The United Service Organizations, popularly known as the USO, was incorporated in New York on February 4, 1941, to provide recreational opportunities and resources for members of the U.S. armed forces on leave.
At the recommendation of President Franklin Roosevelt, the task was put in the hands of existing public service organizations. The USO was organized by representatives of six social service organizations as a private, nonprofit organization. The organizers included the Jewish Welfare Board, the National Catholic Community Service, the Salvation Army, the Travelers Aid Association of America, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the Young Women’s Christian Organization (YWCA). Over the course of World War II, the USO boasted more than 1 million civilian volunteers and operated more than 3,000 recreational clubs. Set up quickly in churches, museums, barns, railroad cars, storefronts, and other locales, USO clubs were places for both lively social activity and quiet contemplation. Some soldiers came to dance and watch movies, others to pursue traveler’s information or assistance, still others to write letters, lounge, eat, or seek religious counsel.
Soon after the founding of the USO, the organization created a subsidiary, Camp Shows Inc., to produce professional-quality shows with volunteers from the entertainment world. Perhaps the best-known center was New York’s Stage Door Canteen–celebrated in the 1943 film “Stage Door Canteen” with appearances by such stars of stage and screen as Katharine Hepburn, Harpo Marx, Alfred Lunt, Katharine Cornell and Edgar Bergen. The Hollywood Canteen was one of the largest of such venues, and featured entertainment provided by film stars including Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, and Bob Hope.
The USO was disbanded in 1947, then reorganized during the Korean War and expanded considerably during the Vietnam War. It continues to provide a variety of services to members of the armed forces and their families.
- Throughout an extraordinary professional career of nearly seventy years, Bob Hope made numerous live USO appearances all around the world in support of the U.S. armed forces. See On the Road: USO Shows and Public Service, two sections of the exhibition Bob Hope and American Variety to learn more.
- Read more details about the USO in the In Custodia Legis blog post celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the USO in 2016.
- To learn more about the experiences of soldiers during wartime, consult the Library’s Veterans History Project. The collection contains several interviews with individuals who have USO associations, including several which have been digitized.
- To locate photographs of USO facilities, entertainers, and World War II service members on leave, search the Library’s prints and photographs collections on terms such as USO, furlough, servicemen and servicemen’s center