Surprise! USO Pacific Delivers Its 5,000th Birthday Cake

By Katie Lange

Imagine spending your birthday far from home, without any family or friends to celebrate with you. Then — BAM! — next thing you know, you’re being surprised with a birthday cake and a personal message from those loved ones you’re missing.

Thanks to a wildly popular USO Pacific program, birthday cake deliveries have been happening for thousands of service members over the past 12 years.

Thirteen Marines stand in a group for a photo. Two in the front are holding up a sign that says “Operation Birthday Cake, Happy Birthday, From USO Foster.” One in the middle is holding a cake, while one in the background gives two thumbs up.

Several Marines help one of their own celebrate his birthday at Camp Foster, Okinawa. USO Okinawa Facebook photo

Operation Birthday Cake

It all started in 2007, after the mother of a newly deployed Marine requested to have a birthday cake sent to him. The USO Pacific agreed, and the mom was so thrilled that she shared the news with other military moms. The next week, the USO center in Okinawa had 15 more cake requests.

Thus, Operation Birthday Cake was born. Since then, the program has delivered nearly 7,000 cakes across the Pacific — to Hawaii, Guam, South Korea, mainland Japan and even Australia — but it’s most prevalent in Okinawa, where a huge number of young Marines are deployed. Thanks to their families, that USO center recently delivered its 5,000th cake — to Marine Corps Cpl. Cody Gnall.

A large sheet cake with two balloons attached to the top corners reads “Happy Birthday. We celebrate our 5,000th cake.” It includes the USO logo.

USO Okinawa delivered its 5,000th cake to a Marine at Camp Schwab on July 22, 2019, as part of the Operation Birthday Cake program. USO Okinawa Facebook photo

“Many of [these service members] are away from home for the very first time,” explained USO Regional Vice President C.K. Hyde. “So, it’s a great opportunity for their families back home to engage with them and get that meaningful connection on a special day of the year.”

Do the Service Members Know?

For a majority of service members, the cakes are a surprise.

“A lot of these big, tough service members, you can tell they’re moved, especially when the message from their family back home is read to them,” Hyde said. “It’s really quite meaningful for everyone involved.”

SURPRISE! There’s nothing better than bringing a birthday cake surprise from a mom and dad to their son when they can’t be there and the Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 were ready to show some love! Happy Birthday to Major Batcha! Thanks for letting us be part of this special day! #OperationBirthdayCake #BeTheForce

Posted by USO Hawaii on Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The cake-deliverers often capture the surprise on video, then send it back to the family. Sometimes the presentation will be livestreamed and the families can actually be part of it.

Who Makes the Cakes, and How Are They Delivered?

On Okinawa, most of the cakes are from the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. For service members on naval ships or remote locations, they’re made at a base commissary or even possibly a local bakery.

A sailor pipes icing onto a large sheet cake while on a ship.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Proceso Canlas, from Manila, Philippines, writes the names of sailors celebrating August birthdays. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen J. Zeller

Delivery can be intricate, but the USO makes it happen through its staff and a network of more than 2,500 volunteers across the Pacific.

“For instance, on the USS Ronald Reagan, which is a 5,000 person city — the aircraft carrier home-based in Yokosuka [Japan], … what we will do is we will work with the Navy leadership team, and if there are five to 10 people, we’ll get them all together with their leadership in one of the galleys on the ship, and some of our volunteers will go and deliver multiple cakes at once,” Hyde said.

A young Marine holds up a box with a cake in it that reads “Happy 20th Birthday Sam.” Several other Marines seated around a table smile.

A Marine on rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, is surprised by his unit with a locally made birthday cake delivered from the USO. USO Pacific Facebook photo

“We can track people down almost anywhere across the Pacific and make sure that they get a cake,” he continued. “About the only exception is if a ship is at sea executing an operational mission where security is the predominant factor. We can’t really reach out to those locations.”

But the effort is totally worth it, he said.

“There’s no denying that doing about 1,500 cakes a year takes a lot of time and effort, but it really is a labor of love,” Hyde said.

Several Marines stand outside a building door to sing happy birthday to a fellow Marine. One of the men holds a box with a cake.

Several Marines surprise a fellow Marine with a birthday cake outside a building. USO Okinawa Facebook photo

Other USO centers across the world have delivered cakes in the past, but the USO Pacific said it’s the only one with an organized program.

“I just think it’s a natural fit with our region,” Hyde said. “The Pacific Fleet is the largest of all the U.S. fleets, with approximately two-thirds of all the major surface combatants in the U.S. Navy assigned or deployed to the Pacific.”

How Can I Order a Cake?

The cakes are paid for through the USO’s operational budget, which is funded by donations. There are online forms you can fill out to request a cake for your service member if they’re in Japan or Hawaii. Otherwise, you can get in touch with the USO Pacific and find out how they can surprise your loved one!

A young Marine smiles while holding up a cake that says “Happy Birthday Twin!”

A Marine smiles for the camera as he holds his birthday cake up in Okinawa, Japan. USO Okinawa Facebook photo

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Surprise! USO Pacific Delivers Its 5,000th Birthday Cake