A Home Away From Home

The United Service Organizations Inc (USO) was started by six different services, the YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, Catholic Community Charities, and Travelers Aid Society. President Roosevelt wanted an organization that would serve the needs, both morally and recreationally, of the men sacrificing their lives for their country.

Young female volunteers were called Junior Hostesses played a vital role in the USO. The parties and events that the Junior Hostesses planned became an iconic part of the culture during the wartime that it’s hard to find a movie about the War that doesn’t feature a scene with the servicemen cutting loose on the dance floor courtesy of the USO. The USO canteens started in Hollywood and New York and spread to other major cities. They became the scene to be a part of with live music, soft drinks, coffee, and food. It was were any young man or woman serving their country went.

The Junior Hostesses were from 18 to 30 years old and had strict rules to follow to uphold the organization’s idea of morals. The volunteers had to go to what might be known as a charm school where they learned how to dress presentable and what makeup to wear. They learned etiquette and the philosophy of the USO and how to handle inappropriate behavior from military personnel. Dating a serviceman was grounds for dismissal from the USO, but the women did act as surrogate girlfriends to the men dancing with them on the floor and having meals with them. The women were not allowed to smoke on the job at a time when it was socially acceptable for men to do so. They were not allowed to drink alcohol or chew gum. They could not refuse to dance from a man unless he was behaving ungentlemanly, and they could not dance with another woman while servicemen were present.

All these rules was to create a bubble in the canteens and USO events. There, the men didn’t have to think about the horrors of war and escape into a crafted welcoming experience made possible by the women they socialized with. Many of the Hollywood types volunteered their services at the USO. Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, James Cagney, Jack Benny, and many more all performed for the servicemen and women through the organization.

Born in Germany, A-list star Marlene Dietrich was one the organization’s biggest celebrity volunteers. She was the first celebrity to raise war bonds and sold more than any of her showbiz peers, she performed for the USO and her entire salary for the film Knight Without Armor, was put in escrow to help refugees from Germany. She was the gold standard of what a volunteer should be at the time dedicating all of her time and person to the war effort. She said her biggest accomplishment was receiving the Medal of Freedom in 1947 for the work she did overseas entraining the country’s troops.  When asked why she put herself in danger, performing so close to German lines while on tour for the USO, she said,”aus Anstand”—”out of decency”.

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