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For USO singer, a grand stage

For Ruth Dixon, World War II ended in the middle of a song.

A USO singer on a six-month tour of the South Pacific, Dixon and her troupe were interrupted while performing at the estate of the Philippines’ president on Aug. 14, 1945.

“The boys started shooting their guns,” said Dixon. “We thought, ‘This must be the worst show we’ve ever done.’ “

Not the worst, but among the last. The celebratory gunfire marked the end of the war and the eventual return home for soldiers, as well as civilians who did everything from entertain the troops to aid the injured.

Among the people whose lives were drawn into the war were civilians such as entertainers and volunteers. United Service Organizations performers such as Dixon put on hundreds of thousands of shows during World War II.

“It was exciting,” said Dixon, 80. “It was definitely an adventure – the adventure of my life, I think.”

Dixon wrote about her time as a USO performer in her recent book, “Songs from the Girl Back Home.”

A classical singer and recent bride, Dixon auditioned for the USO and was accepted in early 1945. Before setting sail, Dixon and her group traveled to San Francisco, where they toured the city and had official outfits tailored at Saks.

“If this was war,” Dixon writes in her book, “I liked it!”

Her unit set sail from San Francisco in April and arrived three weeks later in Hollandia, New Guinea – a blistering jungle base with red dust covering everything. The soldiers had jaundiced skin from anti-malaria pills and complained of “jungle rot.” The wool Saks outfits were set aside.

Though not life-threatening, the hardships were acute for performers accustomed to costumes and makeup. Mildew snuck into stage dresses. The heat wilted hairdos and wreaked havoc with “bottle blondes,” Dixon said. Cosmetics were rare – at the PX they could find only one “orangey kind of lipstick that just melted all over.”

But for the next several months, Dixon and her troupe performed for American GIs all around the South Pacific, in the wake of Allied victory there. Their shows included classical songs, Gershwin tunes and numbers from popular musicals.

Upon her return, Dixon joined another traveling musical show, and later worked in journalism. Ten years ago, she moved to Spokane. She’s now engaged to marry a man she met through Hospice services; each had lost long-time spouses.

When she recalls the effect of the USO performances on the soldiers – so lonely and so far from home – she remembers their “mass hunger” for entertainment and companionship.

“You were everything to these men you played to,” she said. “You were their mother, their sister, their sweetheart.”


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