Black History Month and the USO

Black History Month traces its roots to the work of Carter G. Woodson, who – in 1926 designated a week in February to reflect on the contributions of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to the lives of African Americans.  Nearly a century later we observe “Black History Month.”

The US Military has a long tradition of African Americans serving.  And although the military was not legally desegregated until 1948 by President Harry S Truman, the USO served the needs of Black service members from the outset.

African American soldiers relax at a USO Center in the early 1940s

In 1942, a USO Club opened in Hattiesburg, MS, specifically for African American soldiers; it is the only extant USO Center built for that purpose.  In 2003 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is home to Hattiesburg’s African American Military Museum.

From the beginning, USO policy expressly forbade discrimination on the basis of race or creed, but as Gretchen Knapp explained in “Experimental Social Policymaking During World War II: The United Service Organizations (USO) and American War-Community Services (AWCS),” it was not uncommon for separate USO Centers to spring up in the same town, “either because of local regulations or by the request of African Americans who deplored the tensions that arose when they entered the USO center.”

USO Centers designed exclusively for Black soldiers soon sprung up around the country, including Tacoma, WA; Tuscon, AZ; San Marcos, TX; and Portland, OR, just to name a few.  In fact, by 1943, “more than 180 of 1,326 USO operations were designated for African Americans.” (ibid)

African American serviceman, being greeted at the front desk of a USO Center, 1943.

As the military integrated, so did USO Centers, many of whom also opened their doors to female service members around the same time.  The impact of those early, segregated clubs was felt, however, in a lasting acknowledgement and respect for the service of Black Troops during World War II and the idea that a “home away from home” was available to anyone visiting a USO Center.

Today the USO and the US Military continue to recognize the contributions of African Americans from every branch of the military.  The Coast Guard has announced the soon-to-be released documentary “RESCUE MEN: The Story of the Pea Island Life Savers,” the story of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station surfmen.  The Marines are celebrating the legacy of African American Marines with a multi-media project entitled “The Line.”  One part of that project is this commercial:

Other branches are celebrating, too: the Navy’s remembers the “Golden 13″ and offers a series of events at the Navy Memorial; a number of Air Force Bases are holding celebrations, such as the Gospel Extravaganza at Offut AFB.  The Army has created a website, “African Americans in the U.S. Army,” chock full of unique content on the history of Black soldiers.  Likewise, Military.com is offering exclusive content on the history of African American service, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airman to current Troops.  Speaking of the Tuskegee Airman, George Lucas’ film Red Tails – the story of the Tuskegee Airman – will be released later in 2010.

As of June 2009 Black troops account for 239,661(17%) of total active duty (Total Pop 1,405,489) and minority women continue to join the military at a higher rate than their share in the civilian population.  We salute these service members – and all African Americans who have served in the US military – during Black History Month and every day of the year!

A Page From History

“PARIS, Dec. 24 (AP) – Maj. Glenn Miller, director of the Unites States Aire Force Band and a former orchestra leader, is missing on a flight from England to Paris, it was announced today.

Major Miller, one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of the United States, left England Dec. 15 as a passenger aboard a plane.  No trace of the plane has been found.”

So read the December 25, 1944, page 4 article in the New York Times.  Miller – perhaps the most famous of big band directors – was an accomplished trombonist and actor as well.  At the height of his fame and fortune, Miller enlisted in the Army then transferred to the Army Air Force in 1942.  He eventually formed a 50-piece Army Air Force band, which toured domestically and internationally, often to USO Centers.

He was on his way to entertain Troops who had recently liberated Paris when his plane disappeared.  Still officially listed as “Missing in Action,” Miller’s story sparked the popular imagination of conspiracy theorists and Hollywood executives alike.  His wife, Helen Miller, posthumously accepted a Bronze Star on his behalf in 1945.

No trace of the plane or any of the other passengers has been found in the last 65 years.

Billy Ray Cyrus Sure Has a Great Memory!

A note from Jane Campbell, CAPT, U.S. Navy (OF-5), ISAF Joint Command:

“Yesterday we hosted ADM & Mrs. Mullen & the USO Holiday Troop Tour (Comedian – Dave Attell, Tennis legend – Nick Bolletierri, Tennis star – Anna Kournikova, and Country Music star – Billy Ray Cyrus).

MCC Craig Strawser who was the star of the day — literally. Chief Strawser is a huge fan of Billy Ray Cyrus.  He captured several hundred
images of Billy Ray signing autographs & standing with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  As the autograph session wrapped up, I walked over and suggested that I take a picture of Chief and Billy Ray.  They both smiled.

Billy Ray Cyrus and U. S. Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist Craig P. Strawser

Chief then asked Billy Ray if he could tell him why he was such a fan. Chief relayed the story that about 10 years ago that he had the opportunity to talk with him following a concert at a fair in California. Evidently somebody tried to interrupt that conversation, and Billy Ray stopped them — informed them that Chief was a Navy man — and that he didn’t want to be interrupted.

Amazingly, Billy Ray responded to Chief’s story by saying — “Yeah, we walked over by the Corn Dog stand and finished the conversation.” Chief was shocked that Billy Ray remembered.  I think most of us standing around were shocked — and more than pleasantly impressed.

We wrapped up the session, and took Mrs. Mullen and the USO Tour over to our cafeteria for lunch.”

Just another day in the life of a USO Celebrity Tour!  Click here for other tour photos and be sure to read this article from Black Anthem Military News.

Image of the Day

Santa Claus makes a surprise appearance and hands out candy to audience members during a holiday concert featuring the U.S. 7th Fleet Band and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Band Dec. 11, 2009, in Yokosuka, Japan. The concert is celebrating the holiday season and showcasing the alliance between both the countries' navies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/Released)

USO Naples Recognized for their Work

On Wednesday, November 25, the U.S. Naples Forces Europe Band performed at the US Naval Forces Europe & Africa Thanks for Giving Holiday Concert, in downtown Naples.  At the event, Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa formally recognized the superb work of USO Naples and it volunteers for outstanding support to the members of the command, and thanked USO for its support of Troops worldwide. About 20 staff and volunteers attended and were seated in VIP seating for the concert, which included a medley of music from the last 68 years in sequence with a USO picture slide show.  We heartily congratulate Center Manager Sabrina Pullido and her team.  Walter Murren, Vice President, USO Operations (Europe) had this to say: “I could not be more proud of the accomplishments of Sabrina and her team.  Clearly such recognition at such an important Italian-American event says volumes about the impact USO programs are having here.”  Keep up the great work!