troops — including 31 Americans — was shot down in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. That included 25 special operators. Lee traveled with several fellow employees from the USO’s Arlington, Virginia, offices to do whatever he could to support the mass dignified transfer through USO Delaware. He took a role refilling a cooler of drinks for families, service members and senior officials.

“Our task was to get these grieving families anything they needed,” Lee said.

Three hours in and soaked with sweat after unloading another palate, someone tapped Lee on the shoulder and asked “Hey, you mind if I grab one of those?”

“I looked up and it was the President of the United States,” Lee said.

President Barack Obama took the drink Lee handed him, recognized the USO logo on Lee’s shirt, and struck up a conversation.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you for what you do. The USO’s a great organization,'” Lee said.

Lee told Obama that his USO experiences during his 10 years in the Marine Corps were the reason he decided to work for the nonprofit.

Obama then looked over at an aide who handed him something, turned back, and shook Lee’s hand, placing his presidential challenge coin in Lee’s palm in the process.

“He said ‘Thank you for your service and thank you even more for what you do for the USO today,'” Lee said. “And I thought that was pretty special.

“Obviously that day was nothing to celebrate. … Like a lot of medals that Marines receive, it was kind of a reminder of one of the saddest days I’ve served.”

Want to share your own challenge coin story? Send it to us at

#Rokerthon Complete! Al Roker Sets the Guinness World Record for Longest Televised Weather Forecast in Support of the USO

"Today" co-anchor Al Roker receives his Guinness World Records certificate. Screengrab from livestream

“Today” co-anchor Al Roker receives his Guinness World Records certificate. Screenshot from livestream

With six minutes to go in #Rokerthon, the expression momentarily drained from Al Roker’s face as his co-anchors piled into his small New York City studio, creating a din of noise over the livestream and momentarily blocking the camera’s view of the NBC “Today” co-anchor.

“I don’t think there are enough people in here,” Roker deadpanned. After 33 hours and change — and despite several jokes suggesting the contrary — he was still lucid.

And then he delivered more temperatures.

Roker — a USO tour veteran — set a Guinness World Record a shade after 8 a.m. EST Friday morning for the longest continuous televised weather forecast at 34 hours. He did it to raise awareness for the USO, asking a national audience, a litany of NBC affiliates and livestream viewers to visit his Crowdrise page, where he’d raised more than $70,000 for the organization by the time he went off the air.

Roker stayed on the air at (simulcast on save five-minute breaks he was allowed to bank for extended time off. Around 12:30 a.m. Friday, Roker signed off for his final extended break of the telecast, returning a little before 2 a.m.

He had a lot of help while he was on the air, too. #Rokerthon was often the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, with thousands of viewers (including USO centers around the world) tweeting in questions like this about the weather to keep Roker’s forecasting streak alive:

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 8.30.28 AM

Rokerthon! Fresh Off his USO Tour, NBC’s Al Roker Attempts to Set a Guinness World Record

NBC's Al Roker headlined the "Today"/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan last month. USO photo by Fred Greaves

NBC’s Al Roker headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour in Afghanistan last month. USO photo by Fred Greaves

USO tours look fun, and they are. But they’re also grinds for the celebrities and crews involved in flying across the world and putting on the shows for America’s deserving service members.

Al Roker experienced one of those whirlwind tours last month, when he headlined the “Today”/USO Comedy Tour’s one-day, multi-show effort at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Now, he’s right back at it, hosting what NBC is dubbing Rokerthon: his effort to set the Guinness World Record for longest continuous weather report while also raising funds for the USO.

“The idea that you can put a smile on [the faces of troops] … that’s why you’re doing it,” Roker said of his October USO tour to Afghanistan. “Their face lights up. And you’re like ‘wow, I am making a difference for these people.’”

Roker kicks off his effort tonight at 10 p.m. on and will attempt to stay on the air across NBC’s different platforms reporting about weather until 8 a.m. Friday. If he does it, his 34-hour stint will break the current record of 33 hours by a Norwegian meteorologist in September.

As a central part of his record-breaking effort, Roker is asking people to contribute to his Crowdrise page, which is raising funds for the USO.

According to Today’s website, you can participate via social media by sending weather questions, photos and lines of encouragement to keep Roker going by using #Rokerthon.

(And speaking of world records, the USO set a Guinness mark of its own earlier this year.)


The Challenge of Sharing: For Caregivers, Opening Up isn’t Always the Easiest Thing

Virginia Peacock, an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow, laughs during a presentation Thursday at the USO Caregivers Conference in Fayetteville, North Carolina. USO photo by Eric Brandner

Virginia Peacock, an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow, laughs during a presentation Thursday at the USO Caregivers Conference in Fayetteville, North Carolina. USO photo by Eric Brandner

FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina—When Virginia Peacock’s husband David meets another wounded combat veteran, he asks them where they were Medevaced from.

He could have been the guy on the flight taking care of them.

Now, Virginia’s the one taking care of him.

Virginia Peacock led a breakout session Thursday at the USO Caregivers Conference where she and other caregivers of wounded, ill and injured service members swapped experiences. As the current Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellow from South Carolina, Peacock devotes some of her time to advocating for caregivers’ rights and recognition. On Thursday, she reminded her peers how powerful it can be just to share their stories.

“The one thing that we are all really bad at is telling our own story,” Peacock said. “We had to be told over and over [during a lobbying trip to Capitol Hill] to stop telling our husband’s stories and start telling our own stories. … It’s a hard lesson to learn.”

The latest chapter in Peacock’s story is in its seventh year. As a registered nurse, she had a career she loved when David – a combat flight medic – was injured on his 11th and final post-9/11 deployment. His severe shoulder problems were the only aliments that stood out at first. But after a while, invisible wounds started surfacing. Memory issues. Balance problems. Suicidal thoughts.

Virginia said she tried to keep home life status quo, continuing her full-time nursing career while also caring for a now-injured husband and a young son. But with so many new challenges, her own cloud of depression set in.

She left that job and started rebuilding her family life. Now in a much better place (and back to work as a pediatric nurse with more flexible hours), she is sharing resiliency lessons with other caregivers and raising awareness for their cause.

At the top of her list: teaching caregivers to share their stories not only with political change agents, but also with someone who supports them.

“You’ve got to find your person who gets it [to share your stories with],” she said.

Building Confidence

Steve Shenbaum

Steve Shenbaum

Steve Shenbaum makes people have fun.

It’s not forced. It’s friendly.

“That’s wack,” he said in the middle of his first group game at Thursday’s USO Caregivers Conference, pausing to chuckle at himself.

“I just said wack in a presentation,” he said, momentarily breaking character and drawing belly laughs throughout the room. “Bucket list!”

Shenbaum, who founded gameon Nation in 1997, has been motivating and entertaining at USO Caregivers Conferences since the event’s inception.

It may seem counterintuitive to try to bring people who are so used to passionately advocating for an injured loved one out of their shell. And most times, he finds willing participants. But the live-action parables he brings to the group with games like 1-2-3, Dimmer Switch and Expert Speaker both lighten the mood and make caregivers think about how they’ll calibrate their attitudes and communication approaches when they get home.

“You know what’s fun?” Shenbaum asked the group “Fun is hiding and being found. Fun is taking a risk and not being bonked.”


“Sometimes you’ve got to stop chopping wood to sharpen the ax.” –Army Col. Ron Stephens, commander of Womak Army Medical Center, addressing the general session at the USO Caregivers Conference on the importance of taking time for oneself.

$11 for 11/11: How You Can Have a Direct Effect on Troops This Veterans Day


The USO is about giving simple things to the troops and military families who need us most. A snack while traveling. A listening ear in a time of crisis. Providing a happy memory — or just a moment of escape — in a harrowing time.

For just $11, you can create experiences like these this Veterans Day:

Find out more at