Bob Hope: The USO’s One-Man Morale Machine
By Ann Oldenburg
The scene: The tiny island of Diego Garcia, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Christmas 1972.
Seabee Ron Ronning, 19, and his fellow naval construction buddies worked around the clock to build a runway for Bob Hope’s C-141. The comedy legend was about to put on what would be his final USO show of the Vietnam War.
It was 1 p.m., and it was hot. “On that island it was 113 degrees every day,” said Ronning, now 63 and the former mayor of Appleton, Minnesota. That Christmas Day, “It was raining, pouring rain before the show. Then, all of a sudden, the sunlight came out.”
Men hung from cranes and other heavy equipment to get a good view of the stage. Hope, twirling his golf club and delivering one-liners, was a huge hit. “He got a standing ovation from the minute he came on,” Ronning said.
Comedian Redd Foxx, singer Lola Falana and a dozen “American Beauties,” among others, joined Hope on that tour. But Hope and his USO gang’s presence on the tiny island was about much more than entertainment.
“They increased the morale immensely,” Ronning recalled. “It was miserable there. But that visit really made the difference in our deployment—that got us through the next four, five months. He brought such enthusiasm, brought your life back to you. You felt like you were renewed,” he said. “That was one of the biggest thrills of my life.”
It’s a scene that played out again and again for nearly 50 years—from World War II through Vietnam to the Gulf War. The legendary comedian traveled the world, visiting remote outposts in Alaska, dangerous battle zones in Beirut and isolated battleships in faraway seas to put on USO shows. It was a collaboration that forever linked the names “Bob Hope” and “the USO,” giving both a new visibility, respect and recognition.
Why did Hope do it? What drove his dedication?
His daughter, Linda, one of Bob and Dolores Hope’s four children, said it’s simple. “I think it has to do with laughter.”
From his first show at March Field in Riverside, California, in 1941, to his final USO tour in 1990 to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, Hope loved to make ’em laugh.
He started his career in the 1920s as a vaudeville comedian, but was needed to bring laughter to a different kind of venue. Hope lightened the mood in deadly serious situations. And he thrived on the crowd’s response.
“They were just amazing audiences—with their courage and their love of laughter and humor,” Linda said. “I think one can’t be near that in large doses and not be touched. It was always something he felt compelled to do.”
Part of Hope’s shtick was to poke fun at the unit’s own military brass, a technique that always worked.
“He came up with the idea of finding out who were the officers and what were the situations at the various bases and built his monologues about those particular things. He got a real connection with the guys that were serving,” Linda said.
He loved to joke about sex and women: “There’s still a great need for the USO. Some of our bases are pretty remote. Last Christmas in Alaska, I met a GI who was so lonely he was going steady with his tattoo. And his buddies kept asking him if she’s got a sister!”
He’d also poke fun of himself: “Working in a war zone is great for a comedian. You can always blame the bombs on the enemy.”
And the USO: “The USO and I have had a wonderful relationship over the years, extending to all parts of the world. In fact, from the South Pacific I still get Christmas cards from old diseases!”
Christmas at the Hope house in Toluca Lake, California, usually meant one thing: Dad was gone. Holidays for the Hope kids took on a new meaning.
“I remember saying, ‘Why does Dad always have to be away? All these other families have their dads home for Christmas,” Linda said. But she is quick to add that Mom would put it in proper perspective for her.
“She said, ‘No, not all have them are home for Christmas. Think of boys and girls who don’t have their dads for years and years because they are serving overseas. Remember the boys and girls whose fathers may never come back.’”
Whether Christmas or any other time, it was always an event to say goodbye to her father as he headed off on a tour, she said.
“We would go to see them off at some private airfield. There would be all the band members. People don’t think of the fact that the Les Brown band traveled with Dad for so many years—to Korea first and Vietnam. We would see all the wives and families of the band members. There must have been at least 20 of them that traveled. It was really interesting,” she remembered.
“It was a ritual to see him off, and when he came home it’d be the same thing all over again,” she said.
But Linda also remembers that she worried about her father as he left for dangerous war zones.
“There were a number of close calls. Some of them were caught on the television programs—you’d see fighter jets. But usually we didn’t hear about it until he came back. And he’d tell all of us that with the DoD and the USO we’ll be as safe as possible.”
Dolores Hope, meanwhile, worked hard to try to give the kids a normal upbringing, not that of a movie star’s children.
“We went to the local parish school,” Linda said. “We had a regular life, and then all of a sudden we’d see Dad up on stage, singing and dancing and telling jokes and everybody laughing and having a good time in hangars. It was pretty awesome, frankly.”
Actress Brooke Shields recalls having an awesome time with Bob Hope, too. She was 15 when she performed in her first show in 1981, “Bob Hope Salutes the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.” It was her first of 27 shows with Hope.
“The joke became I did more Bob Hope shows than he did,” she said. “He would be angry if my school schedule wouldn’t let me be in one of the Christmas specials. So he would rearrange the schedule.”
Traveling on USO tours with Hope is an experience Shields, 50, said she’ll never forget. “Landing on the USS Kennedy in 1983 was one of the most emotional Christmases I have ever spent. When you go down into all these landings, all the service men welcomed us so warmly. You could see the joy that it gave them for us to be there.”
But it was a rigorous schedule, the actress recalled, with Hope leading the charge.
“Anywhere we went, whenever we landed … we would always do an impromptu show,” she said. “Bob would say, ‘Come here, let’s do this,’ and we’d go into one of our little bits. Then we’d go to the next place. He was constantly on, constantly entertaining—whether it was three people in the commissary or the entire unit.
“He gave them respect and provided them with joy,” Shields said. “He had complete commitment and real respect for them.”
Hope’s legacy is, she said, “Humanity for our men and women in uniform.”
Humanity, caring, commitment, support of the troops—that was the mission of the USO and it was Hope’s goal, too. When the USO was founded in 1941 and he began doing USO shows, he provided a crucial link to home for military families.
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Communication wasn’t instantaneous like it is today. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hope often did his radio show from military bases overseas. “The people back at home loved hearing something from a base from where one of their loved ones was stationed,” Linda said. Handwritten letters were also cherished, she added.
“I remember seeing these letters Dad would get on very thin, onionskin paper.” It was correspondence from the GIs. He got thousands of letters over the years. His secretary would sit down with him every week or two and he would dictate responses to be typed up and mailed off.
“The letters were amazing,” Linda said. “They had to do with such a variety of topics—asking when they were going to be coming home and would he be able to set a date with Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth. There were a lot of those.”
Some letters were more serious, she said. “Families of GIs who died would send a letter to Dad writing that the last thing they heard from their loved one was they had seen the Hope show and what a fun time that was, how grateful they were Dad had given them that respite from the awful conditions.”
Linda recalls one soldier’s letter in particular. “A platoon in the South Pacific had marched to get to this base where Dad was doing some shows. They arrived late and the show was over and this one fellow was saying how disappointed he was. Dad heard that this platoon marched all this way and missed the show. He got a Jeep, got (singer) Frances Langford and (comedian) Jerry Colonna and found the platoon and did a half-hour show.”
Service members often went to great lengths to see a show.
Rob Struck was a 21-year-old mail clerk when he hopped the back of a Jeep in Phuoc Binh and rode for more than two hours to Long Binh, a sprawling U.S. Army base in Vietnam, to see Hope’s 1970 Christmas Day show. Hope closed the show with “Silent Night.”
“There was not a dry eye in the house,” says Struck, 66, who now lives in Kennewick, Washington.
“In my eyes, Bob Hope is a true American hero. I’m sure I speak for many vets, not only Vietnam, but also Korea and WWII,” Struck said. “I can honestly say being able to attend the 1970 Bob Hope Christmas Show in Long Binh was the highlight of my Vietnam tour.”
Connie Stevens, 77, has a similar view of Hope. The actress and singer said the years she spent touring with him provided some of the most “meaningful” moments of her life.
She and Hope were on a plane on Christmas Eve. “He woke me up and said, ‘We’re over the water and there’s a ship that has 2,700 men down below and they’re kind of asleep right now but the admiral would like you to say something to them.”
“I got up and went to the cockpit and made a speech to the boys and then I sang, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It was very poignant to me. There were so many men down in this black ocean.
“He taught me how to serve my country,” Stevens said of Hope.
Linda got a firsthand taste of USO tours when she began producing her father’s television specials, something she did for the last 20 years he performed them. In 1990, she went on his last USO tour to Saudi Arabia.
“I produced that show. It was a very interesting experience because of all the restrictions in the Middle East—respecting all their religious [traditions],” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go and produce the show if my father hadn’t been there to oversee me and be responsible for me, even though I was the one doing all the business and the work to set up things to protect him and all the cast and crew.”
By then, her father was in his late 80s.
“To see him on the backs of trucks and doing shows, climbing on ammo crates and in and out of helicopters, it was really inspiring for me,” she said. “He had the same caring attitude. And even though he had 60, 70 years difference between the young men and women who were serving at that time and himself, he tried to be topical and bring the same kind of feeling to the show.”
By then, computers and cellphones were starting to change the world.
“He was always well-received and they were happy to have a respite from what they were doing. His whole style was based on his vaudeville experience and variety shows, and things had changed. I think he tried to change with it,” Linda said.
“I’m not sure he touched them in the same way that he did in World War II,” she added, wistfully.
But he didn’t play favorites. “I think whatever he was involved with was the favorite tour.”
Linda is working to ensure her father’s memory and contributions will not be forgotten with the Bob and Dolores Hope Charitable Foundation and programs devoted to things that were important to him.
“He really wanted to continue his presence with the military and that’s what we’re trying to do—is reach out to veterans.
“Things change. Life goes on,” she said. That’s why the foundation focuses its financial support on the things Hope cared about, rather than getting his name out. “That’s a better legacy and use of the money he put in the foundation—to do some good.”
“He’ll be remembered,” she vowed.
—Ann Oldenburg is a Washington area-based freelance writer and former Washington Post and USA Today writer. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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