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PBS Documentary Celebrates 75th Anniversary of USO

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The new documentary USO—For the Troops, a history of the service organization born during World War II that continues to deliver touches of home to active-duty troops around the world, premieres Monday, November 7, on PBS.

The film weaves its history around footage of a contemporary USO tour starring country singer and US Army veteran Craig Morgan, NFL player (and son of a US Army sergeant) Charles Tillman, Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, and others. Archival sequences tell the story of the USO’s famed Hollywood Canteen, which The National WWII Museum salutes in its entertainment venue BB’s Stage Door Canteen, and, of course, the decades of service to the USO by Bob Hope, subject of an array of upcoming projects at the Museum.

Here’s an edited email Q&A interview with filmmaker Peter Schnall:

Q: How was this project born? Was it the 75th anniversary of the USO that sparked the film? A piece of footage? A personal connection to a war or the USO?

A: Back in the fall of 2015, I had been reading a story about Bob Hope and his USO tours during the Vietnam War. The article mentioned that the USO would be celebrating its 75th anniversary the following year. My company, Partisan Pictures, reached out to the USO and asked if they would be interested in participating in a documentary program that not only looked back at their long and fascinating history, but also spoke to the changes and ongoing work they were providing to the men and women of the Armed Forces—both here at home and overseas.

Partisan Pictures has a long and successful working relationship with the US armed forces. Our shows about Air Force One, Marine One, and other Department of Defense projects have given me incredible access to our nation’s military and a chance to meet, film, and capture the work of the men and women who serve. I don’t come from a military family, so my time with the military has been quite an extraordinary journey.  Actually, it’s been a real honor.

Partisan Pictures reached out immediately to PBS as the broadcaster for the one-hour USO program. We have produced many programs for PBS and more importantly PBS has a multiplatform initiative—Stories of Service—that unites powerful stories and conversations around one of our country’s most resilient communities: our military veterans.

Johnson & Johnson, a long time supporter of the USO, became the corporate sponsor for the PBS special.

When did the structure—editing the history around the contemporary tour—reveal itself? What are the strengths to that approach? What was it like following a modern USO tour?

From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to journey with the USO on one of its present-day tours and have this become a key element and story thread throughout our show. Luckily for us, the USO was still in the planning stages for its annual Vice Chairman’s Tour.  Once permission was granted from the Department of Defense, we began to design our story line with the idea that the present-day tour would be interwoven with the stories from the 75-year history of the USO. Using contemporary events and stories as a way to connect to the past is a very exciting way to bring history to life for today’s audience—particularly younger viewers.

Traveling with a USO tour and the vice chairman of the Chiefs of Staff around the globe in the belly of an Air Force C-17 transport plane is truly the only way to travel! Our tour stopped in seven countries in just eight days—including an afternoon stop in Baghdad. For the entertainers, it was a chance to bring a little bit of  “home” to the troops stationed overseas and on the front lines of America’s current battlefields.

For me and my small film crew of three, it was a rare opportunity to witness and capture some very extraordinary moments between the servicemen and servicewomen, many of whom are on their second or third tour of duty, and the entertainers with the USO.

One of the gently provocative things about the film is how it spotlights recent USO supporters of varying political backgrounds without judgment. It’s especially poignant given the sequence about the political divides of the Vietnam era. What is the difference between Vietnam and more recent, equally controversial, conflicts—at least as it pertains to USO-tour participation?

Since World War II, the history of the USO has been connected to the history of America’s wars. Wars are not a welcome thought. Wars mean the loss of thousands of young soldiers’ lives. We as a nation have sometimes opposed wars and other times supported them. But throughout its history the USO has always been there to serve the men and women in the armed forces regardless of politics. The Vietnam War was one of America’s most unpopular wars, and the soldiers who fought in that war were often not welcome when they returned home. The Vietnam War brought up a very difficult balance for the USO, Bob Hope, and the entertainers who traveled with him to Vietnam to perform for the troops. Many entertainers, including Bob Hope, were labeled as “hawks.” But as Bob Hope’s daughter Linda explained to us, her father understood the controversy and understood very clearly how he was now being perceived by many back at home. As Linda would explain, Hope, more than anything, wanted this awful war to end. So regardless of his own politics, Hope supported the troops despite the anger towards them back home. Hope felt for the troops in a way many Americans at the time did not understand, for he knew many were stuck in a war nobody really wanted to be fighting in.

Today, wars and conflicts are just as controversial and unpopular. But the attitude towards the volunteer soldiers fighting in these new wars has taken on a very different feeling among the American populace. Our film interviewed a wide range of politicians and entertainers—from former General Colin Powell to former President George W. Bush to comedian Jon Stewart. All with different political beliefs, all with very different takes on the nature of America’s present-day wars. Yet, all of them have one very important thing in common—an unequivocal support for the servicemen and servicewomen fighting and dying out in the battlefield.

The USO’s roots in World War II are of obvious interest here. The conversation in the film about the USO’s role as a bearer of American culture in that era was fascinating. We love that Harpo Marx and Bette Davis were part of the Arsenal of Democracy. Was there anything that surprised you about the early days of the organization—its formation and evolution?

Producing a historical program often comes with surprising or unknown stories that pop up during research. I knew of the extensive programs the USO and Hollywood’s movie stars had created together during World War II, but I had not known how the USO had stood by and supported the black troops who had been stationed in America’s “Jim Crow” South. These young African American men, about to go off and fight for their country, were treated as second-class citizens in the towns they were stationed—they could not shop or walk in towns or participate in the same activities as the white soldiers. So the USO set up centers just for them. The USO pushed politics and racist laws aside and put the troops first and foremost.

Was there a piece of footage or interview you consider a great “get” or rare find? A favorite sequence?

There were many powerful and emotional scenes we discovered during our viewing of the footage from Bob Hope’s tours—particularly the shows he did in Vietnam. One of my favorite scenes from this extraordinary collection of footage, which we present in our film, revolves around a performance by a very young Connie Stevens. In her interview with us, she describes how during one Christmas tour she began to sing Silent Night for the troops. Suddenly, hundreds of young soldiers began to sing with her. The cameras captured one of the most powerful and emotional scenes I have ever seen filmed in a real war setting. It is hard not to be overcome by the moment—watching these young soldiers sing this Christmas song, knowing full well that the next day they would out fighting in another skirmish—many of them never to return home.

Would there be USO tours today without Bob Hope’s legacy? The film honors him beautifully. He could really walk a fine line—irreverent sometimes, but it created instant empathy with the troops. Do you have a favorite piece of footage of Hope? Was there more great material you had to leave out?

I grew up watching the Bob Hope specials on TV with my family. Needless to say, I hadn’t seen these shows for many decades. What a treat it was to sit and watch and relive these very special and historical programs. What struck me now, more than when I was a young kid, was how Hope managed to bring humor into the theater of war.  Even more interesting was Hope’s ability to use humor to speak out politically against the Vietnam War or to poke fun at the commanders and generals of the battalions he was entertaining.  We watched hours and hours of Hope on tour. Unfortunately, we could only squeeze a few minutes into our program.

Note: USO—For the Troops will stream online starting November 8 at PBS.org.

Read more about the documentary, and watch preview videos: http://www.pbs.org/program/uso-for-the-troops/

The Stories of Service website: http://www.pbs.org/veterans/stories-of-service/home/

Post by Dave Walker, communications manager at The National WWII Museum.

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