By Mike Case
There were no Christmas trees in the fields of Vietnam. In the Persian Gulf, Santa hats were in short supply. For the folks back home, with a family member deployed, the holidays just didn’t quite feel the same.
Except for that one day – when the Bob Hope USO Christmas Show was live on base and broadcast on TV.
For many deployed service members during the 20th century, watching a live Bob Hope USO Christmas Show was the highlight of the holiday season. The first Bob Hope USO Christmas Show for the troops was in December of 1948, during the Berlin Airlift. It was, however, during the Vietnam War that the Annual Bob Hope USO Christmas Show became a beloved holiday tradition for both deployed troops and their friends and families back home.
The scope of Hope’s touring in Vietnam and Southeast Asia during the war meant that large numbers of troops were able to see the shows in person. The impact the holiday shows had on service members that saw them can be felt in letters written shortly after, and in the memories of the shows years later.
Bob Hope USO Christmas Shows in Vietnam
In this letter from Vietnam, dated December 25, 1967, Army Pfc. Christopher D. Ammons wrote about seeing the “Bob Hope Show” at Lai Khe:
“I couldn’t really believe it, there was Bob Hope right in front of me cracking jokes … at the end of the show we all sang Silent Night with the stars,” he said.
Ammons noted the number of television cameras and hoped that his family might catch a glimpse of him when the show was broadcast back stateside in January.
Russell Hohl, a Navy Seabee stationed at Camp Hoover, west of Da Nang, in 1965 had similar memories:
“Three of us worked two weeks straight, sun up to sun down, so that we could take a full day off. We got to the site of the show early and got a spot on the ground about 20 feet from the stage. We sat there all day waiting for him to arrive, but about 20 minutes before he arrived, several MPs (military policemen) showed up with a bunch of officers, and the MPs forced us to move so the officers could take our prime spots.”
By all accounts, Hope wouldn’t have approved of the officers making the enlisted Seabees change seats – he preferred that the seats closest to the stage be reserved for the enlisted troops, straight from the field, as well as hospital patients who were well enough to attend.
Still, despite the seating rearrangement, Hohl regarded the show as the “high point of my two tours in Vietnam.”
Even the troops in Vietnam who were unable to attend the Bob Hope USO Christmas Show still felt the impact of Hope’s shows in the country.
Veteran Donald Scott recalled when Hope and his crew visited Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in December 1966 and hosted a few shows:
“Being new in-country, I was on duty as an aerial port duty officer and did not get to attend a show. That evening, as they took off and were flying to their next destination, we called the plane – call-sign “Sky King” – from our [airlift control element] and spoke to Bob. He summoned Anita Bryant to the [microphone] and she sang ‘Silent Night’ to us as they flew through the dark, black skies of Vietnam. I will never forget this little act of kindness for a small group of about five guys who could not attend the big show.”
Bob Hope USO Christmas Shows in Desert Storm
A generation after the Vietnam War, Hope’s final Bob Hope USO Christmas Shows were held for troops deployed to Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. By this time, his legendary status had long been established, but the impact of his Christmas Shows was still just as strong.
Air Force Staff Sgt. John Haynes stated that seeing Hope in person “was one of the highlights of my Saudi deployment – and my life.”
Haynes recalled Hope climbing aboard a flatbed truck during a visit to Eskan Village, the American enclave in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1990.
“He just started talking to the troops and told some jokes,” Haynes said. “It was like a mini-show for the troops.”
Veteran John R. Rogers recalled:
“My whole unit – the 101st Pathfinder Detachment 2/17th Cav – was invited. The detachment was comprised of 52 men. We woke up Christmas morning, 1990, with an invitation at the foot of our bunks. At the time, we were living on cots in the parking garage of King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. It was under construction. We had no idea the USO would be putting on a Christmas Show, never mind with Bob Hope.
Most of us had fathers and/or grandfathers who saw the Bob Hope show during war-time and we felt that we now shared something special with them. There was a sense of history in the making. The show was fantastic. For me, it made my Christmas. Bob Hope was an icon. Who’s going to fill those shoes?”
Today, the USO carries on Hope’s legacy with the tradition of keeping troops connected to home and entertaining those who are deployed for the holidays though a variety of programs, including the annual USO Chairman’s Tour.