In 1941, the United States Army made a plea for entertainment for troops preparing for the war in training camps around the country. There was a response from the Citizens Committee for the Army and Navy and in May of 1941, they sent out seven traveling show buses with entertainers for service camps east of the Rockies. A Hollywood committee of producers, agents and the Screen Actors Guild were putting on shows in camps in California but the demand for such shows increased. After many meetings concerning this, the USO camp shows were officially launched Oct. 30, 1941 and designated by the War and Navy Department as the official entertainment of men and women in the armed forces.
During the peak of action in 1945, USO Camp Shows presented as many as 700 shows a day with more than 300,000 performances overseas and in the U.S. to an audience totaling more than 173 million. From 1941 to 1947, more than 7,000 performers put on 428,521 shows. These were all types of shows that included screen stars, stage stars, radio and the concert stage stars as well as Vaudeville performers. In Times Square, troops could meet the stars, be entertained and often be served a meal by a famous celebrity on duty. Other Stage Door Canteens soon opened around the country. A song by that title was written and made popular by songstress Jo Stafford at this time and also a movie by the same name starred Ralph Bellamy, Tallulah Bankhead, Ray Bolger and Katherine Hepburn. The actress Bette Davis helped open the Hollywood canteen where many movie actresses could be found pouring coffee for servicemen.
Forty two countries represented different units such as variety shows, concerts, plays, musical comedies, sketching artists, an all-black unit, sports unit and an all-girl unit. Performers entertained as many as 15,000 soldiers at one time as they sat on the ground at lonely outposts and at the bedside of wounded military in hospitals. This was all voluntary, the stars were not paid. A group of well-known stars flew for a 13,000 mile circuit to entertain troops. Some were sent to Panama, Bermuda, Iceland, Newfoundland, Great Britain and Australia.
We all remember Bob Hope and his shows. In 1942 Hope made his first trip overseas, going to Europe with Frances Langford and others. These shows lasted many years and Hope is probably the most well known for his USO tours with other celebrities and made the most trips. In the spring of 1943, 199 overseas units brought a touch of home to the troops. The problem of scenery was soon solved by using drops that could be easily dismantled, folded and put into suitcases. One play was performed on a 12x12-foot stage lit entirely with flashlights.
In the spring of 1944, camp show performers toured the tent cities on the fields and beaches bordering the English Channel. On July 28 of that year, eight camp show units with 43 men and women landed on Utah Beach, just 48 days after the D-Day invasion. These entertainers were often in harms way as they went as close to the front lines as they could get and faced the same dangers as the troops. It is reported that a number of performers were killed, seriously wounded or injured during their time abroad. Before the war was over, actress and singer Martha Raye had entertained soldiers in every theater of war where American troops were stationed. For a show in New Guinea, the performers arrived in amphibious ducks and performed in a bombed out German building. The sketch artists program visited hospitals stateside and overseas and involved 170 leading illustrators and portrait painters who drew 30,000 portraits of wounded servicemen.
The touring camp shows were discontinued in 1947 but revived in 1951 with the approach of the Korean War, when some 126 entertainment units put on more than 4,500 shows in Korea. In 1957, the USO Camp shows were dissolved but the USO shows and canteens is a tradition that continues today.