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.

Photos Through the Decades: Celebrating the USO’s 74th Birthday

In honor of the USO’s 74th birthday, we’re taking a trip through time to revisit some of the iconic images we’ve captured. Here are a few snapshots that show how the USO has supported troops and their families over the decades.



Leaders from the six founding organizations of the USO shake hands in 1941. USO photo

The USO, which stands for United Service Organizations (don’t forget the “s” in “Organizations”) traces its roots back to six other organizations. The Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association, Young Women’s Christian Association, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board pooled resources to start the USO on Feb. 4, 1941, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.



Marylin Monroe at a USO show in Korea in 1954. USO photo

This snapshot shows Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe entertaining troops in Korea in 1954. Monroe entertained more than 100,000 troops while on tour for the USO. The USO still produces and hosts dozens of international celebrity tours each year.




Troops hold up a “Hi Bob” banner during one of Bob Hope’s USO shows. USO photo

Bob Hope was a USO tour staple for 50 years, making his last overseas trip to entertain troops during the Gulf War. In honor of his service and commitment to the military community, the USO center at Los Angeles International Airport bears his name today. In fact, the USO worked with Congress to designate Hope as first honorary veteran of the United States military.



Sammy Davis Jr. performs in Long Binh, Vietnam, in 1972. USO photo

Sammy Davis Jr., a veteran himself, entertained 15,000 troops in his first USO performance alone. According to the USO’s On Patrol Magazine, Davis relished his tour and encouraged fellow entertainers to continue the tradition. “My recent tour in Vietnam was one of the most exciting and satisfying experiences of my career,” Davis said after the 1972 circuit. “I can only urge all entertainers to support this much needed USO program.”



The USO Naples fleet center after it was bombed in 1988. USO photo

It was a somber scene outside the USO Naples fleet center on April 14, 1988, after a deadly car bomb exploded just outside the entrance, killing five people – including Navy RM2 Angela Santos – and injuring 15. In 2013, USO Naples hosted Santos’ sister, Jennifer Cruz, and held a special service in Santos’ memory.



Jay Leno entertains troops during the Gulf War. USO photo

Jay Leno has been making troops laugh for decades. He recently returned from a USO tour with Al Roker. Leno auctioned off a pair of cars in the last few years to raise nearly $1 million for military nonprofits. He also helped raise thousands for the USO serving as the grand marshal of 2012’s Love Ride through Southern California. “I have a couple of West Pointers in my family,” Leno recently told the USO. “And there’s a little sense [that] you’ve got to give something back. I didn’t get shot in the ass, I should do something else [for the troops].”


Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a 2007 USO Chairman's Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Comedian Robin Williams greets troops during a USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour stop at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Dec. 17, 2007. Photo by Chad J. McNeeley/Courtesy of the Department of Defense

Robin Williams was committed to making service members smile. The comic legend, who passed away in 2014, went on six USO tours from 2002 to 2013, including five overseas. Through his work with the USO, Williams visited troops in 12 countries, making three stops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than traveling with the USO and giving back to our troops in whatever way I can,” Williams said during a 2007 USO tour led by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. “They work hard, sacrifice a lot and deserve to be treated like the heroes they are. The very least I can do is bring a smile to their faces.”



Kids watch the 2012 Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. USO photo by Fred Greaves

The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families tour entertained its 500,000th audience member in 2014. It’s the USO’s longest-running tour and is specially designed to help military children tackle the unique issues they face growing up with parents who serve.

Quiz: Can You Answer These Five Questions About the USO?

Think you know your USO and military history? Take this week’s USO quiz. (Answers at the bottom.)

1. The USO had an official mascot at one point during World War II. What was it?
A. a service dog
B. a mongoose
C. a fruit fly
D. a bugler

Library of Congress photo

Bob Hope. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

2. Bob Hope first performed for a military audience at what location?
A. Nome, Alaska
B. March Field, California
C. Love Field, California
D. Hickam Field, Hawaii

3. USO shows today are free to all service members. But that wasn’t always the case. How much did it cost in 1942 for Army and Navy troops to get into a USO Camp Show?
A. 1 to 5 cents
B. 10 cents
C. 15 to 20 cents
D. 25 cents

4. Which former Apollo Astronaut was once a member of the USO Board of Governors?
A. Neil Armstrong
B. John Glenn
C. Michael Collins
D. Frank Boreman

5. In 1982, then-USO President William G. Whyte personally accepted a $10,000 contribution to the USO from which of these celebrities?
A. Woody Allen
B. Reggie Jackson
C. E.T.
D. Shamu the Killer Whale

Highlight the line below to see the answers:
1. B; 2. B; 3. C; 4. C; 5. D

Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture Opens at the Libarary of Congress

Bob Hope - with his trademark golf club - at Lackland Air Force Base in 1990.

Yesterday marked the opening of a new, ongoing exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, that’s very near and dear to our hearts.  Titled “Hope for America: Performers, Politics and Pop Culture,” the exhibit features such USO memorabilia as the golf club Hope swung onstage during his 1969 world tour, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded that same year by Lyndon Johnson, for service to the men and women of the armed forces.

For many, that item is the penultimate symbol of Hope’s universal appeal during his five decades of supporting the Troops.  “Some of the younger troops have asked me what the golf club is all about,” Stephen Colbert said during his own USO tour in 2009. “Well, it is partly an homage to Bob Hope who did USOs like this for 250 years. Good man.”

Colbert, in fact, kicks off the exhibit with a humorous video message, a fitting tribute since Hope’s own 85,000-page catalog of jokes is on display for the first time.  Woven throughout are images and reminders of Hope’s unfailing patriotism and support of the military, no matter the circumstances.

“Hope for America” also focuses on Hope’s unique takes on politics and the culture of Washington: “There are so many congressmen and senators here,” he said to an audience gathered at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1985. “I don’t know whether to tell a joke or pass a bill.” Pause. “As if there was a difference.”

The exhibit is on long-term display in the Library of Congress’s  Thomas Jefferson Building, located on 1st Street SE between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street; the events schedule can be found online.  Hope (get it?) to see you there!

Remembering Bob Hope’s First USO Show

Audience reaction to Bob Hope show at Seoul, Korea October 23, 1950. (Photo by Capt. Bloomquist)

Can you believe it’s been 69 years since Bob Hope performed his first USO Show, at California’s March Field?  The words “thank you” are simply not enough when we talk about all he did for the Troops and the USO.

Hope toured with us for nearly five decades after that first show, culminating in a final USO tour in December 1990, when he brought laughter and Christmas cheer to troops participating in Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  In 1997, the USO successfully worked with Congress to designate Bob Hope the first honorary veteran of the U.S. armed forces. And that same year  – at what was then known as the USO Holiday Gala – we unveiled the “Spirit of Hope” Award. It is a portrait bas-relief of Bob Hope, created by St. Louis sculptor Don F. Wiegand and Michael Fagin a major donor to the USO and carries on Hope’s legacy to this day.

We found this amazing fund-raising film that Hope created for the USO back in 1946, and in many ways it’s just as apropos today.  The USO continues to lift the moral of the Troops and their families to this very day and – even as we reflect back at the incredible legacy of supporters like Bob Hope – look forward to all that we’ll do in the future…