Have Jokes, Will Travel

Backstage stories from Bob Hope’s USO tours.

Bob Hope and actress Ann Jillian entertain sailors and shipyard workers on the USS Forrestal in 1984. (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.

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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 [1964], 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.

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