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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This exclusive excerpt comes from Bob Hope, a collectible keepsake magazine available here.