Stephen F. Austin State University

America's First USO Building (December 2013)

America's First USO Building
By Rickey Robertson

Located in West Central Louisiana is one of the most historic buildings in America. Yes, the very first building used exclusively for the USO during World War II is located in DeRidder, La. This building is still located in this quiet town in Louisiana and today is known as the War Memorial Civic Center in honor of 47 young men from this area who were killed in action during World War II. Also housed in this beautiful building is the War Room Museum that has many items from World War II on display.

In 1940 the United Service Organization for National Defense was founded. Later the name was shortened to United Service Organization (USO). This organization was formed to assist military personnel and their families during this time of trouble and displacement. The USO had many various services ranging from travel information, mobile canteens, and camp shows that provided entertainment to the troops, wherever they may be stationed. To lonely servicemen far from home, the USO provided in many ways the feeling of a home away from home atmosphere and was a great boost for morale.

In 1941 the USO Camp Shows Inc. was established to entertain troops at wherever they were stationed. The first Camp Show that was presented to the troops was provided by Bob Hope, Frances Langford, and Jerry Colona at March Field, California on a quickly built stage. Performers such as these traveled thousands of miles to entertain troops on all fronts and in every theater of action, yet they were always on portable stages and not in actual buildings.

The first USO building actually built for and exclusively used by the USO during World War II was built in DeRidder, La. The USO in DeRidder was one of the largest of five different sizes of Type A buildings designed by the Quartermaster Corps to be designated for use by the United Services Organization (USO). When workers received the okay to begin construction on the building, they worked day and night for a total of 39 calendar days and completed the building. It was ready for use on November 27, 1941 by military personnel still in the area after the Great Louisiana Maneuvers, and to personnel from bases such as Camp Polk and DeRidder Army Air Base. Soldiers of the US 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds, were the first troops to use the USO. And guess who was a member of this famous division and was here in Louisiana. A young private by the name of Bill Mauldin ! Yes, the creator of Joe and Willie fame of World War II was right here in the maneuvers and was in and around DeRidder.

The USO was open to any enlisted man as long as he didn't provoke a fight or begin drinking. Volunteers helped the soldiers in writing letters home, as dancing partners, as kitchen help, and in planning and attending other social events. The USO had a very nice hardwood dance floor where soldiers could dance with chaperoned local girls. With dances being held three times per week, the soldiers arrived in jeeps, trucks, and other military vehicles, plus many coming on foot !The parking areas were always full of military vehicles, and upon completion of the nights dances, GI's would load up and head back to their camps and bases. I interviewed Lucille Foreman of Iowa, La. and she and other girlfriends who were attending present day USL located in Lafayette, would load up on school buses on Fridays and would bring their formal gowns and dresses and would "tag dance" with the soldiers. As soon as she finished dancing with one soldier, she told me that eight more would be just waiting to dance with her!

This USO was used throughout World War II and into the Korean Conflict. Today the structure is still in its original site, with both the interior and exterior preserved in its original condition. The original shower heads are still in the men's room and dances are still held on the original dance floor. Meeting rooms in the building have commemorative plaques in honor of Generals Patton, Eisenhower, Clark, Marshall, and Bradley. All these great generals came to this USO during their participation in and during the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941. Today this historic building has been listed in The National Register of Historic Places. And while visiting this historic building you will see the War Room Museum that is filled with artifacts from the Louisiana Maneuvers, World War II, Korea, VietNam and up to the present. This display is in honor of all military personnel who have sacrificed and served our great nation.

I would like to invite each and every one who travels in the DeRidder area to stop and visit. DeRidder is located about 25 miles south of Leesville and Fort Polk and is right on US Hwy. 171.This building and the history it depicts, which with its displays in the War Room Museum, show how this building played a huge part in the history of World War II, the United States, and also Louisiana history. Many is the soldier who passed through this USO while training in the area. These soldiers went on to travel to distant battlefields worldwide, and fought the enemies of the United States and her allies. They ultimately helped to keep and win our freedoms that we know today. This building, and the local inhabitant's , provided the friendly and helpful atmosphere that gave these fighting men some of the much needed morale they would need as they faced the upcoming battles in which they would be engaged in. Long may this building and what it stands for be held in high esteem . And just as in World War II, let us always SUPPORT OUR TROOPS as they continue the fight against enemies domestic and foreign that attempt to destroy our nation and our freedom's!