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.

1940s

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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.

1950s

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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.

USOmemories

1960s

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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.

1970s

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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.”

1980s

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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.

1990s

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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].”

2000s

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.”

2010s

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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.

Robin Williams Created Lasting Moments on 2007 USO Tour

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 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

Robin Williams’ personality is too big to fit into one story.

Here are two moments from the 2007 USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour we couldn’t fit into yesterday’s tribute to Williams’ service to the military.

‘You Gave Me Yours, I’ll Give You Mine’

The December 2007 tour – which also included Kid Rock, comedian Lewis Black, cyclist Lance Armstrong, Miss USA 2007 Rachel Smith, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan and was led by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen – was a bit of a rough ride. There were travel delays and crazy weather – everything you’d expect when hopping in and out of remote locations in war zones.

At one point on the tour, Williams lost his voice.

“We got on a plane and flew to Afghanistan,” said John Hanson, a former USO senior vice president who was on the 2007 tour. “Long flight – got there after the show was supposed to start and the audience had been standing outside in this wet, heavy snow. [Williams] could hardly speak. But he did the show. …

“The next morning … we got on a C-130 with body armor and it was stacked in front of us. … His manager said, ‘Sit next to Robin and whenever he starts talking, tell him to shut up cause he needs his voice this afternoon.’ …

“For some reason, we had to give up our body armor. These troops were coming on and offloading it. It was either a soldier or an airman – I don’t remember – but he said ‘Mr. Williams, I didn’t get to see your show last night, but thank you for coming. It means a lot to us.’ And Robin nodded. And the guy came back on later and said ‘You know, I’ve had this for a while and it’s protected me,’ and he pulled off a St. Christopher medal. And Robin [said] ‘I can’t take that.’

“[And the service member said] ‘It’s done well for me, please take it,’ and he took a couple of the [body armor] vests and walked off. So Robin sat there and he looked at it, and he looked at his manager and me and was puzzled [and] moved.

“The guy came back on to get the last batch of [body armor], and Williams said ‘Wait, you gave me yours,’ and unbuttoned his shirt and pulled out this huge silver cross and said ‘I’ll give you mine.’

“And the [service member] said ‘I can’t take this.’ And [Williams] said ‘if you don’t take that, I won’t take this.’ And so the guy walked off with it.”

Mork at War

Part of the 2007 Chairman’s tour involved officially opening the USO center at Joint Base Balad in Iraq, with some peculiar furniture.

“When we walked in, in the computer room, there was a gaming chair,” Hanson said. “It was a big, white plastic oval. Looked like a gigantic egg.

“And [Williams] ran across, jumped in it and spun around. And it was a weird cultural reference for a lot of the young guys because they didn’t really quite get it.

“And [Williams] said ‘I better stop this [or somebody’s going to get the idea for a TV series.’”

(For everyone under the age of 40, Williams’ breakout role on “Mork and Mindy” – a sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1982 where he played an alien named Mork who came to Earth in an egg-shaped spaceship.)

Annual USO Holiday Tour Led By Admiral Mike Mullen

WHO: Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong
Grammy award-winning comedian Lewis Black
Country music singer/songwriter Kix Brooks
Hall of Fame songwriter Bob DiPiero
Comedian Kathleen Madigan
Academy award-winning actor/comedian Robin Williams

WHEN: Winter 2010

WHERE: Various locations

WHY: What happens when you take three of today’s funniest performers, add in two country music legends and round out the mix with one of the most inspirational athletes of our times? Troops overseas are about to find out as the USO once again teams up with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen for the annual USO holiday tour featuring Lance Armstrong, Lewis Black, Kix Brooks, Bob DiPiero, Kathleen Madigan and Robin Williams.

Partnering with the USO since 2000, the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has deployed more than 11 entertainment tours and lifted the spirits of more than 150,000 service men and women. Delivering a much-needed break to troops overseas, the seven-day tour will deliver laughs and goodness to our men and women in uniform during a time of year that matters most, the holidays.

This trip will mark the sixth USO tour for Williams, the third for Black and the second for Armstrong, Brooks, DiPiero and Madigan.