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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Following an aircraft launch and recovery around noon, the ship steamed west at flank speed to intercept the helicopters that had launched from Da Nang. After unloading and refueling, the helicopters headed back, while the ship returned at flank speed to its operating area in time to launch a new flight and recover the previously launched aircraft. I doubt if any fighter aircraft escorts were used, since it was rather well established that the U.S. Navy pretty much "owned" the Tonkin Gulf below the 17th parallel.

The usual scheduled flight ops were conducted immediately before and after the show.

[After the show,] Phyllis Diller was invited to the bridge of the ship to view nighttime aircraft catapult and recovery operations. She asked about the array of telephone handsets surrounding the captain's chair on the bridge that connected directly to some of the more important stations on the ship. She singled out the one that connected to the captain's plot where the surface navigation was maintained, and was manned 24/7. It was suggested that she call and ask for the correct time, which she did. She was told it was 22:45:52, to which she replied, "Dammit son, I asked for the time, not my physical measurements!," followed by her signature cackling laugh.

Diego Garcia, 1972
Ronald Ronning was a 19-year-old Seabee electrician third class on the Navy communication station at Diego Garcia in 1972 and 1973. After returning to the States, Ronning went into the Army as a combat engineer, eventually training National Guardsmen. He is now mayor of Appleton, Minnesota.

They had draft numbers in those days, and my father called me one day and said, "You've got number 7." I said, "Are you sure it isn't 277?" So I said, I'm going to join the Seabees because I'm an electrician. I went to the recruiter, and he said, "You don't want to go into the Seabees, you'll end up on this little island in the Indian Ocean, that little island right there," and he points to it on a map. I said, "No, of all the places in the world, I'll never go there." So where's my first tour? Diego Garcia.

I think it was 115 degrees every day, and humid. I was an electrician there, lighting the runway. We had an airstrip, but it was 4,000 feet long and was for C-130 cargo transports.

We wanted Bob Hope to come to Diego Garcia. And we needed 2,000 extra feet on the runway—a total of 6,000 feet was needed for a C-141 jet. We worked 24 hours a day for two or three weeks. A thousand Seabees were on that island and they hadn't seen a girl for six months. So that was our incentive. Bob Hope's jet was the first to land on Diego Garcia.

We had regular runway lights, portable, which had rubber cables running all along the side of the runway. We'd plug them in, and the runway strip would be red at one end and blue on the other. There were nights when we couldn't get the lights on. You'd throw the switch and nothing would come on.

It was like a sea of red crabs on the runway all the time, like a swarm. They would pull apart the lights on the runway and the planes couldn't see to land, and we weren't within 1,000 miles of anything—you couldn't land anywhere else. The planes would be ready to run out of fuel in the air.

Many nights they would tell us the lights were out. I don't know if you've ever watched the movie Hatari! with John Wayne, where he [hunts rhinos] from a little chair mounted on the hood of a truck. We had a chair on our truck, and I would sit in it, and we used to tear down that runway at 50 miles an hour, trying to find the break in the cable lines so the planes could land.

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