Bob Hope interviews a service member on stage in Vietnam in 1966. USO photo
Bob Hope did more for American troops than he probably realized.
If you know the USO, you know about Hope’s decades entertaining troops. You’ve probably seen footage from his televised USO specials, too, where he entertained service members in dangerous spots around the world. But what you likely don’t know about is the personal impact he had on some of those troops — even those whose duties prevented them from attending the shows.
Here are two stories* sent to us by former service members who fought in Vietnam and were touched by Hope in unique ways without actually seeing him.
I had been in country less than a month when Bob Hope and his crew visited Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, in December 1966. They did a show at South Beach for the Army and Navy and one at the air base.
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.
The U.S. Air Force Fairchild C-123K Provider was a tactical airlift workhorse during the Vietnam War. I flew the C-123 out of Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam, and crisscrossed the length and breadth of the war zone on a regular basis. This gave me the opportunity to observe the realities of war and the impact of combat on the people involved.
One very noticeable constant was the resignation and despair that I saw on the faces of the battle- and boredom-weary soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that shuffled on and off of my C-123 each day. The war and its painful byproducts seemed to erase all other expressions from the faces of most of them. It’s not hard to understand why. Most of these men … were not there because they wanted to be, but because they had to be. Many had also already known a buddy — or at least had been aware of someone — who had been killed in an ambush, maimed by a booby trap, or caught in the web of cheap and easily accessible drugs. Tragically, all of them were also aware of the loud and negative segment of the population back home that neither cared about them nor cared about what they were going through day after day.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Tobias
Those facts all helped to make my flights on Dec. 24 and 25, 1971, even more significant.
My C-123 unit had asked for volunteers to fly troops to and from the Bob Hope USO shows in Bien Hoa those two days. I decided that, rather than sit in my room and be even lonelier on Christmas, flying in support of those shows would be a great alternative. So, I signed up to fly as many sorties as necessary. I eventually flew 13 sorties back and forth to Bien Hoa. Every flight was packed with as many troops as we could legally carry aboard the C-123. …
The flights to the shows were pretty much normal troop transport flights. The troops were still mostly expressionless; they were just glad to get a break from the war. But, each return flight from the shows was absolutely not normal. … The emotional weight of the airplane seemed to be thousands of pounds lighter. Also totally different was the restored expression of life on the troops’ faces. It was amazing. It was as though Bob Hope had turned the light back on in their souls. That, I believe, was not the result the men having been entertained, but of their having been appreciated. …
The very genuine care and appreciation that Bob Hope and the rest of his cast expressed to the troops in a couple of hours during each USO show was, therefore, probably quite literally more encouragement and support than many of these young men had experienced before, during or — sadly, in some cases — even after their tours of duty.
[Bob Hope] entertained, yes, but he also imparted sincere value and respect to men and women who had not received much of either for a long, long time. We, as a nation, owe him and those who have followed after him in USO endeavors more than we could ever repay.
My flying schedule did not allow me to attend a Bob Hope USO show myself … but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I personally witnessed and will never forget the incredible impact that he and those with him had on the morale of the U.S. military. What also mattered was that I had the tremendous privilege of providing several hundred others with airlift to the appreciation that they desperately needed and so very richly deserved.
* Editors Note: Stories have been edited slightly for length and style.