Have Jokes, Will Travel
Backstage stories from Bob Hope’s USO tours.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- AirSpaceMag.com, November 17, 2009
Department of Defense
In 1941, Bob Hope was asked to perform his popular radio show at March Field, an Army Air Corps base in Riverside, California. As Hope wrote in his 1974 book The Last Christmas Show, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “A captive audience with military police guarding the gates so they can't get out? I said yes and it was one of the happiest yeses in my life.”
Hope would spend the next 49 years entertaining the troops, in the U.S. and overseas, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. His trips called for extensive planning, and required the help of hundreds of pilots and crew chiefs, mechanics, wing duty officers, and many others. We'd like to hear from veterans who helped take these USO shows on the road.
Got your own story about Bob Hope? Drop us a line using the comment form below.
Al Iller was a 34-year-old captain with the 62nd Aviation Company when Hope visited Vinh Long in 1964. Iller returned to Vietnam for a second tour of duty in 1967, and retired from the Army in 1978.
I was the executive officer of the 62nd Aviation Company. There were two aviation companies and attachments stationed at Vinh Long. We were told that Bob Hope and his troupe would arrive there on Christmas Day , so naturally there was a lot of planning, security, and so forth.
The day was very bright and warm, and there were big billowy clouds in the sky. It was a perfect setting. Part of the security was to have some gunships aloft during the performance and through the departure of Bob Hope's troupe. Those gunship crews weren't able to see the show except from way up above.
These were armed UH-1 aircraft. They carried eight-shot rocket pods on each side, plus flexible machine guns, two of which were mounted on each side; the guns could be moved up and down, and right and left.
There were at least two aircraft airborne at all times. It was classified as top secret at the time for security reasons; it was very hush-hush.
Bob Hope worked a joke into the show referring to [Major] Tom Anderson. During Bob Hope's general banter with Janis Paige, Janis commented, “These guys are so lonely for girls that the MPs searched our aircraft for stowaways. They found two Marines and Major Anderson!” Naturally there were hoots and hollers from the crowd. Bob Hope replied, “Major Anderson is so due for a leave his oak leaves rustle!” (Major insignias are gold oak leaves.) Hope then turned to the crowd and said, “For colonels I say their eagles flap their wings.”
At the conclusion of the show, Anita Bryant sang “Silent Night,” and I don't think there was a dry eye in the crowd.
Gary Arney was a star-struck 19-year-old Private First Class when he served as security escort to comedienne Phyllis Diller on board the USS Bennington in 1966.
I heard about Bob Hope's visit the day before from a sergeant. He wanted to assign people [as security escorts] who weren't going to be on duty at the time. I happened to get Phyllis Diller, which was an honor. She was one heck of a nice woman.
She was really funny all the time, always cutting up. She treated everybody with a lot of respect. She was just great to be around. And that laugh of hers…I can't get over that.
I took her from the wardroom to the stage and then back to the room she was staying in, down in Officers' Country. I stood by in case she needed anything and to make sure no one bothered her.
When Bob Hope came out on the stage he saw the first two rows or so were officers. He looked down at them, and he told them to get up and get to the back, and for the enlisted men in the back to get in the front, and then he'd start the show.