Veteran Worked Magic In USO Organization
World War II Veteran Bill Pitts was among those in attendance for the Memorial Day Service at the U.S. National Cemetery Sunday, May 29, 2011. Carrol Copeland • Times Record
Editor's Note: This report is the first of a series profiling war veterans and issues affecting them in honor of Veterans Day, which is this Friday.
Bill Pitts as a magician performed a vanishing act during the 1940s: Trying to make World War II temporarily disappear from the minds of U.S. military personnel."We tried to keep it light with comedy routines and things like that," Pitts, of Fort Smith, said.
"Hopefully, (the soldiers) enjoyed those. We tried to do things with USO where they would at least momentarily be content, put a few smiles on their faces."
In 1943, just two years after the United Services Organization was formed, Pitts enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of 17. The Air Corps later became an independent armed force of the U.S. military.
The federal government set up the USO to provide comfort and entertainment for soldiers, sailor and Marines overs
eas but also on the home front before they shipped out to fight in Europe or Asia.
"That's an aspect of the USO that sometimes gets overlooked," said Matt McCoy, University of Arkansas at Fort Smith professor of history. "Not
only did they operate overseas but also here in the United States as well. They had clubs all over the country in every major city and near every military base, so that the men who were in training or stationed in the U.S. also could find a decent time. They loved it as well."
Early in his service, Pitts thought he was going to be one of those men going overseas to fight the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan; then something happened.
One of his commanding officers became aware Pitts was performing magic shows through the Army's Special Services division and thought he could make a bigger contribution to the war effort through the USO.
He was frustrated then, but not so much today.
"It was fortunate because some of the fellows I was in training with never made it back," he said. "I didn't know that would be the case. I was upset because I wanted to go and be with them. That's what I was trained for."
Instead, he began doing his magic act for troops on Texas bases training to go overseas as he had been doing.
That's what he did during the remainder of World War II, trying to distract U.S. armed services personnel nervous about what they would face once deployed. Only occasionally did he perform for returning servicemen.
Pitts also helped organize USO shows, escorted celebrities visiting bases as part of the USO program and took care of several other more mundane duties.
Although the names and faces of some of the famous singers and comedians he met have faded from memory over the decades, he still can recall meeting Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters singing trio.
All the celebrity guests on the bases behaved themselves and kept their egos in check, Pitts said. He doesn't recall any ugly, diva-like behavior from any of them.
He did get a surprise for a famous man one day while performing from a group of troops.
"One time, I performed at Shepherd Field," Pitts said. "I didn't know that (the magician Harry) Blackstone was in the audience. He had performed at the Joie Theatre in Fort Smith and been in my home here. I did a trick, and when I got through, the MC introduced Blackstone in the audience. The audience applauded something fierce. I did, too. He called me back out on stage. He said, ‘Let's do some of the tricks we did in your home in Fort Smith.'"
The members of another audience weren't famous then but did become famous later: the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the armed forces.
"We got to be good friends," he said. "They did a better job than some of our white pilots. They held themselves to a higher standard. I was proud to be associated with them as well as the other fliers."
Pitts stayed in the service for several more years after the war and was in the Air Corps when it became the Air Force.
He went on to rise through the ranks of veterans to become commander of a local American Legion post as well as through the ranks of magicians to become a president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
Today, he still performs magic along with his wife and in patriotic educational efforts in area schools
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