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USO Marks 75 Years of Connecting Troops to Home

Monroe is among Air Force personnel and wearing a 6147th Tactical Control Group jacket. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Monroe is among Air Force personnel and wearing a 6147th Tactical Control Group jacket. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Back when the fight was for "Mom, apple pie and the red, white and blue," President Franklin D. Roosevelt worried that the millions of troops he was sending to war would lose their connection to the home front.

"Not by machines alone will we win this war," he said.

Roosevelt called on the YMCA, the YWCA, the National Catholic Community Service, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the Traveler's Aid Association and the Salvation Army to come up with a permanent morale booster.

In February 1941, the USO -- United Service Organizations -- was formed. The first USO chairman was Thomas Dewey, the crime-buster lawyer who would become New York's governor. The second was Prescott Bush, father of Navy pilot George H.W. Bush who would become president.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the USO, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford is scheduled to address a reception at Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel on Thursday night as the centerpiece of celebrations at nearly 200 USO centers around the world.

Check out Military.com's slideshow tribute in honor of the USO's birthday

The USO currently has four centers in Afghanistan, at Forward Operating Base Fenty, Kandahar airfield, and two at Bagram airfield.

In Iraq, the USO has three "unmanned" locations at Baghdad, the al-Asad airbase and Irbil, the Kurdish capital. Visa restrictions have kept the USO from having fully staffed centers in Iraq, said USO spokeswoman Amanda Fletcher.

The 600 USO staff and nearly 30,000 volunteers at the centers get millions of visits each year from the troops, who come in to use the facilities or just get a free cup of coffee and, maybe, a doughnut.

"There's a saying that 'everything old is new again' and that's particularly true of the USO," said J.D. Crouch II, the current chief executive officer and president of the USO, in reviewing the history of the organization.

"For 75 years the USO has been on a mission of connection," he said. "Whether we are connecting service members to their families, to the things that remind them of home or to the resources they need to make a successful transition out of the military, we are always by their side as they make the journey through military life."

Crouch said, "In 1941, service members visiting a USO center could send messages back home via 'snail mail' or even a 45 rpm record. Today, the USO facilitates connections with phone cards, Internet access, and even Skype video," in addition to lots of video games, he said.

"While our mission hasn't changed" since the days of K-rations and the M-1 rifle, "the world around us has," said Crouch, the former deputy National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. The troops have changed too. They're all volunteers now and often called the "one percent," as opposed to the draft military from World War II through most of Vietnam.

During World War II, 12 percent of the U.S. population served in the military, but today that number is less than one percent, Crouch said. "That's a new challenge that USO is conscious of and is continuously trying to solve," he said.

And then there are what began as the "camp shows" featuring movie stars, comedians and ballplayers to bring another touch of home to the frontlines. The shows have always centered on what used to be called "pulchritude."

In World War II, there were Rita Hayworth, Betty Hutton, Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich. In a show in France, comedian Danny Kaye slinked to the microphone in mock fear and shouted "Wait a minute, you guys -- who's watching out for the enemy?"

In Korea, there was Marilyn Monroe among many others. The story goes that Marilyn came back after entertaining the troops and told then-husband, "Yankee Clipper" Joe DiMaggio, that "Joe, you can't imagine -- thousands of people screaming for me." Joe supposedly replied: "Yes, I can." (The Defense Department issued Marilyn an ID card as "Norma Jeane DiMaggio -- USO Entertainer.")

In Vietnam, there were Ann Margaret and Joey Heatherton, and the tradition of all-American allure has continued to the present day to include, of course, the formidable enchantress "Miss Piggy."

Always, there was Bob Hope, logging millions of miles to put on shows from World War II to Desert Shield. In Iraq, comedian Stephen Colbert came on stage swinging a golf club in tribute to Hope.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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