The flight was doomed.
Members of the USO’s Sharon Rogers All Girl Band sat in the rear of the C-47 in January 1946, eyeing each other anxiously. Dancer Julieann Holten fought off airsickness as the storm built.
The tempest kicked the cargo plane like a ball. It bounced across the sky, scattering passengers inside, none wearing a seat belt.
They crossed into Japan, their destination, and circled an airfield. It was pocked with bomb craters, too dangerous for a landing. The pilot turned toward the Sea of Japan, frothy and whipped by the storm.
“We’re going to hit,” the pilot yelled. “We’re going to hit hard!”
He brought the old cargo plane down tail first; it smacked a succession of waves, bang-bang-bang. He lowered the rest of the plane into the chop. It skipped like a huge stone tossed across a pond and began sinking in the icy water. Everyone donned life vests and scrambled onto the wings. Holten found a seat in one of two life rafts. Darkness was falling.
A member of the band reached in her pocket. “I’ve got a lighter,” she said. So did others. They raised them in the gloom — little points of light, the faintest plea for help in the wind and waves. Improbably, they attracted a Japanese fishing boat.
More than six decades after her brush with mortality, the dancer, now named Julieann Holten White, remembers it all — the drone of the engines, the waves reaching toward the plane, the wind howling for them all. The crash-landing took place when much of the world was picking itself up from a global war.
The world today is far-removed from that war. But for people who lived through it, World War II still looms large — especially on national holidays. Today is one.
White, now 84 and an Atlanta resident, entertained troops overseas for two years after the war. She was a member of the United Service Organization Camp Shows. It was an elite group: fewer than 2,000 USO performers, called “soldiers in greasepaint,” took their shows to war zones.
“People say, ‘Oh, you were in the USO. How glamorous,’” said White. “It was two shows a day. We rode in the back of 2 ½-ton trucks to get to shows. We performed in the rain, the cold. Sometimes, we were drenched in sweat.”
The USO, a nonprofit organization founded in 1941 to support troops at home and abroad, has locations across the country and world. The USO of Georgia has branches in Atlanta, Warner Robins and Savannah.
It’s hard to overstate the performers’ importance, said Mary Lou Austin, the CEO of the Georgia USO.
“It was so good for (fighters’) morale,” said Austin, noting that most of its performers were women. “We talk about women entering the work force now, but back then they were really at the forefront.”
The USO’s shows are known for famed performers like Bob Hope and the Andrews Sisters, but the majority of the entertainers were like Julieann Holten – young, patriotic and adventurous.
“Everybody wanted to do something” for the war effort, said White. “I was lucky to go.”
She was 16, and lied when a USO producer asked her age after the teen won a Chicago dance audition. Masquerading as an 18-year-old, the St. Louis resident joined St. Louis Showboat, a collection of musicians and dancers who performed an hour-long dance, music and comedy show. The revue shipped out in 1945, just as Japan surrendered.
The ensemble landed in Guam and soon was performing in airplane hangars and parking lots. They also took their show into areas where Japanese soldiers unwilling to surrender still lurked.
White recalls sitting in a massive truck, rain rattling on its tarp, and arriving at a distant site in the heart of the jungle. Men waited for the show, sitting on the hillside in the mud, wanting a glimpse of home. White and her peers gave it to them.
“We represented all the sisters, all the mothers and sweethearts back home,” she said. “They held us, kind of, in awe.”
The entertainers kept up a bruising schedule, hopping military transport planes that took them across the Pacific. When one flight crash-landed on the edge of a runway in Manila, injuring some performers, the young dancer and a partner joined the Sharon Rogers All-Girl Band, another USO ensemble.
The band was a hit wherever it played, said White. Call it sexism, for that’s what it was, but the troops didn’t expect the young women to play so loudly, or so well. White, all legs and smiles, added to the excitement.
She wrote home every day, as promised. White has some of those letters, discovered decades later in her late mother’s possessions. In one, she describes performing in a freezing theater. As they prepared to leave, the entertainers learned that hundreds of men who couldn’t get in the building stood in the snow, hoping for a glimpse of the revue.
“Of course, we unpacked everything and started over for the most enthusiastic audience you could ever imagine,” she wrote. “This was one of the things that made it all worthwhile.”
White took two more tours, one in Europe and another in the Pacific. Her USO career came to an end in 1947 when the organization ended its World War II-era oversea tours. She returned home to St. Louis, where she met Donald White, a young man with promise. They married, raised three sons and have lived for the past four decades at a handsome home not far off West Paces Ferry Road.
She still takes her show on the road, too. White and another octogenarian regularly entertain at retirement homes, canes in hand, smiles firmly in place, high-stepping to standards from another era. Once a show girl, always a show girl.
Does she still have great gams? White laughed.
“Ask my husband.”
“She sure does!”