World War II Heroes Join in D.C. for Day of Honor

Screen Shot 2012-12-07 at 11.05.27 AMWorld War II veterans will be honored on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day— Dec. 7—with a daylong celebration of their service, beginning with a trip down the National Mall to their memorial and culminating in a screening of the documentary film “Honor Flight” at DAR Constitution Hall. The event is sponsored by Blue Star Families and the USO.

Several veterans featured in the documentary will be in attendance, including Joe Demler of Wisconsin, a Battle of the Bulge infantryman and prisoner of war in Germany. America remembers Demler as the “Human Skeleton” in a 1945 Life magazine photo taken the day he was freed from a prisoner-of-war camp. Also attending is retired Navy Cmdr. Verner Utke-Ramsing of Washington, D.C., who was aboard the USS Drum in May of 1942 when it sunk a Japanese seaplane carrier off the island of Hushu with one torpedo hit. Without the sinking, there may have been an additional 10 Japanese submarines at Midway. As these heroes look into the twilight of their lives, now is the time to honor them.

“The number of WWII veterans is quickly dwindling, with 800 to 1,000 dying every day,” said Honor Flight Founder Earl Morse. “Honor Flight’s mission is to give these remarkable veterans the recognition they deserve: a plane flight to visit the memorials dedicated in their honor and a hero’s welcome when they return to their communities. For many, it is the trip of a lifetime.”

Washington, D.C.-area veterans who do not qualify for an Honor Flight trip due to their proximity to the memorial will be the focus of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event. After attending a wreath- laying ceremony at the WWII Memorial, veterans will be honored guests at a screening of “Honor Flight” at DAR. The powerful, feature-length documentary follows a devoted team of Midwest volunteers from the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight Wisconsin chapter as they strive to send every local WWII veteran to Washington to see the memorial erected in their honor.

In addition to Demler, the film depicts veterans such as 86-year-old grocery bagger Harvey Kurtz, who witnessed the iconic raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. Many veterans kept the atrocities of war to themselves after returning home, never revealing their experiences to spouses, children, friends or even fellow veterans. The film documents their emotional reflections of war as they visit the memorial, surrounded by their brothers and sisters in arms.

“‘Honor Flight’ is a remarkable film. Grandparents, parents and children can all appreciate the stories told in this powerful and moving tribute to WWII veterans and this country,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

The documentary has been garnering attention around the country, including a showing attended by 28,000 people at Miller Park Stadium in Wisconsin.

For tickets to the Dec. 7 Washington, D.C., screening go to:

http://www.honorflight.org/lastingtribute/index.cfm

A USO Quiz

Was Johnny Cash in the military? Our troops love to connect back home, but how many minutes did they spend calling home last year?

Those are just a couple of the great questions in our new “Get to Know Our Troops” Quiz.

Think you’ll be able to guess right? Take the USO quiz now and see how well you know our troops!

As a USO supporter, you work tirelessly to provide comfort and support to our troops. And in doing so, you truly honor their service and their sacrifice.

We thought this quiz would be a fun way for you to learn a little more about our troops that you support all year long. We hope you enjoy it and hope you do well on the quiz!

Thanks for all you do!

D-Day Vet Recalls Wartime Experiences After Honor Flight Visit to WWII Memorial

Fred Layher, right, stands for a photograph at the WWII memorial with his son, Ron, during an Honor Flight visit to Washington D.C., sponsored by Ford Motor Company on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2012. USO photo by Joseph Andrew Lee

Sixty-eight years ago, Army Private Fred Layher lived through some of the most terrifying experiences of his life.

He was an amphibious engineer during the second wave of assaults on Normandy’s Omaha Beach. He fought in the waste-deep snow during the Battle of the Bulge. But among the most intimidating of all his experiences during the war in Europe in 1944 was the moment his fellow soldiers forced him on stage with actress Donna Reed—star of It’s a Wonderful Life—during one of the first USO shows in France.

“The guys they knew I was a timid type of guy, so they threw me up there on stage with her to see what I would do,” remembered Layher with a smile. “They were chanting and heckling me, and of course they just thought it was hilarious that I stood there paralyzed.”

“I was just 18 years old,” he added. “I knew how to use a weapon. I knew how to fight the Germans. But I had no idea what to do with this beautiful woman standing next to me.”

A month had passed since the Normandy invasion when the USO launched one of its most vigorous tour schedules in history—just in time for war-weary troops like Layher, who had been fighting hard to take the land from the Germans.

“I remember we really needed the comic relief at that time,” said Layher. “It was almost surreal what was happening in the war, what we’d been through and the things we’d seen.  It was all well and good that we were beating the Germans, but it came at a heavy cost. We lost a lot of guys, and the morale boost from that USO show couldn’t have been better timed.”

Thanks to a grant from Ford Motor Company, 86-year-old Layher was among 75 WWII veterans flown free of cost to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. today, on the anniversary of D-Day–the first wave of the Normandy invasion 68 years ago.

The trip was organized by Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization on a mission to transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.

“It’s a beautiful memorial,” said Layher. “Not quite as pretty as Donna Reed, but it does bring back the memories, which I’ll always be grateful for.”

- Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

A Helping Hand: Travelers Aid and USO Share History of Serving Troops

Long before we had highway rest stops and airport food courts, the only way to travel cross-country was by rail, boat or a primitive network of roads.  Back in the mid-1800’s, the journey could be arduous, uncomfortable, even dangerous.

Pioneers faced huge hurdles as they headed west to explore the frontier or cash in on the Gold Rush—hurdles like exposure to cholera, unreliable stagecoach schedules and lack of access to food and medicine.

During that time, the city of St. Louis became a stopping point for weary road-warriors in need of rest and refreshment.  That’s why the city’s mayor left half a million dollars in his will to create the Travelers Aid movement, supporting anyone on a long distance journey through unfamiliar territory.  By the late 1800’s, a network of Travelers Aid chapters had sprung up in major cities in the Midwest and along the East coast.

At first the focus was on helping the most vulnerable.  Ray Flynt, president of Travelers Aid International, says the YWCA was a catalyst for creating many of the early programs because “their interest was in making sure that women and girls had some level of protection when they traveled and that they weren’t preyed upon by strangers.”

Later, Travelers chapters also became involved in welcoming new immigrants to the U.S, says Flynt.  “Making sure they knew what facilities were available, where they could get a room, what they could expect to pay for it… so they wouldn’t be abused by somebody that was trying to take advantage of them.”

Travelers Aid was the first non-sectarian social welfare organization in the country, and among its founding principles was to serve anyone regardless of religion, gender or race.  In 1941, it became one of the six groups that President Roosevelt tapped to form the United Service Organizations (USO.)

During World War II, Travelers Aid set up 153 “Troops in Transit” lounges at bus and rail stations nationwide to serve troops traveling to and from deployments or training camps.  Flynt says their mission was “to greet people, provide a smiling face, a welcome, a cup of coffee… [and] help sew a button back on a uniform.”

Then, as now, the organization depended on the efforts of hundreds of volunteers.  Travelers Aid is no longer connected with the USO, but it still has active chapters at about 20 airports and a handful of rail stations, providing information, directions and help with problem-solving.

Even though modern travelers carry laptops and smart phones, Flynt believes they still can benefit from a helping hand and smiling face.

“When you’re away from home, when you’re disconnected from your support systems, that’s where you really need someone you can turn to and that you can trust.” – Malini Wilkes, USO Director of Story Development

USO Metro’s One Million Milestone

The USO of Metropolitan Washington (USO Metro) has achieved a major accomplishment in its commitment to serve our troops. In December of 2011, USO Metro surpassed the one million mark for the number of troops they have supported in its airport centers.

USO Metro began taking care of America’s troops and their families at airports when it opened its first center inside Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) in 1999.

Volunteers work at the BWI airport center.

The timeline below shows in detail how the USO Metro airport services have expanded over the years.

USO Metro’s Airport Centers Timeline

  • 1999: BWI opens doors to USO Metro’s first airport center
  • 2001: Reagan National Airport (Reagan) center opens
  • 2005: Andrews Air Force Base opens an information desk
  • 2007: Washington Dulles International Airport (Dulles) center opens
  • 2010: Andrews Air Force Base airport center opens

According to USO Metro’s Airport Services Manager, Pam Horton, the 15,000-square-foot BWI center is both the largest and busiest center because of the Air Mobility Command (AMC) flights that many troops travel on through BWI. The other airport centers primarily serve troops who are flying on commercial flights.

Like all USO centers, the BWI center has many amenities geared to create a comfortable and home-like lounge for our troops. The facilities at BWI’s center include a concession filled with food and drinks, a sleeping room, children’s room, computer room, lounge with television and comfortable chairs, and Xbox games.

While BWI is the largest location, USO Metro’s achievement is a celebration for each airport center and USO Metro’s airport services program.

The number of guests at each airport center shows how each location has contributed to USO Metro’s grand total of 1,020,211 troops and family members served.

USO Metro Airport Centers’ Guests from 1998-2011

  • BWI = 762,797
  • Dulles = 129, 936
  • Reagan = 84, 567
  • Andrews AFB = 42, 911
  • Grand Total = 1, 020, 211

USO Metro Airport Centers’ Guests for 2011

  • BWI = 71, 313
  • Dulles = 30,302
  • Reagan = 21,777
  • Andrews AFB = 42, 911

Horton, who was first a USO Metro volunteer at BWI, says the milestone would not be possible without the support each airport center receives from its committed volunteers. The four airport centers currently have a total of 715 volunteers on file, all of whom are committed to at least two shifts each month.

Similar to USO centers around the world, USO Metro and its volunteers have remained dedicated to serving our troops, one by one.

Congratulations to USO Metro and your volunteers on touching over one million troops and family members! - Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist 

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The USO Mission: Serving the Troops for 71 Years

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