Bob Hope’s Emotional USO Memories: “I Get a Lot More Than I Give”

A look back at the inspiring hard work entertainer Bob Hope put in for our troops—written by the legend himself.

By Bob Hope

Bob Hope USO show Wonsan Korea October 26 1950

A scant five years after Hope’s last WWII performance, he was back in Asia entertaining American GIs. Here Hope sits with men of the U.S. Army’s X Corps as members of his troupe entertain at Wonsan, Korea, October 26, 1950.

Bob Hope is deservedly known as the best friend a serviceman ever had. Starting during World War II, he flew more than two million miles to bring laughter and entertainment to some 12 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. In the following vignettes, he recalls some of the humorous and poignant memories of these visits.

Our huge C130 droned high over the jungle. The scenery below looked much like Oregon: towering mountains and lush green valleys, the picture of tranquillity. We were snapped back to reality when our project officer stood up to make an announcement.

“If there is a mortar attack on the show site, lie down flat to reduce the target,” he said. “If your hotel is under attack, lie down on the floor and cover your face and eyes. Do not go to a window. The greatest danger is from flying glass. Your best protection would be to cover yourself with your mattress.” The major’s matter-of-fact words brought home to us that we were landing once again in Vietnam. And though we’re there primarily as entertainers doing a Christmas show, it isn’t all jokes and pretty girls.

People ask if I don’t mind leaving my family at Christmas to fly halfway around the world to be with the troops. My answer is: I get a lot more than I give! Some say it’s an unpopular war we’re carrying on in South Vietnam, but, as far as I’m concerned, we have 500,000 of the most popular Americans I know fighting there. And the satisfaction that comes from bringing a few hours of laughter and home to these men living such hard, dangerous lives is difficult to express. I don’t care how often you’ve seen the war on TV or read about it, you have no idea what it’s really like until you’ve felt the heat, tasted the dust, sloshed through the mud, and talked to the men, especially the wounded. Yet their morale is unbelievable; it gives you a lift just to be with them.

You look out over an audience of laughing, applauding GIs, snapping pictures and wolf-whistling at the pretty girls, and you know that a lot of them aren’t going to make it home. It tears you up inside. And there are the wounded who will make it back but never be the same again. Visiting our casualties in hospitals, as I’ve been doing for three wars now, never gets any easier.

A candid look at Hope’s USO shows over the years »

The first time it really hit me hard was on Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific in World War II. I stopped by the bedside of a badly wounded boy who was getting a blood transfusion. “I see where they’re giving you a little pick-me-up,” I said. “It’s only raspberry soda,” the boy said, “but it feels pretty good.” Then he died. I thought about how in his last moments, he’d smiled and tried to say something light, and I couldn’t stand it. I had to go outside and pull myself together.

Bob Hope with Jill St. John

Bob Hope and Jill St. John in Saigon, December 25, 1964 for his annual Christmas USO show. Hope is wearing the Air Commando hat presented to him by the Bien Hoa Air base commander.

Hope in Indochina

Now it’s the wounded from Vietnam, and visiting them and talking with them is just as tough. But you can’t let it show through, or it destroys the purpose of your visit—to try to bring them a moment of cheer. They don’t want sympathy. They want to exchange laughs, and if they can top you, they love it. I try to breeze into a hospital ward, brash and bouncy, saying something like, “All right, get the dice and let’s get going,” or, “What happened to you? Were you driving on the Hollywood Freeway?” The men’s faces may be bathed in sweat, their eyes glazed with pain or sedation, but they almost always manage a smile when I shake hands. Their courage is inspiring.

Bob Hope, USO

Bob Hope visits U.S. troops in South Vietnam on Christmas Day, 1964.

We made our first Christmas trip to Vietnam in 1964. Ten minutes before we arrived at our Saigon hotel, the Vietcong bombed Brink’s Hotel, about a block away. Two Americans were killed, and 50 Americans and 15 Vietnamese were wounded in the blast. U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor asked if we’d mind going over to the Naval Hospital to see if we could cheer up the casualties.

The hospital was chaotic, with operating rooms and corridors overflowing. I met a good-looking captain whose head and right arm had just been bandaged. “I’m really embarrassed to meet you here, Mr. Hope,” he said with a grin. “I was supposed to be in charge of your security—and look at me!”

If there’s anything that gives our GIs a lift, it’s the sight of a pretty girl, so I always take plenty along. Exuberant singer Kaye Stevens is particularly good at cheering up casualties. Her approach is to run down the aisles between the beds, saying to each boy, “Hiyah! Wow! Hey, how about a kiss for Christmas?” Then she plants a big smack on him.

Yet even Kaye sometimes runs into a boy so badly wounded and disconsolate that he virtually defies cheering up. On one trip, as we walked through the wards of the Third Field Hospital near Saigon, she came to a boy called Frenchy, who’d had an arm and an ear blasted off. “Merry Christmas!” Kaye greeted him, with her usual ebullience. “What’s there to be merry about?” the boy asked bitterly, with some reason. “You’re alive, aren’t you, stupid?” Kaye persisted. “Merry Christmas!”

Frenchy didn’t respond, and Kaye turned away, crushed. That encounter haunted her. “Those sad eyes,” she said, “just staring at me.” On the way home, we visited the hospital at Clark Field in the Philippines. Kaye was walking through a ward when one of the boys called out, “Hey, Merry Christmas, stupid!” It was Frenchy, still all swathed in bandages. “How come you’re so cheerful now?” Kaye asked as her face lighted up. “I wasn’t feeling too good the last time,” Frenchy said. “But afterward I got to thinking about it, and you were right. I’m still alive. Can I have my Christmas kiss now?” Kaye gave him a resounding one, and he was all smiles as we left.

More rare, candid photos of Hope at his USO shows »

Bob Hope birthday letter June 15 1966 North Hollywood

Bob Hope reads an 80-foot-long letter (equal in length to the average 18-wheeler) of birthday wishes from GIs in Vietnam at his North Hollywood home, June 15, 1966.

They say there’s a healing power in laughter, so I always go well supplied with jokes. And I’ve discovered that our men are pretty quick with the jokes themselves. I found this out in New Guinea in World War II. Our troupe was playing to a group of 5,000 lonely, battle-weary men at Hollandia. Frances Langford came out and began singing, “I’m in the Mood for Love.” Some sailor yelled, “You’ve come to the right place, honey,” getting the biggest laugh I ever heard in a jungle. In U.S. hospitals in Vietnam, I’ve found signs reading, “Welcome, Bing,” and, “We love you, Bing.” In one ward, 1st Lt. John J. Fannelli, of Brooklyn, a victim of shrapnel wounds in the leg and chest, had a sign on his bed that read, “Quiet: Bone Growing.” In another ward for orthopedic patients they had a sign: “Welcome, Bob Hope. We’d stand and salute—but at the moment we’re all hung up.” The most poignant sign read simply: “Forever is a day in Vietnam.” Talk about humor. I was doing a show on one trip for the “Jolly Green Giants” (air rescue operation) at Nakhon Phanom. We had an audience of several thousand men, when suddenly our sound system conked out and left me talking to myself. “There’s no hot water, either!” someone yelled, getting one of the biggest laughs of the day.

At each show I’m introduced by an enlisted man, and some of them are pretty darn sharp. Last year at Long Binh, I was introduced by SP/5 Bruce D. Gaub, of Seattle. “Bob’s clothes are very unusual,” he said. “He has a flak jacket tailored into every suit. His clothes are done by Hart, Schaffner, and U.S. Steel.” During that same trip, I talked to Sgt. Bob Stuckey of Richmond, Indiana, one of the “River Rats” who comb the Mekong Delta for the Vietcong. In addition to the ever-present danger, operating a small boat in choppy water means that Stuckey is wet and uncomfortable most of the time. I asked him how he was chosen for the job. “I knew someone in Washington,” he cracked.

The best GI joke I heard last year was told to me by SP/5 Steve Ramsey, of Denver: A hardboiled old sergeant was giving a new recruit a tough time, riding him unmercifully. “I know your type,” he told the recruit. “You’re the kind that’s going to wait around for me to die and then spit on my grave.”

“No, sir, Sarge,” the recruit protested. “When I get out of the Army, I ain’t never gonna stand in line again.”

Christmas, Plus Combat

Leaving Vietnam is always a wrench, for though we’re going back to comfort and safety, the thousands of men we have entertained are trudging back to the danger, dirt, and heat of a bloody war. This was especially brought home to me last year at Chu Lai, a sprawling, sandy base where about 15,000 men saw our show. The weather was beautiful, and it was hard to believe that just a few miles away men were being killed and wounded.

The audience was a good one, laughing and whistling and cheering for Ann-Margret and the other pretty girls. When we finished, we drove in a jeep convoy along the dusty red beach roads to the air strip. Believe me, it was the loneliest sight in the world, the thousands of men streaming back to their posts, carrying their rifles. They seemed weary. The brief respite from their drab and dangerous lives was over. Yet they waved goodbye and called out, “Merry Christmas!” as we passed.

The most poignant moment of our trips is always Christmas Eve, when our cast joins with the GIs in singing “Silent Night.” One reason it is especially touching is that this is when attendants begin carrying the litter patients back to the hospitals. One year at An Khe, Diana Lynn Batts, Miss U.S.A., cried unabashedly during the song. Afterward she asked Jerry Colonna, a veteran of several of our trips, how it was possible to sing “Silent Night” with the men without breaking down. “Just look over their heads,” Jerry said. “If you look into those faces, you’ve had it.” They are great faces and great men. The best we have.

Bob Hope: On Sale NowThis exclusive excerpt comes from Bob Hope, a collectible keepsake magazine available here.

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