One thing I learned from my Uncle John’s WWII letters is that it’s important to have a break from daily routine. I’m sure there were many days when he was tired of everything and wished he was home. With the help of the United Service Organization he found he could take a break and have a “home away from home.”
USO shows were founded in 1941 as a way to lift morale and provide entertainment and recreation for service members. The USO established military clubs and had all sorts of assistance for servicemen. Live entertainment was started and big name celebrities came on board. Stars from stage, screen, radio, and the world of music all helped out for free. The USO shows had big names such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Frank Sinatra just to name a few. By 1942 USO Camp Shows headed to Europe.
An expert from my Uncle John’s letters read:
December 18, 1942….”Just came in tonight to see the show (which was postponed due to illness of two stars before). Martha Raye, Kay Francis, and Mitzi Mayfair all were entertaining us. Carole Landis was to be in it, too, but she was taken ill and confined to a hospital. The show was marvelous –and ended with Kay Francis reading us a letter from you all–a very nice thought.”
Originally Uncle John was supposed to see this show a few weeks earlier. He wrote:
November 28, 1942….”We were scheduled to see the movie actresses–Kay Francis, Mitzi Mayfair, Martha Raye, and Carole Landis but the show was postponed until later due to illnesses of two of the stars.”
All four USO stars he mentioned were major players in the entertainment business. Kay Francis was from Hollywood’s Golden Era and known as the Queen of Warner Brothers. Mitzi Mayfair was an actress and dancer who had been on stage in the Ziegfeld Follies. Boy, could she tap dance!
Martha Raye was a real trooper. She was a comic actress and singer. She had been in more than two dozen films and would later star in television and theater. She continued performing in USO shows during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Imagine all she must have seen and done! She traveled many miles by plane despite a tremendous fear of flying. In 1969 she earned the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her volunteer efforts and service to the troops. In 1993 Raye received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton.
The fourth member of the USO group was Carole Landis. Too bad Uncle John didn’t get to see her! She was a famous actress and singer of the 1930s and 1940s and had been in over 50 films. Her curvy figure made her a popular WWII pinup girl.
Landis signed on in October 1942 for the three month USO tour of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Then another tour followed that one. There would be three weeks in North Africa. Few people knew that Landis put in additional hours visiting with wounded soldiers at camp hospitals as part of the USO’s Hospital Circuit. She traveled more than 100,000 miles during WWII–more than any other actress. She wrote a book about her USO experiences. She told of her time spent with entertainers Francis, Mayfair, and Raye. The book was titled “Four Jills In A Jeep.” It became a 1944 star-studded movie in which they all played themselves. Unfortunately Landis had a troubled personal life. She was unlucky in love and died at the very young age of 29.
My uncle John wrote: October 8, 1943….”Tuesday evening we had a USO show in camp. Quite hilarious show with some wonderful acrobatic acts–one was a team composed of three fellows followed by a girl who could just about twist her legs anywhere.”
Between 1941-1945 the USO put up some impressive statistics. They performed at least 300,000 shows before 150 million service members–at places all over the world. They gave servicemen a much needed break from routine. They brought a little bit of home to faraway locations. Performers came despite the danger. In all, some 37 USO entertainers died in WWII, many in plane crashes. Most notably band leader Glenn Miller disappeared on a flight over the English Channel on December 15, 1944. Miller’s plane has never been recovered. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.
Now 70 years later the USO is still going strong. It provides a few hours of relief for those who need it the most. In WWII the USO was always there. Their motto is never more true: “Until everyone comes home.”