MOULTRIE, Ga. — As he was walking through the noisy, hot and humid streets of Camp Alpha in 1969, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Terry Turner heard a familiar tune wafting through the air. He followed the melody through the streets to its source – a flatbed truck with country-music superstar Roy Acuff singing “Wabash Cannonball.” It was one of many small USO Shows that traveled throughout Vietnam bringing a bit of home to the U.S. troops stationed there for over a decade.
It was a pleasant surprise for Turner, who never saw the more famous Bob Hope Christmas USO Shows. On that day, it didn’t matter; it was a little bit of home in a far away place.
Maury Jackson was one of the fortunate ones to see a Bob Hope show.
“It was a big deal to get to go to the show,” said Jackson, who also served in Vietnam in 1969. “We were, after all, in the middle of a war zone.”
Jackson remembers on the day of a show, while out patrolling the area of the show, soldiers found ten enemy missiles aimed at the show site. They destroyed the missiles and were given front row seats to the show.
“There weren’t many bright spots while serving in ‘Nam,” said Jackson, “but that was definitely one of them.”
Jackson recalls the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Rachel Welch traveling with Hope.
“Guys would climb power poles to get a better look at the show,” Jackson explained. “For that moment in time, the war was pushed back in our minds. We never forgot where we were, but for a little while, there was a little bit of home.”
Michael Perkins, an infantryman in Vietnam 1968-70, also remembers attending USO shows. The infantry was in the bush and was allowed to come in for the show.
“It was a good show,” he said, “lots of celebrities.”
Perkins, who also worked in processing casualties, recalls that the USO shows were a morale booster reminding the soldiers what they were fighting for – the folks back home.
Air Force fighter pilot Andrew Christensen saw the Bob Hope show at Phu Cat in the southern coastal region of Vietnam in 1968. He particularly remembers seeing “dancing girls,” especially Rachel Welch and Ann Margaret, frequent participants in the Bob Hope shows.
“We laughed and whistled and had a great time. It was a respite from being in combat, a little bit of home,” he said.
Christensen said he stood in the back of the crowd to allow the combat warriors who came in from the field to have a better view.
Kirby Carlton, also an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam in 1972-73 as the war was closing, had a different USO experience.
“I never saw a USO show, but the USO offered other services,” he said. “When we were on leave, they arranged for us to see the sights of ancient Bangkok, Thailand, and provided us other opportunities for rest and relaxation. USO really tried to make our time in service more tolerable.”
Kirby supports USO today with financial contributions to the organization so it can continue its mission of keeping troops connected to home.
Ed Irby, an Army veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars, saw Bob Hope’s show in 1966. He said the best part of the show was knowing that someone cared enough about them to travel all that distance in harm’s way to put on a show for them. He really doesn’t remember who was in the show. He said it really didn’t matter. It wasn’t who was there, just that someone was there. He also remembers not being able to leave the artillery to get close enough to see the show, just to hear it. That didn’t matter, he said. It was still good.
“USO is a great organization,” said Irby. “My granddaughter just completed military police school in Missouri. She went to the USO to call home, write letters, and socialize with other soldiers. I can’t say enough about what USO means to soldiers.”
What the USO does on the home front is often forgotten, but important to soldiers returning home. USO volunteers can be seen in airports cheering as troops are deployed and when they return. In fact, the VFW post on Fifth Avenue Southeast in Moultrie was originally a USO for soldiers returning after World War II.
Both Jackson and Christensen commented on the women who served in Vietnam, mostly nurses.
“We don’t want to forget about them,” they said. “They played a role as well.”
One fond memory is of the Donut Dollies, young women who were in the Red Cross entourage whose primary purpose was as morale boosters for the U.S. combat troops in Vietnam.
Music was also the way troops connected with home. Jackson, who currently serves in a leadership position in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said certain songs of the day had special meaning to those in Vietnam.
“For those headed home, it was ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ he said. “For all of them is was ‘Get Me Out of this Place,’ by The Animals.”
Music of the era and the USO show experience will be showcased at a USO Tribute Show sponsored by John Benning DAR and the Colquitt County Arts Center this weekend at Wright Auditorium. The three-performance event is billed as a tribute to Vietnam veterans, but all veterans will be admitted free with advance ticket from the Arts Center.
“We are in the midst of the 50th year commemoration of the Vietnam War,” said Nancy Coleman, DAR regent. “This show is meant to give the Vietnam veterans the welcome home they didn’t get 50 years ago. This is the community’s chance to say to Vietnam veterans – and their families – thank you for your service and your sacrifice.”
The show will feature local talent performing as artists of the day with music of the day. Among the numbers scheduled to appear are Lee Hill portraying Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Great Balls of Fire” and Staci DeRosso portraying Nancy Sinatra with “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and DJ Baines preforming Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” to name just a few. Each show will open with the Colquitt County Men’s Choir singing the “Armed Forces Medley” while veterans from each branch of service are recognized.
For 78 years, the USO has stood by America's military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country while deployed. The USO is a not-for-profit organization and is not part of the federal government. A congressionally chartered, private organization, the USO relies on the generosity of individuals, organizations and corporations to support its activities, and is powered by a family of volunteers to accomplish its mission of connection.
Patrons of the show will be given the opportunity to support the USO through personal donations.
Tickets are still available for each show but the event is expected to be a sellout. General admission tickets are $15 each and can be purchased at the Arts Center during regular business hours, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. If available, tickets can be purchased at the door.