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

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

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Navy!

Group of Navy men leave the Wailuku USO club for a tour of the scenic sights on Maui. These tours are arranged by USO. WWII era 1942 - 1947 (Photo from USO archives)

We’re so sorry, Navy!  We meant to wish you Happy 235th Birthday yesterday.  Really, we did!  We hope we can make it up to you with this rarely seen vintage photo from WWII.

ADM Gary Roughead, CNO delivered a special message on the US Navy’s Birthday and we wanted to share that with you, too.  Here’s to another great 235 years…