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.

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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.

Guitar Heroes: KISS, Def Leppard Announce Summer Tour to Benefit USO, Other Nonprofits

On Monday, nine famous men – four in heavy makeup – said they’re taking their guitars on the road to support the troops.

Paul Stanley of KISS talks to troops in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Navy

Paul Stanley of KISS talks to troops in Virginia Beach, Va., in 2010. Photo courtesy of the Navy

Kiss and Def Leppard announced their Heroes Tour during a press event at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. The tour – which starts June 23 in Utah – will cover more than 40 dates coast-to-coast. A dollar from each ticket sold will be split among multiple military support organizations, including the USO.

Troops who want to check out the show should visit kissonline.com/heroes for discount details.

KISS – which will be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month – is no stranger to supporting the military. In 2011, the USO’s Joseph Andrew Lee talked to guitarist Paul Stanley about the band’s support for wounded warriors.

Fact or Fiction? On Patrol’s New Issue Tackles Things You May Not Know About the Military

Where did dog tags come from? What do all those statues with generals on horses signify? And how hard is boot camp, really?

ImageThere are thousands of things the average person – and even some members of our armed forces – don’t know about the military. On Patrol, the magazine of the USO, set out to change that in their Spring 2013 issue.

“After working with the military in some form or fashion for more than a decade, it hit me as long as I’d worked around the military there were still things about it that baffled or fascinated me,” said Samantha Quigley, the magazine’s editor in chief. “It seemed reasonable to think that other civilians might not understand what a soldier is saying if they’re not versed in milspeak, how much preparation goes into the military’s participation in a presidential inauguration or how prominent dogs’ roles in the military are.

“Despite some serious, and even heart-wrenching stories, this issue was fun from the perspective that even the staff learned something.”

The Spring issue – which arrived in USO centers and subscribers’ homes around the United States earlier this month – debunks military myths, shares some captivating stories and is filled with trivia that could win you a bet or two at the officer’s club.

The “Fact or Fiction” feature challenges basic perceptions people have about the military like the assumed cruelty of drill sergeants, the aforementioned question about boot camp and how hard it is for women to actually climb the ranks. There’s a look at how military operations actually get named, how to understand military speak, and a piece on celebrities who worked for Uncle Sam before they got their big breaks.

You can check out the full issue online here, get a free subscription to On Patrol here, follow them on Facebook here and on Twitter at @USOOnPatrol.

—Story by Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development

USO’s Magazine: ON★PATROL

Here at the USO, we strive to lift the spirits of our troops and their families in as many ways as possible. One of those ways is through the official magazine of the USO. ON★PATROL recognizes the service and sacrifice of our service men and women, their families, and the extraordinary efforts of the people and organizations that support them.

First published in the Spring of 2009, ON★PATROL is about those who serve, and those who serve them. With a wide range of articles reflecting the global reach of military support, ON★PATROL is published quarterly and provides not only inspirational stories, but also information and resources to troops to find programs available to them.

ON★PATROL shares the stories that all Americans should hear, taking readers on a journey with our military and the organizations that support them — from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg to San Diego to Landstuhl, Germany.

Samantha Quigley, managing editor of ON★PATROL, explains the importance behind the magazine:

Based on reader feedback in 2011, ON★PATROL has informed, inspired and educated our readers on military family issues, the invisible wounds of war and the way war fighting has changed for the United States since September 11. We offer stories on issues pertinent to today’s military in a way that’s relevant to the majority of our readers base while trying to ensure we salute the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served in our nation’s earlier conflicts.

Just in time for Women’s History Month, the Spring 2012 issue of ON★PATROL looks at the way women’s role in the military has evolved since the Revolutionary War. Stay tuned to see what’s coming through the rest of 2012.

The Spring 2012 issue of ON★PATROL is available today! It features a look at “An Evolution of Service: Women in the Military” with articles like “Women on the Home Front in World War II,” “The Fight for the Vietnam Women’s Memorial,” and “Women at War.” The digital edition of ON★PATROL can be found here. Enjoy! – Joseph P. Scannell, New Media Intern

Poet’s Corner: Brothers and Sisters

The Summer Edition of ON PATROL Magazine is now available online and one of our favorite articles is the Poet’s Corner, which begins on page 60 of the digital and print editions.

We’d like to share with you one of the poems – “Brothers and Sisters” – penned by Sergeant Jack Eubanks, USMC.  We hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of the magazine, and if you’re interested in home delivery of an annual subscription, please call 1-888-966-7287.

Wounded Warriors Escape to the Vineyard for a Night

Griff Jenkins of Fox News and Sloan Gibson, president and CEO of the USO, enjoy conversation with the wounded warriors at the vineyard vines-USO Tied to a Cause reception in Georgetown, Washington, DC, June 22, 2010. (USO photo by Katherine Ruddy)

By Samantha Quigley, Senior Editor, ON PATROL

For a few hours on Tuesday night two wounded warriors and their wives escaped to the Vineyard.

The USO and vineyard vines hosted a reception at the retailer’s Georgetown location in Washington, D.C., to celebrate being “Tied to a Cause.”

Tied to a Cause, a campaign through vineyard vines recognizes the efforts of community and grassroots organizations. This month, Tied to a Cause is supporting the USO’s Operation Enduring Care, an initiative to create a national network of care and support for America’s wounded warriors and their families. Proceeds from the sale of the custom USO-vineyard vines ties and totes will be donated to the USO.

The wounded warriors and their wives enjoyed a vineyard vines makeover at the start of the evening and mingled with more than 100 friends of the military, vineyard vines, and the USO, including USO President Sloan Gibson, Fox News’s Griff Jenkins, and the late Tim Russert’s son, Luke.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, however, was the warriors and Gibson each signing two ties. One will join the many others hanging as decoration in the Georgetown store. The other will be displayed in the USO Arlington office.

The promotion will last through the Fourth of July weekend, with receptions also happening in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.

To see more photos, please visit our flickr gallery and enjoy the video below!