Volunteer Performers killed on tour: 1941

Debra Beal and Debra Beal

On Feb.4, 1941, with the threat of WWII looming over America, the United Service Organization (USO) was chartered to bring a touch of home to U.S. armed forces. Both in peacetime and war, volunteers have given comfort to soldiers away from home, as well as a reminder about the homeland they were protecting.

At the request of President Roosevelt, six civilian agencies pooled resources and talents together to form the organization. The private agencies included the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the YWCA, the National Jewish Welfare Board, the National Catholic Community Service and the Travelers Aid Association of America.

The need for boosting the morale of soldiers was obvious when America entered WWII. “Christmas 1942 was the first that millions of Americans would spend away from home,” according to Reader’s Digest, December 2002. At that time, Bing Crosby traveled with a USO ensemble to entertain a paratroop unit in France.

While preparing for his performance, Crosby was approached by a sergeant described as being gruff and square-jawed in appearance. “You gonna sing ‘White Christmas’?” the sergeant said.

When Crosby replied yes, the sergeant said, “Well in that case, I guess I’ll duck out.” Crosby then asked the sergeant to stick around, saying he’d like the song.

“I like the song all right,” the sergeant explained. “But I’ll listen from the portable kitchen. It’s no good for the men’s morale to see their sergeant crying.”

After WWII, the USO disbanded in 1947, but at President Truman’s request, the organization resumed its service in 1949 during the Korean War, and later expanded considerably during the Vietnam War.

Especially in times of war, USO performers touched the hearts and souls of their audiences. Over the years, Bob Hope received numerous letters of appreciation from soldiers for his performances in distant locations.

In a letter dated Aug. 24, 1944, Howard Lindsay, who was stationed on a ship off the coast of France, wrote to thank comedian Hope. “Your programs are the kind that make us think of home, but they also make us feel that home is much closer than it really is,” Lindsay said.

By far, Bob Hope has been the most committed USO volunteer, as he entertained troops for over 50 years beginning in WWII. In 1997, Congress designated Hope as an honorary veteran for his humanitarian services. He is the only individual in history to have earned this honor, according to a Library of Congress Web site.

During WWII, USO performers were called ‘soldiers in greasepaint,’ and they “faced the same dangers as the men they were sent to entertain. Thirty-seven died during the course of the war, including jazz legend Glenn Miller…who was killed when his plane went down en route from England to France,” according to ATOMIC magazine, Winter 00/01.

After Sept. 11, President Bush held a reception in the White House to acknowledge the USO and its volunteers for their service. As another war looms over the United States, Bush honored some performers that would bring a “touch of home” to our armed service women and men, according to a White House press release. Among those Bush mentioned were Tom Hanks, Quincy Jones, Wayne Newton, Jessica Simpson, Neil McCoy and Rob Schneider.