He made a career of making homesick and frightened men laugh, and those who traveled along with him on his United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) tour shared a special side of Bob Hope. Correspondent Jane Clayson reports.
“When Bob found that audience, he had found his ideal audience,” says comedienne Phyllis Diller, whose friendship with Hope began in the 1950s.
“He was all guy, you know, and these were all guys. They're all after one thing: women.”
Actress Raquel Welch was one of the many glamorous women who helped Hope entertain the troops.
“He loved it. By him being there, you know, by somebody that was a big star like that going, you know, it had a significance to those guys that you could just not describe. It was like we count,” says Welch.
Hope first performed for servicemen in 1941 - a radio broadcast at California's March Field. He and a small group of entertainers then went on to tour all the major theaters of World War II.
Hope became an envoy of American good will, cheering up men who needed it desperately.
There were times when Hope, too, was overcome by what he saw, when even he stopped joking.
Bob Hope in 1944: I saw all our boys doing a sensational job over there. And I mean one of the greatest jobs, fighting for one of the greatest things that we know of and that's our country and you can be proud of our country.
The war ended, but Hope’s missions did not. He went to Vietnam nine times. The fact that this war was controversial made it no less a source of laughter for Hope: “I bring you news from home the country is behind you 50 percent.”
They played close to the fighting, but Hope often made light of the dangers they faced.
Once coming into Saigon, they arrived at their hotel a little late – only to find that it had been demolished by a Vietcong bomb.
Bob Hope:I want to thank Gen. Westmoreland for that welcome yesterday. We opened with a bang.
Although it was a different era, one thing hadn’t changed. The hardest act was facing those wounded in battle.
“There was those heart-tugging moments when you look out, and around the stage would be the beds with the IVs, the things going in … you realize these guys were really sick and really hurt,” says Diller.
Hope encouraged the performers to collect the injured mens’ phone numbers and call their families once they got home.
“I started calling these people and they were really, really grateful that I was able to tell them that I'd seen their son, seen their husband, seen their father, these kind of things,” says Welch. “And then, very occasionally, you would get somebody who would say, ‘Oh that means a lot to me because, you know, he passed away. And you would just think, ‘Boy, you know, this is something that Bob Hope has been doing for all these years.’"
From the beginning, Hope’s trips overseas were supported by the U.S. government. As controversy over the Vietnam War grew, some said Hope never met a war he didn’t like.
Hope did not take kindly to that: “When they say I'm pro-war, they lie. I'm not pro-war. I hate war. I've seen too many American kids suffer. I've seen too many American kids dying.”
But more American kids would go to war, and Hope continued to support them. And, as an 87-year-old elder statesman, Hope visited troops in the Persian Gulf.
Through the course of his life, Hope created a kind of service to the country all his own – bringing a bit of America where fighting men missed it most.
Wherever there was a war, there was Hope.
“That kind of feeling and that kind of commitment is not something you're gonna find very often and it's kind of a part of this country,” says Welch. “I don't know if we'll ever see that kind of thing again.”