When Bob Hope gave a show at Lai Khe, Vietnam, at Christmas time in 1969, a young military photographer named Bill Geist was in the audience. On May 25, 2003, as a correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning, he shared – and gave thanks for – the memory.
Rocket City, they called it. Bob Hope was booked into a dangerous place. I know. I lived there.
"And these men have a tremendous mission stationed here in the middle of this huge rubber plantation, guarding next year's supply of bras and girdles." –Hope (From 1969 USO show)
I was in the audience at that very show in Lai Khe, Vietnam, part of Bob Hope's 1969 Christmas tour.
I was a soldier, a photographer with the 1st Infantry Division, and, for me, the Bob Hope show was a day off from taking photographs, a nice change of pace.
Bob Hope was of another generation, and a lot of us might not have gone out of our way to see him back in the States, but this day, 15,000 slogged their way from far-flung fire bases and jungle patrols and hospital beds to see the big show. We couldn't wait.
"We would have been here sooner, but that Ho Chi Minh Trail is murder during the rush hour." – Hope (From 1969 USO show)
The soldiers laughed like they'd never laughed before, and, for many, it had been a long, long time. We loved the jokes, the song and dance...and the astronaut. Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was one Hope's guest stars.
Although seeing actual women was probably the most popular part of the show. For many, it had been a long, long time.
We liked the way Bob Hope seemed to have tailored the show just for us.
"This is our fifth triumphant year in Lai Khe. You can tell. The lizards salute back." – Hope
Sometimes, it seemed they were singing just to me.
And we appreciated that he brought his show out where other entertainers, politicians and most journalists feared to tread. Lai Khe was a constant target of the enemy. People died there. And still, Bob Hope came.
Unidentified Woman: (From 1969 USO show) "So how come this morning when your Rice Krispies popped, you ducked under the table?"
Hope: "Forgot to take my John Wayne pills."
By this point in the war, he knew what we knew, that we weren't there to win. He just wanted what we wanted, to get back home.
The Bob Hope show was a day off from the war.
"These guys have seen more action than a Swedish movie director." – Hope
And it was a day off for the enemy as well.
"I don't care if Charlie is watching and I'm giving away military secrets, we're on live TV today, and we need the ratings." – Hope
It was the 22nd of December. This day, they laughed. The next day, the war resumed. Several of those young men would not see Christmas.
You know how theater critics always say, you'll laugh, you'll cry? Well, we really did.
For a moment, all was calm. There was peace on Earth.