In the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, while America strongly held to its isolationism beliefs, President Roosevelt quietly prepared for war. Seeing the anguish of those around the globe fighting the enemy, he understood the need to boost morale, not only for the growing number of GI’s, but for their families as so many shipped off to battle.
In October of 1941 he put Mary Ingraham in charge of the daunting task of establishing the United Service Organizations, the USO. Working with the Department of War, then later joined by the Department of Defense, they brought together the YMCA, YWCA, the Salvation Army, the National Catholic Community Service, National Travelers Aide Association and the National Jewish Welfare Board to create this far reaching “Home Away From Home” for the United States Armed Forces and their loved ones. Raising monies, they built the first USO hall in Louisiana, with more structures to follow.
Enter the Stars
As men were sent overseas, Hollywood and Broadway’s elite stepped forward, volunteering to carry trays of sandwiches, do the dishes, dance, and sing with the GI’s. The entrance fee to all in uniform for an evening of food and entertainment was FREE.
In New York City, The American Theater Wing, best know now for the Broadway Tony Awards, raised their curtain. In the first days of March 1942, in the basement of the 44th Street Theater, Broadway’s Stage Door Canteen emerged as a hopping haven for the troops. Some nights as many as 2,000 men, in shifts, would find refuge, music, beloved movie stars, laughter and make memories in this bustling 80 by 40 square foot room.
When actor John Garfield visited The Stage Door Canteen, he brought the idea back to Tinsel Town and Betty Davis. Davis not only donated her time but also much of her monies from her contract with Warner Brothers as she and Garfield convinced others to join in providing the free food and shows for the soldiers. Lines snaked down Cahuenga Boulevard in California as men of all races, shapes, and sizes, clad in different uniforms, waited to enter the old converted barn at 1451 Cahuenga Blvd – the Hollywood Canteen.
As Canteens sprung up across America, they provided entertainment, a place to grab a cup of coffee, a chat with others or write a letter home. The young women who volunteered as hostesses wore red, white, and blue aprons and specifically designed pins with wings.
One never knew who would be there to offer a smile and a slice of America. Always a different show, always thrilling. Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayward, Irving Berlin, Ann Miller are just a few of the stars who volunteered to perform. One night, Spencer Tracy coaxed a reluctant Katharine Hepburn to join him singing Pistol Packin’ Mama to the hoots of the crowded room. Big Bands played rousing jitterbug tunes, opera singers crooned to the audiences and comedians perfected their shtick.
A movie emerged, The Stage Door Canteen. The proceeds of this film and other fundraising events provided the funds for the USO’s to send entertainers overseas.
“I saw that the boys needed something besides chow and drills.” Al Jolson
Al Jolson was the first entertainer to venture overseas, at times paying his own way. While in the South Pacific performing at the “camp shows” he contracted malaria and lost his left lung. He would continue to entertain the troops. During the Korean War, once again he paid for his travels to the war zone, returning home exhausted after 42 shows in 16 days. However, his fatigue, coupled with the lingering dust from the battle zone in his one lung, brought on a heart attack and Jolson died a few weeks after his return.
In 1943, outside of Lisbon, a plane with USO troops abroad crashed, killing singer and actress Tamara Drisan and injuring Jane Forman, Broadway singer. Forman’s story would be told in the movie With a Song in MY Heart.
While Martha Raye flew to North Africa in a B-17 to entertain the troops, they were attacked by two German planes. The tail gunner in her aircraft died in the exchange. During her four and one-half months overseas, Martha would travel to the front line in jeeps, assist the medics, help carry injured soldiers, and perform on makeshift stages. She lost 22 pounds after contacting yellow fever and spent three days cramped inside trenches with 200 soldiers while the Germans attacked. Martha would not stop with this war but would continue to entertain soldiers up through the Vietnam war, earning the beloved nickname, “Colonel Maggie.” She was buried with full military honors at Fort Bragg.
Open To All
WWII became a great equalizer as men and women of all races and religions united to face the enemy. While discrimination still existed, trends toward equality came about in the most unexpected situations.
“one of the few democratic institutions in existence anywhere: English soldiers, sailors and RAF [Royal Air Force] men dance beside, mingle and eat with Chinese airmen, Americans from every branch of the service, including Negroes and Indians, Canadians, Australians; South Africans, Dutch and French sailors…occasionally Russians: all are a part of the Stage Door Canteen.”Theater Arts Magazine 1943
The Show Must Go On
After WWII with the expansion of USO shows in England and other far reaches of the war front, the monies and necessity for the USO dwindled. In 1947 the USO shut their doors. When the U.S. entered the Korean War in 1951, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy requested the USO’s return to provide their much needed support for the women and men in the Armed Services.
Bob Hope, who began his work for the USO in WWII, took the stage again. “The one-man-morale-machine” would spend 48 Christmas’s overseas; his last appearance at a “camp show” would be in 1991 during Operation Desert Shield. Hope and the USO Christmas shows are legendary. He would receive many honors, including the creation of the USO Hope Coin which is now awarded to entertainers who reflect Hope’s unwavering contribution to the USO tours.
As the skirmishes continued over decades, so did the entertainers who traveled to the war zones to lift soldiers’ spirits, spreading hope and joy.
Robin Williams hit the stage in Vietnam. Marilyn Monroe, Ann Margaret, John Wayne, Rita Moreno, Sammy Davis Jr., Phyllis Diller, James Brown, the list is long and impressive of those who chose to give back to their country on the front line with the soldiers.
Through the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq and at today’s far flung stations, the USO has continued to send a bit of home through the efforts of Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Carrie Underwood, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, Charlie Sheen, Will Smith and so many others. Their example and dedication demonstrates the need for all Americans to continue to support our troops at home and abroad.
Since its inception in 1941, the USO has brought tears and joy to our fighting forces who defend our nation and democracy. Hats off to those who diligently work on stage and behind the scenes, to bring a touch of “Home Away From Home” to the trenches, for the importance of morale should never be underestimated.
While we honor those who have served our country on Veterans Day, we should remember to celebrate our Armed Forces each and every day. And also, give a salute to the USO for fighting a different kind of battle. A battle to lift the spirits of those who crawl through mud, live in tents in the jungles or deserts, are injured, are lonely and far from home – all to defend us.
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