Hollywood and the USO (United Service Organizations) have recently lost a very dear and special friend with the passing of 84-year-old Johnny Grant.
The avuncular Grant, who was the honorary mayor of Tinsel town, was Hollywood’s most recognized spokesman for his work as chairman of the Walk of Fame Selection Committee, not to mention Hollywood’s Ambassador of Goodwill.
Whether it was serving as a sort of ‘master of ceremonies when someone was to receive a “star” on Hollywood’s famous “walk of fame” or working with various charity organizations, Grant contributed much to promoting goodwill within the community.
Although Grant had a distinguished career in radio and television that spanned over six decades, from his earliest work as a newscaster in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to his star-studded productions of the Hollywood Christmas Parade and hundreds of charity telecasts, the heart and soul of Grant’s life was his dedicated USO service. He was the master of over 4,500 ceremonies, completed more than 14 trips to Korea, 14 tours in Vietnam and an amazing 50 USO overseas shows.
Additionally, he personally organized visits to lift the morale, hopes and dreams of U.S. service members serving overseas.
I first had the chance to see Grant in 2000 when he came to Korea to take part in a USO banquet for U.S. Korean War veterans who had returned to Korea for commemoration events in June of that year on the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. A year later, in June 2001, I had the chance to personally meet Grant for an article for the Korea Times when he was on one of those USO trips to Korea to entertain the troops.
Back then at 78 years of age, there seemed to be no stopping a man who got his start with the USO with the help of another legendary USO personality, Bob Hope.
He had many fond memories of visiting Korea, especially when it came to entertaining the troops, which had been his lifeline as a USO entertainer.
What struck me most about the interview I had with him was how he had never forgotten his first USO tour in Korea when he came here during Christmas in 1951.
”The first time I remember landing at Kimpo and finally coming into downtown Seoul, about the only building that was still standing was the old Chosun Hotel,” recalled Grant during the interview. ”We stayed there. I just couldn’t believe the devastation that had already taken place here in Seoul.”
Listening to Grant recall in that interview what it must have been like in Korea during the Korean Conflict, which lasted from 1950-53, reminded me of all the sacrifices men and women made on the behalf of Korea.
I was covering many of the Korean War commemoration events taking place around the peninsula. Listening to Grant talk about how he and others had entertained troops during the war made me feel a part of history. Grant, like many of the returning veterans I would meet from 2000-2003, helped me to understand the Korean War better and those sacrifices that so many young men and women made.
In the years following the Korean War, coming back to Korea, whether to perform or to visit, was always quite rewarding for Grant. What had impressed him the most about Korea in the years following the conflict was how much Korea had changed and evolved in such a short period of time, not to mention how the country was able to rebuild.
“I’ve loved the spirit of the Korean people. In many ways they are entrepreneurs, they love adventure,” recalled Grant during the interview. “They love to take chances.”
I felt fortunate that I could have met someone like Grant when he returned to Korea in 2001 and sit down with him and talk about his experiences as an entertainer coming to Korea during the Korean War.
What I have always admired most about the entertainers who have come to Korea to visit the troops has been how much they appreciate not only the chance to come here, but also the important role they play being a part of the USO and its mission around the world.
To be sure, the USO has played a very important role here in Korea over the years since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War ― not only for service members serving here on the peninsula ― but also as a bridge between the military and the Korean community.
People vaguely aware of the USO think that it is only for service members stationed in Korea, but the USO also has programs and services for civilians ― Korean and non-Korean ― ranging from tours here and abroad, tickets to concerts and other events, as well as a canteen with some honest-to-goodness home-style cooking.
Grant was a very kind and gracious man and I was fortunate to have had the chance to sit down and talk with someone who had such a rewarding life.
A few weeks after the interview, Grant sent me an email thanking me for the interview and inviting me to visit him if I was ever in Hollywood. Sadly, I never had the chance to take him up on his offer.
Yes, Hollywood and the USO lost a very dear and special friend. Johnny Grant will be missed, but his legacy and the life he dedicated to the USO will remain an integral part of the USO’s mission both here and around the world.