Veterans Column: USO Celebrates 81st Birthday on February 4th

By Vince Gangi, U.S. Air Force Veteran, Retired Mortgage Banker, and GCVF Volunteer

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Deraney, second from left, is shown here in Iraq in 2003 with members of his combat engineer company. Photo contributed by Alexander Deraney.

Feb. 4 is the official birthday of the organization known as United Service Organizations. The USO has been a fixture in military life for eight decades.

Founded in 1941, the agency is a private nonprofit working in cooperation with the Department of Defense. According to its website, the USO has a congressional charter and receives funding through donations, philanthropy and corporate support.

More than 12,000 volunteers work with the USO at locations worldwide, including military bases, airports and major metro areas.

When the USO was formed, organizers wanted program events and services with an eye on boosting troop morale while promoting American involvement in World War II. As these plans unfolded, the idea of a traveling USO show performing at deployed locations would not only prove successful but would at times be the main activity some associated with the agency.

These traveling shows were held in China, Russia, Myanmar — formerly Burma — and elsewhere during the war. The same kind of USO shows were offered to troops in later conflicts, including Vietnam and Korea.

One entertainer whose name is synonymous with USO traveling shows is Bob Hope. Prompted by his patriotism, the British-American comedian and actor started touring during World War II and continued to perform shows for more than 50 years.

He performed and broadcast his first USO show on the radio for service members on May 6, 1941, at a base for the Army Air Corps, now known as the U.S. Air Force, at March Field in Riverside, California. From that first show, Hope would go on to entertain the troops for more than four decades through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Lebanon Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War and the Persian Gulf War.

His troupe included celebrities from the music, movie and sports entertainment fields. They performed on land and water and were undeterred by rough seas and the proximity of the enemy.

While stationed in Vietnam in 1968, Oxnard veteran John Arias, an Army sergeant, was deployed on a special assignment to Chu Lai. When he arrived, Bob Hope, actress Ann-Margret and a host of others were scheduled to perform that day.

Arias finished his assignment and attended the show with a friend. The Army sergeant thought the entertainment — and the doughnuts — distributed by the USO were topflight.

“More importantly,” he said, “I came away with the feeling that there were people back in the states that still cared about us over there.”

Hope’s legacy of showing support for our service members continues with new celebrities performing for our troops. Stars such as Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans performed at the USO Chairman’s Holiday Tour 2016 in Qatar. Jon Stewart and country music artist and U.S. Army veteran Craig Morgan performed in Afghanistan in 2018.

In 2010, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj performed in “VH1 Divas Support the Troops” presented by the USO.

The point is there is no shortage of entertainers who are willing to get involved with the USO because they recognize what it means to the morale of our nation’s service men and women who place their life on the line every day for our country.

In 2003, Alexander Deraney, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Camarillo, attended the first USO concert in Baghdad with the 180-soldier combat engineer company that he commanded.

“The holiday show was about six months into deployment and was what my unit needed,” Deraney said. “The entertainment was fine — what was more important is that after the show, my soldiers felt reconnected with back home, and what that does when you’re in the beginning of a protracted war and 120-degree heat is immeasurable.”

So, a happy birthday to the 81-year-old USO.

Please keep doing what you do for our members of the armed forces and their families.

To celebrate its birthday, the USO will organize activities and events to honor its long history, and military bases all over the world, more than 200 locations, will have local activities to show their appreciation.

From Darwin, Australia to Afghanistan, there are likely to be hundreds of individual local celebrations.