Rosemary Matteson still remembers the white chiffon dress -- strapless and beautifully designed, with gold sequins.
She bought it at Garfinckel's, a Washington institution from a bygone era, to dance with soldiers fighting a different kind of war, a war where the question wasn't whether you supported the troops, but how.
It was 1942, and Matteson did her part by attending USO dances at the gleaming new USO building on Cameron Street in Alexandria. They were elegant affairs -- soldiers from Fort Belvoir in their neat olive gray uniforms, girls bused in from all over Virginia, trying to show the guys a good time before they went off to fight.
"We went because we wanted to be patriotic and we wanted to cheer up these kids,'' recalled Matteson, 84, who now lives in Flat Rock, N.C. "Most of them just wanted to talk, talk about home, their girlfriends. They didn't know what they were going to face. Everyone was behind them.''
It's a role the USO has been playing from World War II through today's conflict in Iraq: supporting American troops and their families. But the recent deluge of commemorations, stemming from the opening of the National World War II Memorial in the District and the 60th anniversary of D-Day, focused mostly on the troops and the war itself.
So when Alexandria officials began planning the city's entry into the memorial sweepstakes, they decided to focus instead on the organization made famous by images of Bob Hope cracking jokes at military bases around the world and Marilyn Monroe drawing hoots and cheers as she entertained the troops.
The result is "Alexandria Salutes! A USO Weekend," a three-day festival starting tomorrow that celebrates not only the troops but also the organization chartered to serve them. It features everything from World War II-era music and dancing to free shuttles to the National World War II Memorial and a three-act play that incorporates letters sent home from the troops.
"We wanted to become a part of the regional celebration honoring 'the Greatest Generation,' and it just sort of clicked that the USO would be a nice angle,'' said Laura Overstreet, vice president of communications at the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, which planned the event and is sponsoring it along with the city and the USO of Metropolitan Washington.
For the USO, formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 as the United Service Organizations, the weekend is a chance to remind people that the venerable organization is still around. The USO's own literature admits that the group's "high point" was back in 1944, when it had more than 3,000 clubs and sponsored 700 shows a day.
"When people think of the USO, of course they immediately think of Bob Hope and entertainment and the famous shows, the dances where the soldiers and sailors would come to the USO canteens and clubs,'' said Elaine Rogers, president of the USO of Metropolitan Washington. "We still have that wonderful legacy.''
But with 121 USO locations around the world, including 11 in the Washington area, the USO of today is plenty busy, Rogers said. The mission has changed somewhat. Though celebrities ranging from Jay Leno to Jessica Simpson still entertain the troops, today's USO is more focused on supporting the families, Rogers said.
With the rise of the all-volunteer military, she said, far more troops today have spouses and children than did the youthful soldiers of World War II. The USO sponsors family outreach centers, provides emergency housing to families in crisis or needing a place to stay while injured soldiers recover, and offers services such as after-school programs on military bases.
The organization also still sends its famous care packages to the troops, but with a modern-day twist made necessary by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax threat: The USO buys the goodies straight from the manufacturer and ensures that packages are secure.
Rogers said the USO is "very excited" about its weekend in Alexandria, whose own history is deeply intertwined with World War II and the USO.
In 1940, Alexandria was by all accounts a sleepy southern town with a population of 33,000. But when war broke out, the city's close proximity to Washington, the Pentagon and Fort Belvoir triggered a massive infusion of soldiers, sailors and government workers.
In 1942 alone, housing starts rose 57 percent from the year before, according to local historians. By 1944, the city's population had more than doubled, to 67,000.
The growing military presence made Alexandria a natural hub for the new USO. The first USO club occupied a building on South Royal Street, and work began on a new USO building on Cameron Street in December 1941, according to a 1993 article in the Fireside Sentinel, a journal of local history published by the Alexandria Library.
Opened on May 30, 1942, the one-story brick building "offered wholesome recreation to members of the armed forces,'' the article said. It included a spacious lounge with a log-burning fireplace, a cafeteria, a soda fountain, a library and a gymnasium capable of holding 500 dance couples.
The new building hosted dances, receptions, parties and plays, along with other USO facilities that later opened on North Washington and King streets.
Reflecting the segregated tenor of the times, African American soldiers were allowed to attend only a separate USO facility on Pendleton Street.
"The USO certainly helped maintain and boost morale locally,'' said T. Michael Miller, a research historian for the city's Office of Historic Alexandria and the author of the Fireside Sentinel article. "It served as a place for soldiers and military people to mix and try to do away with that feeling of loneliness.''
To young girls such as Ellie Randell, who worked for the Navy Department in Washington and lived in Alexandria, the USO galas were a godsend.
"Alexandria was pretty dead at that time for a young person,'' said Randell, 84, who now lives in Englewood, Fla. "There was no place to dance. We were very sheltered back then.''
A male relative would chaperone as Randell and up to eight girlfriends would show up on Cameron Street in long, full skirts and makeup. The room would be decorated with American flags. Everyone would dance to mostly swing music, along with the jitterbug and slow waltzes. Sometimes, soldiers would even grab a microphone and sing, which Randell likened to the karaoke bars of today.
"It was the worst of times and the best of times,'' she recalled. "We had friends, very close friends, who didn't come back from the war, and we all worried. But when we would go to these dances, we could enjoy ourselves.''
Randell said the soldiers always appreciated the effort to distract them from their deadly duties. That sentiment was echoed by Ellis Lucas, who performed at hundreds of USO shows during World War II as part of a popular husband-and-wife singing duo called Doraine and Ellis.
"You couldn't believe what wonderful audiences they were,'' said Lucas, 89, who said he was recommended for the USO gigs by Bob Hope; he and his wife, Doraine, knew him from their days performing at clubs around the United States.
"They needed to be entertained to relieve the pressures they were under on the battlefield," said Lucas, who lives in Charlotte. "They were just so enthusiastic."
William G. McNamara, an Alexandria resident who landed with the troops at Omaha Beach on D-Day while working for the military publication Stars and Stripes, met his wife at a USO dance in Richmond in 1942. He later attended USO shows given by Bob Hope and the Glenn Miller Band in Europe.
"They were a big morale boost, a tie to back home,'' he said.
McNamara said he was surprised but pleased to hear that this weekend's events in Alexandria will focus on the USO.
"Most of the emphasis since the middle of last month has been on World War II, the veterans and the memorial dedication,'' he said. "Nothing has been done until now on the civilian activities. A lot of people donated valuable time and money to entertain the troops, and I'm glad they're getting some recognition.''