Bob Hope made his first USO debut in May of 1941 and continued throughout WWII. In the words of John Steinbeck who was a war correspondent in 1943 - “When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.”
It’s hard to argue with Steinbeck’s assessment considering that Hope did over 200 performances for 35 consecutive years, from WWII to Korea, to Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. This included 8 straight Christmas tours during the Vietnam War and a Christmas show in Lebanon just 2 months after the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut. In all, his USO tours went on for over half a century, bringing a bit of home and laughter to our military men and women wherever our government chose to send them.
While I worked on Christmas projects, I popped in a compilation of Bob Hope's eight years touring Vietnam at Christmas. I felt nostalgic watching those shows from so long ago. Partly, I supposed, because I was young then, too. But more because in spite of the turmoil and protests that the Vietnam War created here in America, it seemed a more innocent time. Mr. Hope brought girls to sing and dance for soldiers who were barely more than boys and had never been so far from home or so close to death on a daily basis. He brought sports stars and astronauts and comedians. He brought letters from home. He carried a golf club and did soft shoe routines. He joked about the perils of flying into those dangerous places, about arrested landings on carriers and about being in a war zone. It occurred to me that half of the punch lines would be considered politically incorrect today. Even the singing of Silent Night at the end of every show would be considered offensive to some today and therefore deemed inappropriate. And I began to wonder where the spirit of America has gone.
In spite of having come of age during the Vietnam years, I still did a considerable amount of research for two books that I wrote featuring heroes who fought in that far away place at a time when we did not thank our men and women who gave so much when called. I learned far more than I wanted to about the bleak and frustrating day to day slog. About men who gave their lives while politicians gave lip service. I learned from the men themselves about the heartbreak of losing friends on the battlefield and the added heartbreak of being spit on and cursed when they finally made it home again themselves. With these revelations not so faded in my mind, I watched the soldiers who came to Bob Hope’s shows. Men who were tanned and thin, some who were wounded, all who were disillusioned and yet, in spite of all that, there were smiles on their faces during those shows. For those brief hours, the war receded and Hope prevailed.
Bob Hope did his last USO Christmas tour in 1991 when he was well into his 80s. Since then others have taken on the crusade to bring a bit of home and holiday cheer to our soldiers at Christmas and all year. People like Gary Sinise, Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert, Randy Travis and Billy Joel, Robin Williams, Robert DeNiro, Willy Nelson, and dozens more. But there will never be another Bob Hope. His was an era like no other. And as his signature song says . . . “Thanks for the Memory.”