Well, here we are ladies and gentlemen, at March Field, one of the Army’s great flying fields, located near Riverside, California.
And I want to tell you that I’m thrilled being here. But I’m really here on business. I came up to look at some of the sweaters I knitted.
And what a wonderful welcome they gave me. As soon as I got in the camp, I receive a ten-gun salute. They told me on the operating table.
When I arrived here I was dressed Hollywood style. I walked into the barracks wearing orange slacks, a lavender polo shirt, and blue beret. The soldiers saw me and that’s all I remember.
I watched them putting gas in one of the big bombers and boy what a big tank. It’s really remarkable. Just two pints short of W. C. Fields.
My brother is learning to be a flyer at a training field in Florida, but they must be having floods down there because in his last letter he said he’d just been washed out at Pensacola.
One of the aviators here took me for a plane ride this afternoon. I wasn’t frightened. But at two thousand feet my goose pimples began bailing out…
That was how it sounded 70 years ago on May 6, when Bob Hope gave his first USO performance. That show at March Field started a 50-year continuous run that appeared at combat zones and military hospitals across Europe, the Pacific islands, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.
In 1967, Post writer Trevor Armbrister followed Hope’s troupe during one of its tours of Vietnam, and captured a sense of the hard work and dedication Hope gave to this cause.
As the plane began its descent into Saigon, he seemed apprehensive, “This is where the trip really starts,” he said to singer Jack Jones. “If you want to be nervous, now is the time.”
Landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport, the giant jet taxied to a halt, and the door was opened. Clutching a golf club, Hope stepped off the plane first.
“What’s the club for?” a reporter asked.
Bob grinned. “Well,” he said, “that’s just to keep my grip in shape until I get back, and also for a little protection.”
“From whom, Bob?”
“From both sides.”
“They blew up the Brink Hotel (an officers’ billet in Saigon) the last time you were here,” another newsman said. “Are you scared this time?”
“Not at all,” Hope replied. “In fact, I may even sleep on top of the bed.”
[Immediately after finishing his show in Saigon,] a limousine was waiting to speed him to a nearby military hospital. Followed by the rest of his troupe, Hope moved through the wards at a brisk pace. He asked each man how he got hurt and how he was feeling. He told a few jokes and signed autographs. But be never expressed any sympathy.
“That’s the last thing these guys want,” he says, “If you give them sympathy, they’ll turn away. You gotta be clinical about it and talk to ‘em on an honest basis. All these guys in traction—I say, ‘Don’t get up, fellas.’ or ‘OK, somebody get the dice and let’s get started,’ In the old days, [comedian Jerry] Colonna and I would even get in bed with the patients.”
“You have to show them that you’re really happy to see them,” Colonna says, “and in some cases, it’s really tough. You know how they feel and they know how they feel. I choke up and get a lump in my throat and I have to walk away. But Bob—he’s learned how to hold back his emotions.”
He hasn’t always succeeded. Once, on the island of Espiritu Santo in 1944, Hope stopped by the bedside of a severely wounded soldier who was receiving blood transfusions. “I see where they’re giving you a little pick-me-up,” the comedian declared. “It’s only raspberry soda,” the boy replied, “but it feels pretty good.” Two hours later, Hope was told that the boy was dead. “I thought about how in his last moments he’d grinned and tried to say something light,” Hope recalls, “and I couldn’t stand it. I had to go outside and pull myself together.”
At 10 o’clock next morning the troupe piled into a C-130 for the short flight to the marine base at Chu Lai. Hope has long had a special affection for he marines (During the Korean War he landed by an incredible mistake on the beach at Wonsan 20 minutes before the marines stormed ashore to occupy the place. “It’s nice to have you here,” he quipped. “You must come to all our invasions.”) and that affection is reciprocated.
“When I got off the plane this morning,” he said [in his opening monologue], “I asked a sergeant where the Viet Cong was. He draws wonderful circles…
“This trip. I’m traveling light. I just brought a toothbrush, a pair of black pajamas and a white flag…
“This is the most secret base I’ve ever visited. Everything’s strictly hush-hush. At dawn, the bugler just thinks reveille…”
Five hours later the plane landed at Guam. As Hope stepped down—his golf club in hand—a Navy band swung into Thanks for the Memory. Most of the entertainers went immediately to their quarters to get some sleep before the show. But when Hope learned that a squadron of 24 B-53′s was about to take off on a mission over Vietnam, he drove to the pilots’ ready room and—with Jerry Colonna and Carroll Baker at his side—performed for nearly an hour.
There was a show that afternoon for 12,000 servicemen at Andersen Field, then another banquet in another officers’ club. At nine o’clock on that final night of the tour, the troupe climbed into the C-141 for the long haul back to Los Angeles, and all the entertainers fell asleep immediately.
All except Hope. In the last 24 hours, he had had three rubdowns, but his legs still hurt and there were dark circles under his eyes. A special bunk bad been prepared for him in the cockpit, but he couldn’t sleep, and he stood now by the galley in the darkened cabin and talked about the special thrill he gets from performing for servicemen.
“It’s instant satisfaction,” he said. “You do a movie or a TV show and you have to wait to find out if it’s any good. But here, you go out and sock ‘em and those guys applaud; it’s man to man and you have a feeling you’re really helping when you make those kids forget their own problems…”
“Aren’t you tired?”
For a second the comedian paused. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m happy tired.”
Shortly after the death of Bob Hope on July 27, 2003, CNN interviewed his grandson, Zach. When asked what he would remember best about his grandfather, Zach replied it was Hope’s laughter ”until the end.”
“We asked him where he wanted to be buried, and he said, ‘surprise me.’”