What made for some high anxiety was that on Christmas Eve we were deployed on a combat assault mission north of Saigon, near the Cambodian border. I was afraid that we wouldn't get back in time for the show. It turned out to be one of the largest helicopter airlifts up to that time in the conflict. About 165 helicopters from seven companies were involved—the helicopters formed a miles-long column in the sky. After a 50-minute flight, still in formation columns, the aircraft made their initial assault landings in two pre-designated landing zones near the Cambodian border. Additional ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] troops were then picked up at nearby staging areas and several more assault landings were made. By this time, all aircraft were running low on fuel.
Because the operational area was so remote, regular fuel trucks couldn't be used. Instead, we had to refuel from 55-gallon drums in the staging area. It took about three to four hours to get all these helicopters refueled because they had a hand pump on each one of these drums. The aircrews were first told at the refueling point that Bob Hope would be performing at Vinh Long at 1300 hours that day.
I had plenty of time because I had determined that I would be the last one to leave, to make sure that everybody else got off. We decided to strap red- and green-color-smoke grenades to the skids of the helicopters. We were the last two ships to get back to Vinh Long, arriving just after Bob Hope's C-123 landed. The crew chiefs pulled the cords and popped the pins on the smoke grenades and did about two circle passes over the top of Hope and the group.
After we landed, Hope said, "Do you have a place where I can sit down for a couple of minutes?" I took him to my quarters, and while we were sitting there chatting, he said, "You know, I usually have a golf club with me. You wouldn't have a golf club handy, would you?"
I said, "No, we've had to close the Vinh Long Country Club for the duration."
Bob Hope made eight more trips to Vietnam in later years, sometimes playing to as many as 12,000 troops. But I'm sure no performance could be more memorable than that Christmas Day show in a dusty little Mekong Delta airfield before 400 troops in the Vinh Long compound.
Gulf of Tonkin, 1966
When Hope visited the USS Bennington in 1966, Captain Richard Graffy was the carrier's commanding officer. He retired from the Navy in 1969 and spent a number of years building houses and doing blue-water sailing here and there, including the turbulent South China Sea. He now lives in Virginia.
While transiting from our home port of Long Beach, California, to the Gulf of Tonkin in the late summer of 1966, the ship received a message from Pacific Fleet headquarters requesting whether the Bennington would be interested in staging the Bob Hope Christmas show for that year.
I'm not sure why the Bennington was chosen rather than one of the two other carriers in Tonkin Gulf at the time. I can only surmise that since we operated on a three-and-a-half-hour cycle (for launch and recovery of aircraft), as opposed to the other carriers' one-and-a-half- to two-hour cycles, that may have played a part. The show had to be staged on the flight deck and conducted between air ops cycles since the audience of several thousand spectators would be on the flight deck.
Prior to arriving on the Bennington, the Hope show entertained some groups of soldiers and Marines ashore in Vietnam. The Les Brown Band had instruments, and all the cast had personal luggage well beyond the capacity of the Bennington's helicopters to transport. Instead, the show was airlifted by means of either Army or Marine transport helicopters from Da Nang. They had insufficient range to reach the carrier in its assigned operating area at Yankee Station [the location for aircraft carrier operations], so it became necessary to improvise.