Eighty-one years ago today, at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, six social service organizations joined forces to create the United Service Organizations, or USO. With America’s entry into World War II still 10 months away. Those 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—understood how vital morale would be to the troops when the inevitable occurred.
The USO began recruiting entertainers to perform, and the one who ultimately defined the organization—comedian Bob Hope—made the first-ever USO radio broadcast right here in California at March Air Force Base (now March Air Reserve Base) in Riverside on March 6, 1941.
Nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hope traveled to Alaska to perform an “overseas” show (before Alaska became a state), the first of 57 tours to entertain troops that continued until his final appearances in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in 1990. His efforts covered every U.S.-involved war or conflict from World War II to the first Gulf War. He also flew into West Berlin for a radio broadcast in front of the Berlin Wall, joined by songwriter and movie producer, Irving Berlin.
He made nine tours to Vietnam. Many of his shows were sponsored by the Defense Department and NBC, which filmed the Christmas specials overseas to air at home. His tours included entertainers such as Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Martha Raye, Ann-Margaret, Redd Foxx, Brook Shields, and Lola Falana among the hundreds over the decades. Other celebrities led tours as well, and the live shows have resumed after a year missed due to COVID-19 protocols. The current lineup includes, among others, shows by celebrity chef Robert Irwin, musicians, and comedians.
In addition to the overseas celebrity tours, cities and towns throughout the United States operated USO service centers and lounges. Though many were segregated, Black women began volunteering and integrated several throughout the U.S., including the one in Sacramento, according to the book “Double Victory: How African American Women Broke Race and Gender Barriers.” When some visitors to the center objected to mixed race dancing, the women were trained to reply: “I am dancing with the uniform of my country.”
Today, the USO can be found in 250 places worldwide. The organization is represented throughout California: San Francisco, Travis Air Force Base, Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, and, of course, the Bob Hope USO located at the Palm Springs airport, the city where Hope lived until his death in 2003.