BY SANDI GOHN | JUNE 2019
Research by Mike Case and Sandi Gohn
When it opened its doors on February 4, 1941, the USO was created as a physical network of stateside club locations where service members could go to relax, socialize and get a taste of the civilian world.
Although USO dances and other center offerings helped fill troops’ recreational time, it didn’t take long for the organization’s leaders to realize the pressing need for live, quality entertainment for the growing number of GIs.
So to fill that need, in October 1941, the USO worked with entertainment executives to create a new branch of the organization called USO Camp Shows, Inc. That month, it sent its first overseas tour, featuring comedians Laurel and Hardy, Chico Marx, and Broadway tap dancer and film star Mitzi Mayfair to the Caribbean to entertain troops.
Introducing USO Camp Shows, Inc.
USO Camp Shows, Inc., which began with just seven trucks that traveled to stateside military camps, was tasked with providing live entertainment to troops. Hollywood professionals – including actors, producers, radio hosts, dancers, talent agents and more – worked together with the USO team to schedule, coordinate and put on full-fledged shows for all types of military audiences.
This sub-branch of the organization was organized into four circuits – the Victory Circuit, the Blue Circuit, the Hospital Circuit and the Foxhole Circuit. The Victory and Blue Circuit troupes entertained stateside military personnel, while the Hospital Circuit troupes were tasked with visiting the wounded and the Foxhole Circuit troupes headed overseas.
When the U.S. officially entered the war in December 1941, USO Camp Show operations drastically increased, particularity in the Foxhole Circuit.
Throughout the war, troupes in the Foxhole Circuit would travel to entertain GIs in Europe, Russia, Central Africa, Alaska (then just a U.S. territory), the South Pacific and the Middle East, among other locations.
USO Camp Shows Head to Europe
As more U.S. service members poured into England and other parts of Europe after the Pearl Harbor attacks in December 1941, stateside entertainers quickly followed in their footsteps. The first USO performers arrived in the UK in 1942.
Marlene Dietrich was also a familiar face on the Foxhole Circuit in Europe, making two USO tours there during the war. According to the Library of Congress, “ The first was to North Africa and Italy, where she became the first entertainer to reach rescued soldiers at Anzio. During her second tour [after D-Day], lasting 11 months, she entertained near the front in France and Germany.”
D-Day and the First USO Camp Shows in France and Germany
In the days and hours leading up to D-Day, the USO was there at the side of U.S. troops.
In May 1944, 243 entertainers split into 23 units and were traveling and performing throughout the UK.
According to a first-hand account of Army Col. Joseph Harkiewicz, on May 20, just 19 days before D-Day, a USO troupe performed for service members preparing for the Normandy invasion in England and the show, “was enthusiastically received.”
On D-Day itself, according to the New York Times, Marlene Dietrich was performing for troops in Italy when she heard of the invasion news and announced it to the audience. Dietrich said the crowd, “went wild and whistled like mad.” Some sources claim that Dietrich later became the first USO entertainer to perform in France, only 28 days after D-Day, however, we were unable to confirm fact through our research. Dietrich did, however, perform in France in the later half of 1944.
Six days after D-Day, by June 10, USO Camp Shows, Inc., was reportedly mobilizing its efforts to head into Europe, but sources disagree on the exact date of the first full USO Camp Show in France after D-Day.
Still, it’s safe to say that roughly one month after June 6, 1944, the first troupe of about 20 entertainers arrived and performed for service members at Utah Beach before moving inland. Among the group of performers were Kitty Barrett and Don Rice, two married comedians.
One service member who was there described the troupe’s arrival after D-Day in great detail:
“They were in wonderful spirits, having had a grand trip in spite of a few mishaps on the route. The engineers on the beach were more than happy to provide dinner for them, after which [they] … put on a mammoth show right then for the boys who have been operating on that beach since D-Day. These are men who have been living in foxholes for 48 days. They certainly needed that show. This is the very first entertainment of any kind they have had. Some walked two and three miles through sand to see it.”
Performing on the Front Lines in Europe
Not long after that first D-Day performance on Utah beach, more and more USO show troupes started arriving to perform near the front lines in France and Germany.
During their time in the Foxhole Circuit in Europe, USO performers lived very similarly to the troops they entertained, often eating the same meals, wearing uniforms (when they weren’t performing), sleeping in similar conditions and following the same protocols.
Entertainers even had to sign an oath of secrecy, promising not to divulge any sensitive information about their tour unless otherwise permitted.
As stated in the 1944 guide given to all USO Foxhole Circuit performers, “You’re in the Army now.”
In addition to living a GI lifestyle, some USO performers became deeply involved in the Allies’ fight, while others faced the real dangers of war.
USO performer Virginia Robinson – who later went on to Broadway and most-recently played Garol in Comedy Central’s “Broad City” before passing away in 2018 – performed propaganda radio broadcasts while she was on tour in Italy.
Marlene Dietrich also served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the predecessor to the CIA – throughout the war.
In July 1944, comedians Jane and Joe McKenna were captured by Germans and held prisoner. Thankfully, Allied troops liberated them 10 days later. Other USO entertainers weren’t as lucky. During the war, a total of 37 USO entertainers were killed, including theater star Tamara Dreisen and bandleader Glenn Miller.
By V-E Day, the USO was putting on 700 shows per day all around the world and, by the end of the war, had sent over 7,300 entertainers overseas to perform for the troops. Together, they put on an estimated 420,000 performances for over 130 million service member attendees.
Although big-name stars like Edward G. Robinson, Ann Sheridan, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney traveled to Europe post D-Day, the large majority of USO performers were lesser-known acts.
In October 1944, a radio reporter described the importance of these smaller acts best:
“For five weeks now these performers have been playing here in Germany, right in the front-line area…They might not be the biggest names in show business back home, but they are headliners here, and if you could see the faces of the GIs watching their performance, you would see why.”
Printed sources utilized for this article:
USO Camp Shows, Inc. USO Camp Shows A Guide to the Foxhole Circuit. 1944.
United Service Organizations. Operation USO Report of the President February 4, 1941 – January 9, 1948. 1948
Coffey, Frank. Always Home: 50 Years of the USO: the Official Photographic History. Brassey’s, 1991.
Moore, Heidi W.. For the Boys Sixty Years of the USO. Atomic Magazine. Winter 2001.