Thanks For the Memories

Air crews recall their service as roadies for Bob Hope's USO show.

Actress Ann Jillian joins Hope in a duet on the Forrestal in 1984. (Department of Defense)
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He starred in the Ziegfeld Follies with Fanny Brice and Josephine Baker in the 1930s, traveled the Vaudeville circuit as one half of a dancing team, and made more than 60 movies, including seven Road pictures with his pal Bing Crosby. But what most people remember about Bob Hope is that he entertained U.S. troops with annual USO tours in war zones all over the world.

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"Along about September each year," Hope wrote in his 1966 memoir, Five Women I Love, "that tingle in the air is not the first sign of autumn in the San Fernando Valley. It's the annual stirring among my staff concerning where the Defense Department is sending us this year. Each summer the Joint Chiefs of Staff gather with the U.S.O. and commiserate, ‘He got back okay last Christmas…okay, let's try harder.' Then they drop little pieces of paper listing all the world's trouble spots into a hat, and humming choruses from Macbeth they stir gently."

Hope performed his first radio show for servicemen in March 1941 at an Army Air Corps base at March Field in Riverside, California, and for the next 50 years he took his show to some of the world's most dangerous places. He ducked air raids in Italy and Algeria during World War II. During a 1964 visit to Saigon, a Viet Cong truck bomb intended for Hope exploded 10 minutes before his troupe arrived at their hotel. "A funny thing happened as we arrived in Saigon," Hope later joked to the troops. "I met my hotel going the other way."

When he wasn't visiting bases or aircraft carriers, he was entertaining the war-wounded in hospitals. Over the years, under the auspices of the United Service Organizations, Hope reached hundreds of thousands.

But his trips required extensive planning, and they couldn't have been carried out without the help of pilots and navigators, wing duty officers and mechanics, crew chiefs, and many others. Here are a few of their stories.   

Alaska, 1942
Retired Air Force Colonel Robert Gates flew Hope to Alaska and the Aleutians for the first-ever USO show. He also flew Hope to shows in Europe after World War II, and to Vietnam in the 1960s. Gates spent more than 30 years in the Army Air Forces and Air Force, serving in Europe during World War II as a troop transport pilot for the 101st and 82nd Airborne. In 1985, Gates and Hope helped establish the Bob Hope Village, a retirement community in Shalimar, Florida.

In 1942, we went down and checked out in the admiral's airplane—a Lockheed Lodestar C-60—in Kodiak, Alaska. And the general said to me, "You've got to go and pick up the admiral's airplane and go up to Fairbanks and pick up a USO show."

I said, "What's a USO show?"

He said, "We don't quite know, but we think it's a bunch of entertainers, and they have top priority, so take good care of them."

So we arrived at Fairbanks and we walked into the Officers' Club, and lo and behold, there was Bob Hope with Frances Langford, and Jerry Colona, and Tony Romano the guitar player, and an Army captain. And I introduced myself, and Bob says, "You're gonna fly us?"

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